Gatwick airport took away my belt buckle: "I stick to what they've told me. I'm not going to speak to you anymore. Not if you're going to publish it. I'm not speaking to you."

Back in 2008, I bought one of 686's belt buckles, which has a clever set of snowboard-binding-adjusting tools built into it, including a small flathead and Philips head screwdriver tips on the buckle's tongues, as well as a socket wrench-head built into the tip-keeper.

At the time, I wasn't sure whether it would survive airport security, but it has -- with flying colors. I've taken that belt buckle on hundreds of flights, almost all originating in the UK, where I live, through dozens of countries. At one point early on in 2008 or 2009, I even called the consumer advice lines for the TSA and the UK Department for Transport and confirmed that these were allowed. I was even allowed to keep the belt in Hong Kong airport, where they took away my eyeglass screwdriver. A week ago, I flew with the belt from Heathrow Terminal 4 on a Delta flight to NYC.

But I've just had it confiscated by security staff at Gatwick North Terminal. The guard who confiscated it had this explanation for why the belt buckle was being confiscated here when all the other UK airports I'd flown out of it with had let me keep it: "I stick to what they've told me. I'm not going to speak to you anymore. Not if you're going to publish it. I'm not speaking to you."

At that point, a supervisor, Pete Sutherland, the security leader for Gatwick North, gave me a copy of Dangerous and restricted items: what you cannot take on board a flight, which lists, under "work tools," "screwdrivers."

So there you have it, in black and white. Arguably, of course, a miniature screwdriver that's attached to a belt-buckle isn't a "work tool" (no builder in a white van shows up at your house to do repairs with his belt buckle). The security staff who took my buckle away to the lost property office (the other options being to throw it out, or buy another suitcase for it and check it in with British Airways) had a variety of explanations for why Gatwick enforces this rule when no one else has, and why the rule makes sense in the first place, but they all boiled down to "I don't make the rules, I follow them."

One thing all the staff agreed on, though: Allen keys are allowed.

Right then, that's UK aviation security sorted.

In three years, I've used my belt buckle's screwdrivers dozens of times -- always in some moment of traveller's extremis, when something really important was really broken. They've been figurative lifesavers, and I think if I had them long enough, they'd have been literal ones. Meanwhile, if I really, really wanted to take apart a plane, I'd use a spoon or some other bit of metal.

The lady at the store where I bought the replacement belt was sympathetic: "They took my tweezers but they sell them next door in the Boots."

686 Original Snow Toolbelt - Men's


  1. Well, it could’ve been worse. I wouldn’t put it past TSA in the United States to have you arrested for being a terrorist because of that belt buckle. But yeah it does seem a bit heavy handed considering the far more dangerous items that you can get *inside* the terminal building.

  2. I had the same belt, and after years of flying with it, finally had it taken away from me at Thunderbay Airport. In a similar tale, I had a spoon (nicked from a diner in 1995) in my trusty carry-on bag until August of this year, when airport security in Nairobi took it from me. 

    Both security people took the same attitude: once they’d made the proclamation that this item was not to fly, that was it. As if a decree had been made from on high. No explanation, no logic, no nothing. I wish there was a system of logical discourse so that one could actually determine what’s allowed and what’s not and why spoons pose any threat whatsoever…

    1. For a second, set aside the utility of the rule in preventing threats to people on the plane.  Assume that, in some instances, the rule makes sense.

      Given that, you’re asking for discretion about your safety to be put into the hands of a minimum wage employee with relatively minimal training?  IF, and I’m not saying there necessarily is, there is a threat from tools on the plane in the hands of some individuals, I do not want the threat assessment done by the average plane gate guard.  I would prefer that the rule be enforced evenly overall.

      Yes, it may bite Cory or you or whoever in the rear sometimes, but that’s better than having to depend on the judgment of an ill-trained workforce.  If you want to be able to take things on a plane, then you have to move to Israel’s model, where the airport personnel are highly trained to profile and interview travelers.  I believe this would be better than what we have now.  That being said, given the system we’ve got, I prefer blind obedience to the rule than subjective calls by our current level of personnel.

