an epic airport detention: my scarlet letter at barcelona airport


Over the years I have had quite a few interesting interactions with security in international airports, from an abdomen x-ray in Ecuador to being made to sit in a corner in a Bulgarian airport. No doubt this is due to a combination of factors including the visa bloat my passport has [including countries such as Iraq, Uzbekistan and Syria], the fact that I am usually traveling alone, a Sicilian surname that is hard to place, the fact that I only take carry-on baggage, the fact that I rarely buy anything, and the fact that especially during the summer my look can place me as being from many regions, most of them global problem regions.

Having said that, my detention leaving the Barcelona airport recently after a seven country European odyssey was the longest I have ever been detained. It all began upon my arrival to the BCN airport. I had a mobile boarding pass but knowing how security works and the unreliability of iPhone batteries, I decided to go to the check in desk to get a hard copy ticket. There were no kiosks. Given the new requirements that electronics may need to be turned on [and apparently have at least 10% battery] I didn’t want to take a chance.

So it was that I approached the check in counter. As part of their normal procedure, they were asking everyone a series of questions about where you had been, how long, etc. When it came to me, the male agent asked if I could prove via hotel reservations, etc. that I had been where I said I had been. Since I always carry a digital copy of all of my documents on the iPad when traveling, this was not a problem. When I was asked if I had checked any bags, the agent’s entire demeanor changed for the worse and he began to reiterate all of his prior questions in a more pointed tone. When he was finished, he told me to wait by the desk, as he would have to get a supervisor. When the supervisor arrived I could understand the conversation in Spanish as the supervisor said to him that it was not possible to travel more than two weeks with only a backpack and that this was not normal. Unsolicited, I chimed in and said that I also write a travel blog and that I promote minimalism every chance I get. They both looked at me as if I had just told them that Spain had been knocked out of the World Cup in the group of sixteen.

The supervisor then took my passport. I could see him writing my name down, and then I was branded, or at least my passport was, with a scarlet letter. Or in this case, letters on a red sticker that read “I-SEC / SSSS / ORE.” They then allowed me to advance to the check in agent to get my paper boarding pass. This was all before any security.

Given the issues I had just encountered and still wondering what my scarlet letters meant, I decided to go through security early to get to the gate. There, I was frisked [or massaged] twice, was asked to go through the metal detector twice, my electronics were checked and my backpack was put through the x-ray machine twice. It began to feel like ground hog day. It occurred to me that maybe they were angry because they saw that I had bought a German futbol shirt?

Finally through security, I sat down for the customary latte. After that, I proceeded to the gate and sat down. I then heard my name called. This is where the real fun began. I was among only four passengers on a 757-200 to be called. Had I won a free upgrade? Hardly. The four of us were asked to go together with a very angry looking security official to a location three gates away. One of the four was from the Dominican Republic, a woman in her thirties, who, as we got closer to what would be our detention center, began to cry hysterically.

Our detention center was a large room separated from the airport gates with rooms within it that further subdivided the space. The decor was clinical – white with bright fluorescent lights. As a female security agent tried to calm down the crying woman, the remaining three of us: a young Japanese-American male, a Moroccan male and I waited. As I saw our reflection in the glass from the fluorescent lights, I noticed that we all had a similar skin tone. I was called first to bring all of my belongings and proceed into a small room. Before doing so I was to give up my U.S. passport, which was then taken by another agent. Whatever experience was ahead of me I knew this was going to make for a good blog post.

I waited in the room for about ten minutes until a very large security agent entered the room. Here, my belongings were disassembled piece by piece, and i was asked about each item. My heart skipped for just a moment when he pulled out my Italian passport, but dual nationals being common in Europe, that did not phase him. He was very curious about my set of international iPlugs, and wondered why I had a speedo in a ziplock bag. “To lock in the freshness” I said. He didn’t understand. I was then asked to take off my shoes and belt, and thereafter frisked two more times. My disassembled belongings were put into trays and taken out of the room to be x-rayed yet again. I sat there alone, beltless, shoeless and passportless for another twenty minutes. When he returned, I had to put humpty together again in record time, and was asked to move to the next room.

From there I could see two agents discussing my passport, in particular focusing on the Gambian visa I had obtained last December which was still valid, good for three years. Further, they were curious about the additional visa pages that had been added to the passport [I had that done twice, twenty-four new pages each time]. There I sat, out of the sight of my fellow detainees, for another twenty minutes. In total now I had been detained almost an hour.

The large security agent then came and got me, and escorted me back to the main room, where he asked to yet again x-ray my shoes, bag and electronics. At this point my flight was boarding, so I asked about that. He told me just to wait a moment and he would take care of me. Ten minutes later he said, “OK come with me.” As he walked with me he pulled my passport out of his front left shirt pocket, smiled and gave it to me. He then led me to the plane via a back corridor, and I was one of the first to board.

I do very much like priority boarding, but there are easier ways to make that happen.