I generally enjoy the process of flying to, from or through Canada’s airports. They are usually friendly, efficient places to be, and travel normally seems hassle free. Unfortunately, Transport Canada has just dropped the ball in a big way, and if you’re not prepared for it, you may end up having a frustrating experience and potentially have someone walk off with your laptop.

The system at fault is the new hand luggage screening process that is currently being implemented in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. At the moment I’m not sure if it will be more widespread than that, but these airports cover the majority of Canadian air travel.

The old process of having hand luggage screened was similar, if not identical to everywhere else I’ve ever flown to. You step up to the conveyor belt that leads to the x-ray machine, and you take a number of plastic bins from a stack to place your luggage into. If you have a laptop, you remove that from its bag and place this in its own plastic bin.

It was pretty simple, it worked, people understood it. So Transport Canada decided to change it.

When you reach the new machines, you’ll see 4 numbered lanes lined up alongside the conveyor belt. Once you have your boarding pass scanned, the agent will asign you a lane to go to, and it’s here that you will get your plastic bins to place your items into. At this point, there will be three other people doing the same thing in the lanes adjacent to your one, but importantly, you’re all sharing one single conveyor belt and bag x-ray machine.

Each lane only has room for one plastic bin to be filled, before you push it into the conveyor belt in order for you to free up room to get your second plastic bin. At this point your first plastic bin slides onto the conveyor belt and disappears off to the x-ray machine, mixed in amongst the plastic bins being put onto the belt by those other 3 adjacent passengers. Depending on the speed of your fellow passengers, the order of all your bins on the belt is now completely random.

Now you load your second bin, and potentially a third one if you have a laptop. Again I must reiterate that because you can’t load them all onto the conveyor belt one after the other as you could with the old system, they are all in a random order on the belt with the bags from the other passengers, including your lone laptop which is in a bin on its own… somewhere.

Now you pass through the metal detector, no change there. On the other side there is a new section which automatically diverts your bags to a secondary conveyor belt if they require a second screening or swabbing. Note that sometimes this is triggered randomly, and sometimes it is due to objects in your bag such as electronics. Usually for me, a bag full of camera equipment will get a second manual screening.

This didn’t used to be a problem because with the old system, all your bags came out in the trays one after the other and you could keep track of them The manual screening or swabbing also took place at the end of the same conveyor belt so your bags just came to you. No big deal.

With the new system, my camera bag was selected for screening, and I was ushered to the new area to do this off to the side. Meanwhile, my other bag and laptop were still somewhere behind me, mixed in amongst the bins of other passengers. My laptop bag then came out and also got a second screening, so that also came to the table where I was. My laptop was now on its own in a plastic bin somewhere in a sea of other plastic bins, and surrounded by other passengers who were looking for their luggage and laptops.

I quickly lost track of which bin my laptop had been in, because I couldn’t see into them from where I was.

It was then immediately clear to me that this was a disaster waiting to happen. At least half of the people coming through security had Apple MacBooks. Plain, silver, with a white Apple logo on them. These are now sitting in an un-ordered collection of bins, with nothing else in the bins to identify which one was your laptop.

Not only could someone easily take your laptop by accident, but there’s also an easy opportunity for theft if someone were so bold. Nobody wants to be put in a position where their $3000 laptop is out of their sight, and mixed randomly amongst the luggage of people they don’t know.

In itself, it also seems like a big security flaw because you are supposed to keep your luggage on you at all times, right?

After exiting the security procedure, I spoke to the supervisor to pass on some feedback about the new system for two reasons: Firstly it had clearly taken longer than the old system, and secondly because I felt extremely uncomfortable about being separated from my luggage in this way, and not even being clear where my laptop was in the mess of people and plastic bins.

The situation wasn’t helped at all by the poor attitude of the supervisor who proceeded to make ridiculous suggestions as to how else I should have dealt with the situation, before he got visibly angry about my polite and constructive feedback. At one point he suggested that it was entirely my fault and that I should not carry items that might require a second screening. When I explained that it was just a laptop and camera gear, hardly anything abnormal, he just seemed to shrug it off – and also completely ignore the fact that a percentage of second screenings are simply randomized anyway.

Several of the supervisor’s suggestions involved questioning or asking to disobey the instructions of his own staff. For example, when you are told to proceed to “lane X” to place your bags in the bins, one of his suggestions was to say to the TC worker that you needed to use multiple lanes. Of course this defeats the entire purpose of the new system, and also ignores the fact that 99% of travellers want to do EXACTLY what they are asked to do at security checkpoints. Nobody wants to cause trouble or be “that guy”. We all appreciate the need for the process and we want to get through by being cooperative and compliant.

