At Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee there is a sign that greets passengers as they exit the security gauntlet. The “Recombobulation Area” allows travellers to gather themselves, put on their shoes, panic over their passports and stow their laptops before moving on with their journey. Recombobulation isn’t really a word, but it does the job of informing people they are invited to move away from the end of the luggage conveyor belt, to lift their belongings out of the way of their fellow passengers, and to avoid someone eventually spiralling into rage akin to Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
I often wish I could gently whisper to the person in front of me at airport security that there is a recombobulation area just yonder at which they can dither with their bits. In fact, I wish I could firmly guide the person in front of me at airport security through every step of the process to avoid spontaneous combustion when the concept of taking off their belt appears to hit them like a brand-new revelation made up right there on the spot by the jaded security personnel on the other side of the conveyor belt.
My plastic bag of tiny toiletries is out. My fingers itch to get to a tray so I can begin the process. But wait, what's this? There's a fumbler in front of me
I haven’t been through Dublin Airport during this recent debacle of security delays and staff shortages, but I imagine there have been many incidents of deep nasal breathing and eyes rolling off into the middle of next week and those not built for the rigours of the security line reaching peak fumbling and those behind them trying not to simply drop dead from rage.
I am a person who is poised, on my hackles, ready to slip seamlessly through the security process with no hitches. My plastic bag of tiny toiletries is out. My Kindle is ready for its own tray. My shoes are ready to be slipped off depending on the whim of whoever is on the other side of the sacred belt. My fingers itch to get to a tray so I can begin the process. But wait, what's this? There's a fumbler in front of me. "Take off your coat!" my brain screams as they heave their mini suitcase up on to the conveyor belt, laden with mini Lynx Africa, a laptop and a full-size bottle of water.
They have a belt on, a pocket full of change and a guilelessness that would be almost endearing were they not four feet away from me and the sole focus of my increasing and somewhat irrational ire. I catch the eye of a businessman in a suit and we exchange looks of knowing rage, although our superiority is somewhat diminished by the fact that we’re both in our socks.
Airport security rattles otherwise competent people. The passport in their hand – the one thing they don’t need going through this process – becomes the only thing they can focus on, and the belt and laptop rules go out the window. They become so flustered that instructions must be barked at them. In their defence, the instructions seem to be constantly shifting. In one airport you might be able to fire everything in the one tray and sail on through. At another it might be “SEPARATE TRAY FOR EACH SHOE AND ALSO YOU MUST HAVE A VIAL OF VIRGIN BLOOD AMONGST YOUR TINY TOILETRIES”. Inevitably, the fumbler ends up leaving their passport behind them and causing further chaos as they travel deeper into the airport.
Safety concerns are often furthest from your mind when there's someone slowly repacking their bag at the end of the security luggage belt
In June 2001 I flew into New York City a wide-eyed teen, ready for my J-1 summer holiday and worryingly delusional about how close to the plot of Coyote Ugly my adventure was going to be. I flew out again that September with plenty of experience in serving drinks but almost none in dancing on bars, and with the terror of 9/11 very fresh in my mind. JFK Airport was hysterical with security, and you couldn’t have clips in your hair or a fork to eat your salad, never mind 100ml of shampoo.
Twenty years on we’re still living with the precautions necessitated by terrorism, but safety concerns are often furthest from your mind when there’s someone slowly repacking their bag at the end of the security luggage belt, rather than moving on to the “recombobulation area”. In a final act of innocuous incompetence, they might leave their empty tray just sitting there, rather than placing it back into rotation so that the whole operation might attempt to run smoothly for once in its godforsaken life.
But no, instead it is galvanised loons like me passive-aggressively doing it for them, hoping for a crumb of respect and acknowledgement from the security staff. Look at me! I am returning four trays and only one of them is mine! I practically work here! Give me a uniform and a pair of disposable gloves and I’m one of you!
It’s usually at this point that I realise I really need this holiday, fumble with my belongings and retreat to recombobulate before realising I’ve forgotten my boarding pass and must hold up the whole show to retrieve it. Sorry. Sorry there. Sorry.