As I get ready to head over to France in a couple of weeks, I'm feeling a little crabby about being unable to take my favorite corkscrews on the international wine road.
Thanks to the police-state mentality surrounding air-travel security these days, the traditional waiter-style corkscrew is banned from carry-on luggage for fear that a terrorist might wreak havoc with its 2-inch blade (although knitting needles are OK). Meanwhile, most travelers are reluctant to entrust a pricey or collectible cork extractor to the random fates that may await checked luggage.
For flight attendants, however, who face the beady-eyed scrutiny of the Transportation Security Administration's inspectors every time they fly, it's another story. In the interest of learning that story, I consulted a good friend who's been a flight attendant for a major American airline since back in the days when airliners sported propellers and who now spends a fair part of her life at 35,000 feet as a purser, the lead flight attendant on international flights.
Let's call my friend "Mimi" since that's not her real name, and neither her employer nor the TSA is delighted about the candid expression of opinion - even informed opinion - about airline security.
Corkscrews were not a problem for air security before Sept. 11, 2001, she recalls; in fact, airlines routinely issued standard waiter-style corkscrews (with pry lever and small blade) to flight attendants for use in beverage service. But all that changed after 9/11, when some genius decided that the best way to keep maniacs from commandeering airplanes would be to treat every traveler as a potential terrorist.
"The airlines then started having the caterers board those awful corkscrews that are T-shaped and just a light plastic handle with a corkscrew attached. I call them 'pig-stickers' ... A lot of us just couldn't manage the leverage/sheer force necessary to pull the cork out."
Being no dummy, she chose the course of least resistance: "I would approach a passenger who had asked for a glass of wine (I was starting to hate wine lovers at this point) and say, 'If you want it, you have to work for it. I can't get the cork out.' This was risky, because you never know peoples' personalities sometimes until it's too late. I encountered some blustery, not-nice people, but most were very accommodating. It was a crapshoot that I didn't like at all."
Then, one day when she was setting up for departure on an Amsterdam flight, a catering representative showed Mimi an Australian invention called the "Boomerang" corkscrew, a waiter-style model with a bladeless foil cutter built in. "I was riveted," she said. "I loved it. It was an all-in-one - no separate foil cutter to keep up with, AND - it was able to make it through stupid TSA security!"
Frequent fliers will note that screwcaps now adorn most wine bottles opened in Coach on most major airlines, eliminating the need for wine openers and putting the job, literally, in the passenger's own hands. But my friend most often works in Business Class, where her airline at least still stocks mostly cork-finished bottles save for an occasional screwcapped New Zealand goodie.
She's sold on the Boomerang and claims to have bought 16 of them as gifts for her peers. "They are wildly popular with flight attendants," she said, adding that an online merchant, Barsupply.com, sells them for $6.95 each, $5.95 if you buy six or more in a batch.
Finally, Mimi offers wine-loving flyers a bit of practical advice for getting your legal bladeless corkscrew through security with minimal hassle: "Take it out and place it in one of the containers provided for emptying your pockets, etc. That way you won't get stopped for your bag to be hand-searched. This not only saves you a hassle, screeners will love you for making their job easier, too. Most of the time the screener will pick it up, check it for a blade, then point out to the screener at the x-ray machine that it's okay."
Me, I'm leaving my French Laguiole with its polished rosewood handles and shiny stainless blade at home. And for the long term, my advice to travelers is simple: Don't get into an argument you can't win at the security checkpoints; but if you think what passes for airport security is silly and ineffective, do express yourself to the airlines and your elected officials. Security officials in the present political climate don't show much interest in public input, but the companies that count on our dollars and the politicians who count on our votes will eventually start paying attention ... if enough of us speak our minds.
Want a list of all the items explicitly permitted or specifically banned in carry-on and checked luggage? Here's TSA's official version, in Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format:
Considering a Boomerang corkscrew? Here's a link to the cheapest supplier "Mimi" could find, http://Barsupply.com If you can stand this site's intrusive pop-ups in search of a bargain price, click "Bottle Openers," then "Wine Openers," and search for "Boomerang" to find the target page.
To look at or purchase a Zyliss from Amazon.com ($19.95 plus shipping), see
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Wednesday, May 18, 2005