I was also told that it was within my rights to request that I don’t proceed to the secondary screening table until after all my items have come out of the x-ray machine. That’s fine, but when a TC agents says to you “Is this your bag? Can you come over here please?” Most people do not want to say “yeah, I’ll be there in a minute when I have the rest of my things.”  Not only would that hold up the whole secondary screening process for the TC workers and other passengers whose bags are also waiting to be swabbed after your ones, it’s also not in most people’s nature to want to disobey someone’s request at a security checkpoint.

Yes, people are taking the wrong laptops

I immediately called Transport Canada to lodge my feedback with someone that actually seemed to give a damn, and thankfully I was put on the phone with an incredibly helpful and sympathetic TC employee. She confirmed that they have received many other complaints about this procedure, and also, surprise surprise… people HAVE been accidentally taking the wrong laptops. Particularly silver Apple ones.

Honestly, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out, even though that is exactly what I used to be.

Here’s the #1 Thing You Need To Do

You can mitigate the risk of someone taking your laptop by accident, by clearly marking it with some distinguishing stickers on the front and back. It needs to be immediately clear to somebody that it is NOT their laptop in the plastic bin. In other words, putting a discreet sticker in one corer, that only you can easily see, is not going to do the job. That might help you pick your laptop from a line-up, but with this new procedure you might not be there when your laptop comes out of the machine. You need to make it abundantly clear to someone else that it is not their laptop.

Yes, that means stickering up your lovely looking aluminum MacBook, but it’s better than getting to your destination and finding out that you have someone else’s laptop.

I shudder to think how much Transport Canada has spent on the new machines for this ridiculous system. Judging by the conversations I had with the supervisor in the airport, and the Transport Canada help line, it’s just as obvious how floored this system is to everyone else, as it was to me. How it’s possible for something this poorly conceived to be rolled out into major airports I’ll never know.

I never found the wait times for the baggage checks to be too problematic in the first place, so it seems as though they are trying to fix a problem that didn’t need fixing. Any time there was a long wait time at security, it was usually because there were inexplicably empty, un-manned security lanes sat doing nothing alongside. I’m sure we can all think of a way to solve that problem! When I asked the help line about this, they told me that it was done in some ways to try and discourage people from bringing so much hand luggage onto the planes, although it was not at all clear to me why Transport Canada really cares about that, it seems as though that’s an airline issue.

So did they deliberately make the new process this annoying so that you will bring less luggage next time?  I’m not sure…

But the problem remains that most people will still end up using two or three plastic bins because of the requirement to place things such as laptops into a new empty bin.  Even if you wear a zippered sweatshirt you’re often asked to remove that “jacket” as well, and place that in a bin.

Let’s just say that you have a small backpack with a laptop in, a jacket and a handbag, you’re still going to need at least 3 plastic bins for that. One for the laptop on its own, one for your backpack and usually one more for your jacket and handbag because they don’t like you putting things on top of other things.  So even someone travelling with that relatively small amount of luggage, needs the same amount of plastic bins as someone like me, who today was travelling with two big bags that maxed out the carryon limits for my airline. I still needed the same 3 plastic bins, so I took the exact same amount of time to be processed as someone travelling with what I would consider to be a minimum setup for many people that I see in the airport.

Transport Canada trying to force people, seemingly via frustration, into taking less carry-on luggage, also goes directly against all that the airlines seem to be doing. With many airlines charging additional fees for any checked baggage, a lot of travellers are trying to make it onto flights with just carry-on luggage. Again, this is something confirmed by the Transport Canada help line where they agreed that the two things are at odds.

Parting Thoughts

Travelling can be stressful for a lot of people, and I’ve always praised the air transport system in Canada for being as good as it gets. I appreciate that sometimes changes need to be made for security purposes, that’s just the world we live in and of course I accept changes that are put in place for that purpose. However, these changes to the process seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with security. It wasn’t mentioned once in the conversations I had with Transport Canada staff. This is a poorly conceived idea to fix a problem that didn’t even seem to exist, and it seems to have been rolled out with what I can only assume is little-to-no testing. The fact that the experience was topped off by a poor interaction with an extremely rude supervisor on the scene, was just the icing on the cake.

Now please go and put stickers on your laptops if you don’t want it to get taken!!

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