      1. The whole thing started after a certain event on US soil. And best i can tell the demand from US government was that any flight where a passenger could get onto a US bound flight without going thru security, had to be checked as if it was bound for US or it would be denied access to US airspace. So rather then rearrange every damn airport out there so that one could do checks on passengers going between flights, they put the demanded security on all flights…

        1. I was responding to the question of retrieval of items not about what and what is not confiscated in the first place. Since it’s not TSA that actually confiscate them, how they’re disposed of and whether they can be retrieved will be down to Gatwick’s (UK Border Guards) own procedures.

        1. Of course serious, whatever procedures are in place at Gatwick for passengers to retrieve confiscated items will not necessarily be the same as TSA since TSA don’t operate at Gatwick. What is confiscated may depend on the destination’s rules I don’t think how the items are handled at the departure end are affected by that (hence offering to take it to lost luggage where presumably they can offer to keep it until return or post it at customer’s expense).

  3. it is odd that they figured out years ago how to put duty free purchases in a sealed bag before i board the plane that i then pick up upon departure but have not managed to sort out doing the same for items like this.

    1. Well, that actually makes sense to me, since the duty free is supposedly only a financial risk, not a security risk.   

    2. Wade – you take your Duty Free on the plane with you. The whole point of security taking it away is that that’s not allowed. And you can’t buy screwdrivers in the Duty Free shops I’ve been to. 

      So, it’s like Cory said, he would’ve had to *check* the belt to bring it through, and pick it up on the other side. 

      Still, this is like one of the most provocative items I’ve seen people try to push through with. Not saying it wouldn’t be great to have on a trip – just that I’d pack it in the checked baggage, or maybe even roll it up in the carryon before hitting security. For some reason, I’ve had whole sets of screwdrivers I had forgotten about in my carry-ons. Oh yeah, and a cell phone jammer. Oops. Anyway, point is: the X-Ray machine isn’t as inconsistent a judge as the human eye. Anything on your person is infinitely more at risk than something packed away neatly in your laptop bag. 

  4. Have you ever been forced to decant a liquid say 200ml into two 150ml containers? Same volume of liquid is going on board, just in slightly smaller containers. I feel infinitely safer…  

  5. Jobsworth, Jobsworth,
    It’s more than me job’s worth,
    I don’t care, rain or snow,
    Whatever you want the answer’s “No”,
    I can leave you standin’
    Forever in the queue,
    And if you don’t like it,
    You know what you can do!

  6. “Arguably, of course, a miniature screwdriver that’s attached to a belt-buckle isn’t a “work tool” (no builder in a white van shows up at your house to do repairs with his belt buckle)”

    Yeah, but it is a screwdriver and a tool.  The rule doesn’t say it has to be of professional grade.   Also the rule isn’t about taking apart planes it’s about being able to stab people.

    It’s not a terribly sensible rule, but do you really want the security guards making case by case decisions on this sort of thing?  Down that road lies plenty of discrimination.  The fact is a white, middle class man gets as much bother under this system as a young asian wearing a turban.

    I had a knife confiscated at Gatwick (rightly so, it was a big camping one that I’d left in the bag by accident) and they were pretty nice about it, and I even got it back in a neat evidence tube thing that I still use occasionally.

    A security guard did his job courteously and to the letter.  Why put his quote in the title like he acted like a jerk?  He’s not in a position to act as a media spokesman, he’ll speak to you as one person to another, if you want something official he passes you to a higher up, who answers your questions fully.

    Airline rules are incredibly restrictive and moaning about them is fair game, but airline security must be a pretty thankless task, a good day would be one where only a few people lose their shit at you because of a rule you have no control over.  Don’t pile more on top of them unless they really deserve it.

