Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Airport security at Penang

A lot has already been written about the arrest and conviction of Malaysia's infamous wildlife trafficker, Anson Wong. It's time for me to add another chapter to this story.

As a short recap, Wong was arrested at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on 26 Aug 2010 when one of his checked-in bags broke open at the airport to reveal snakes and other protected animals that he was attempting to smuggle to Jakarta. Initially, the Magistrates Court handed him a six-month jail term with a RM190,000 fine but the High Court later increased the jail term to five years. His appeal is still pending.

But while his bag spilled open at the KLIA, he had actually begun his journey earlier from his Penang base. There were some questions why the airport security at the Penang International Airport had not detected the contents when the bag passed through their hands. An investigation was initiated but as usual, the results of the investigation was never announced to the public. Or if it was announced, nobody noticed it. Certainly not me. Wong's modus operandi remained unknown.

Well, I would believe that I now know what happened; how he managed to slip through the airport security without notice. For that to happen, he must have moved through the airport at the peak hours when human traffic was at the highest levels.

Anyone familiar with the layout of the departure floor of the Penang International Airport would know that there is only one X-ray station (with its two X-ray machines) on the whole floor. It's meant to screen passenger bags before these are checked in at the counters. Once screened, a security seal would then be stuck onto the bag. But having only one X-ray station here is woefully inadequate. It is not enough to cover the whole airport. Although this particular X-ray station is centrally located, people can still wilfully avoid using it if they purposely book a flight at peak hours and then skirt around the edge of the departure floor with their contraband goods to the check-in counters. Or the bag could be small enough to pass off as a carry-on item.

This was exactly what Wong did in August 2010. The airport was full of departing passengers, all waiting to screen their bags. The attention of the airport security officers were fully concentrated on this job. No one noticed that Wong had not subjected his bag to the X-ray treatment which would have revealed the hidden animals. He had just confidently walked straight to the check-in counters. He requested to check in his flight directly to Jakarta and the staff at the counter accepted his bag without noticing whether the airport security had already placed their security paper seal on it. In this age of modern terrorism, this is a big lapse in security. In my opinion, the airline counter staff has a lot to answer for this.

Wong would have gotten away with his smuggling if his bag had not spilled open during transit at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He was unlucky. Or maybe, greedy. Whatever the reason, he was caught and the repercussions then rippled through the whole Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan).

How would I know all this? Well, last May I was the unwitting victim of my own failure to screen my bags at the X-ray station. My wife and I had a midnight flight and we had actually arrived at the practically empty Penang International Airport two hours before departure time. We were pretty excited over our holiday trip and while chatting to one another, we completely forgot to screen our two large bags. You see, suddenly I thought they were our carry-on cabin bags which could be screened when entering the departure hall. At my age, things like this do happen. One moment I want to do this, the next moment I do something else. Anyway, we walked past the two airport security officers directly to the check-in counter. From what I gathered later, these two jokers simply followed us with their eyes without doing anything.

Our bags were accepted at the check-in counter without nary a look at whether the security seals were present. Remember, this was practically a deserted airport at this time of the night. Then, as we walked to the departure gate, the two airport security officers stopped us and said our bags had to be retrieved from the airline for screening.

Naturally, we demanded why they had not stopped us before we had gone to the check-in counters. They replied saying they wanted to see what the airline counter staff would do. Would they notice that the security labels were not there? Apparently not. The airline staff had accepted the two bags and they are not somewhere on the tarmac waiting to be loaded onto the aircraft. "We want to teach them a lesson," the airport security had the cheek to tell us.

That's when we exploded. Teach them a lesson? At our expense? Obviously, they knew the difficulty of retrieving the bags when it has been checked in. Already from this practically empty airport, it had taken about half an hour to bring them back. What if this had been peak hours at the airport? What if we had then missed our flight? I was fuming and I told the airport security that this wasn't funny. If they wanted to "teach them a lesson," why do it at the passenger's expense? It was an empty airport. They saw us; they could have called us as we walked by. I told them that they were putting unnecessary stress on me. It may have been my mistake in the first place but if anything were to happen to me health-wise, I would hold them responsible for it. They would suffer the consequences. I would be lodging a complaint.

So sheepishly, they apologised and said that they would work with the airline staff to see that my bags be given priority treatment in re-checking them at the counter. That's how this has been a hot, heaty, sweaty and stressful lesson for us. And that's how I finally understood how Anson Wong had managed to slip through with his snakes at the airport.

Luckily for me, luckily for them, nothing happened to me, my wife or our bags. Our holidays were still intact and on schedule. Eventually past midnight, we had an uneventful flight to the KLIA low-cost carrier terminal, arriving there at one o'clock in the morning and checking in at the airport's Tune Hotel for a few hours of much-needed sleep.

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