    1. “Also the rule isn’t about taking apart planes it’s about being able to stab people. ”

      But is the screwdriver any more efficient of a weapon than the normal metal tongue we all have on our belt buckles? If a 2″ peice of metal is deemed dangerous, fine, but what difference does it make if it has a Phillips or flat head on the tip?
      That is a pretty sweet belt though, having a bottle opener makes it even better than Batman’s

      1. I don’t want to actually start defending the rules here, I was only talking about the people directly involved here.

        That said, I’ve accidentally cut myself with a screwdriver before, but never with a belt.  I imagine the pointy corner bit is key here.

        Today on mythbusters, improvised shivs…

    2. Of course, British airport security (haven’t flown through Gatwick recently, but certainly at Heathrow and Stansted) now allow blades under 6 cm in hand luggage!

    3. Do you have a source for how many terrorist attacks these So CALLED security people have saved us from?  Fairly sure it’s a VERY small number. Like your argument.  Those who desire security over freedom deserve neither security or freedom. G.Washington.

      1. You probably mean Benjamin Franklin.

        “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
        ”  Historical Review of Pennsylvania

      2. The actual quote was, “He who would bring snakes on a plane deserveth neither snakes nor planes.”  And it was Samuel Jackson, not Gretta Washington.

    4. It’s about being able to stab people? No, it’s a silly arbitrary rule.

      Yet, I can take my 2 litres of duty free liquor on board and bludgeon people with those.

      I can get a full aluminum can of coke from a flight attendant… You never bend a can back and forth and rip it in half? Talk about a potentially dangerous weapon.

  7. Gatwick stole my (empty, no flint, never been filled, no cotton wool) limited edition Zippo. The arsehole in charge told me with absolute glee that it would be going straight to landfill and there was nothing I could do about it. After I landed, I realised that I’d accidentally ‘smuggled’ a rather powerful banger in my hand luggage. Oops.

    1. isn’t “banger” British for sausage? Aren’t those traditionally smuggled in ones pants? Particularly the powerful ones.

  8. You can’t walk onto a plane with a zippo but you can take a gas lighter. I assume because they make a different type of flame when you set light to the seats ?!?!?

    Similarly I was once upgraded to 1st (which was lovely) and given a metal fork and a plastic knife to eat dinner with. I presume because no one in charge of on-flight security has seen Withnail & I. Also a glass champagne flute.

  9. I think we all know the ostensible reason and the real reason why they took your belt buckle. The ostensible reason is that the security personnel have to have some flexibility in deciding what might be dangerous. According to this line of thinking, the security at Logan Airport in Boston, in the fall of aught one, might have wondered why young men who didn’t seem to be in the package handling business had so many box cutters in their carry-ons.

    The real reason is that airport security personnel hate anything out of the ordinary, because they’re now being held responsible for it, and these are people who are constitutionally suited for (perhaps even limited to) a job that involves doing the same thing hundreds or even thousands of times a day for their entire careers, and they’re not only held responsible for looking out for and acting on anything within that extremely fuzzy category of “suspicious”, they’re also held responsible for getting the cattle through the chute with alacrity. And their superiors are perfectly happy to pass on the blame the next time someone tries something like blowing up their shoes or underwear. Thus the confiscation of the belt buckle. (And what’s the likelihood that they’ll ever be held responsible for doing so? One thing that I never, ever see in these complaints about airport personnel is any sort of identification of the agent responsible.)

    (Also, you’ve used this thing literally dozens of times, Cory? I have a lot of multi-tools in all sorts of sizes and configurations, and the only thing I could see using this thing dozens of times for is the beer-bottle-opening function…)

  10. What led the agent to say “not if you’re going to publish it”?  Are you known to the security staff at Gatwick?  Are they keeping a separate list of known publishers .. both “no fly” and “no talk” lists? (Edit to add, I guess I overlooked the obvious part about having your name recognized on sight as a well-known author and commentator re TSA antics. Much like Schneier got made in the security line.)

  11. That’s what you get when the rules are decided upon so far, far, far above the level at which they are enforced – stupid rules get passed, obvious ones are forgotten, enforcement becomes downright bizarre, and desired goals are almost never achieved.

  12. Yes it’s inspired
    I went through gatwick once with a leatherman I’d forgotten and some additional little screwdriver bits for it – they’re less than two cm long so I’m not sure how they present a threat.
    They missed the leatherman and I spent ten minutes trying with a supervisor trying to find out what threat the screwdriver bits presented. Like yours they were tools. But they wouldn’t relent so I went back and sent them separately.

  13. I walk with crutches, airport security inevitably want to take them away to x-ray, but only one – Athens-Venizelos – has ever thought to offer me a chair while they do so, the best most can offer when prompted is that I should hang onto the side of the x-ray machine. But when I made the request at Gatwick last year, the security guard informed me that ‘If you were that bad you’d have a wheelchair’. Definitely makes me suspect they’ve got an attitude problem.

  14. A suggestion for necessary hand luggage: a self-addressed padded envelope, so you can send home whatever miscellaneous object the security theatre objects to, instead of it going into landfill or lost property (or eBay).

    1. I think he lost his belt because the stupid security guard wanted it. End of story. It doesn’t go to a landfill, they take them home. For FREE. The go shopping while they are doing their job, and what ever comes across as “neat” or ooh shiny.. MUST have, so they take it.  Seems a better explanation then what he has at the moment. Mostly because he hadn’t had an issue until he met THIS security guard.

  15. Good to know that Allen keys are OK in British airports. Had a set that I’d unintentionally left in my laptop bag angrily confiscated from me in Alberta last year. County Comm has some nice key-ring sized screwdrivers you might like to try out, they even offer a similar sized prybar.

  16. I’m going with: you finally hit a TSA agent that wanted your belt buckle. Suddenly it because taboo on a flight, but will look nice with the TSA agent’s jeans.

  17. You ought to go back there some day and see if you can track that guy down.  See if he’s wearing it.

  18. US Customs would always hound me about my NES controller buckle.

    Australian customs, on the other hand, would go crazy about a banana I have accidentally brought interstate and then reminisce about vintage gaming. Keep ‘dem rabies and fungal rot out boys!

  19. Is there any text explaining the distinction (as a potential weapon) between Allen wrenches/keys and other tools?  Because I’m finding that one difficult to sort out in any logical way.

    The smaller-diameter Allen wrenches are at least as dangerous as ice picks, Tom said pointedly.

    1. You can’t take an airplane apart with an allen wrench, like you can with a glasses screwdriver. 

      Now if you were trying to board a bicycle, that might be a different story.

  20. Has anyone noticed the little viewbox thingies that are in the Gatwick south terminal male toilet cubicles (at least the ones in the gents in the south terminal, downstairs, across from the train station entrance. )

    What are they about? I think they’re creepy.

  21. No builder in a white van shows up at your house to do repairs with his belt buckle…

    Except in adult films…

  22. Same belt here. It’s never occurred to me that it would be a dangerous item. I’ve flown with it dozens of times without incident.

  23. Allan keys are allowed now? It’s the only tool I’ve ever inadvertently tried to take on a plane and had it confiscated. That was Manchester in 2005. 

  24. You wouldn’t have needed to buy another suitcase. Airlines will normally let you check in something as simple as a plastic bag. I found that Air France in Paris CDG actually had plastic bags behind the counter for just this purpose (I’d stupidly bought toiletries after going through security in Dublin, forgetting I’d have to go through security again in CDG before flying to China).

  25. The basic problem with the belt is that it looks too much as being made of tools. This can be remedied by a few design changes; the screwdriver bits have to have the Philips end on the hidden-in-clasp end, and the flat end on the buckle-contact end. For added effect, I’d grind down the hexagon to be a little flatter (but still fit into the hex holder). A thread can be cut onto the outside of the Philips end, so it can be screwed into the buckle and hold in place.

    There are also composite materials and ceramics with performance similar to metals. Tool bits could be made from such and concealed in normal-looking equipment, undetectable by metal detectors, and, if concealed properly (e.g. the suspicious-looking ends housed in the same material enclosure, with the hole profile matching to the object, and perhaps the housing “doped” with higher (or lower) xray density particles to add some “noise” to make the residual lines less obvious), even virtually undetectable on xray and perhaps even by future imaging methods.

    I have a pair of screwdrivers on my keys, made from cheap screwdriver bits. Didn’t try to air-travel with them yet, though.

    I also made a belt for trousers from a nylon strap belt and a plastic clasp, in order to avoid the humiliation and hassle of taking the belt off and putting it back on. Apparently, no metallic parts, no problem. The clasp could house a couple non-metallic tool bits easily, the center part is not load-bearing. Would be oriented-boron-nitride-fiber filled epoxy good enough for tool bits?

  26. When I’ve flown (in Canada), the security personnel usually are from the Corps of Commissionaires.  I’ve always found them to be friendly, professional, and reasonable. 

    The one-and-only exception was a tattooed dyed-blonde private-company, er, ‘officer’, who coveted my pocket ‘office tool’ and its miniscule scissors and stapler – and confiscated it.

    Once I forgot to remove a pair of vernier calipers – which could easily make a dangerous weapon – from carry-on computer bag.  This elicited further examination…    “Ooops,” I said, “my mistake!”   The Commisionaire/agent hand-searching my bag showed it to the more-senior Commissionaires standing next to him.  

    He looked at the calipers then at me and asked: “You’re a technician?  -Yes,” I replied.  He leaned over to the agent who had hand-searching my bag and said: “It’s OK, it’s a ‘ruler’.”

    I love those guys!

  27. I have the same 686 belt, and I actually have used it as a tool! Though mostly for bottle opening. Mostly it is just a cool belt.

    I’ve never flown internationally with it, but I’ve been all over the US with it. I always take it off, coil it up, and set it next to my shoes in the x-ray tray. Never been questioned, or even looked at closely as far as I can tell.

  28. You might think this is absurd now, but just you wait until some terrorist uses his belt buckle to rebuild a 737 into an ISLAMIC CRUISE MISSILE in midair

  29. You want to know who REALLY lives in fear of terrorism? Airport security personnel. TSA screeners and the like.

    They get paid crap, have to follow insane procedures with minimal training, and if/when something bad happens, they need to learn even more. Not to mention they are very easily replaced if there is ever a “performance issue”

    Sure, it might inconvenience you if they tell you “I’m not sure about this so you’re not taking it on the plane” If they are wrong, and it happens to be a test, they will lose their job. That’s a little more than an inconvenience. The rules they have to follow with regards to prohibited items, inspecting bags, and handling people are far more arcane than what you experience dealing with them. If they mess up, it’s their ass, not the person who made the rules.

    It’s been pointed out time and again they aren’t cops. Keep that in mind. Just like cops, there are good ones and bad ones… but unlike cops, they don’t have much choice about how to do their jobs.

    1. They get paid crap

      No. Mid-level TSA workers get paid about average US wages with good benefits. Please stop repeating this meme.

  30. I just don’t know why Mr. Doctorow would want to endanger his fellow passengers by bringing on such a dangerous object. Even if HE had nothing nefarious planned, it would be easy to slip him something in his drink/food, take off his belt, and proceed to dismantle one of the wings from the lavatory. I for one appreciate the diligence of Gatwick security.

  31.  I started bringing lighters and/or knives onto airplanes after Sept. 11th, never had one confiscated and I went through security checkpoints at least a dozen times (my gf made me stop when she found out). Now I have a copy of the Bill of Rights printed on a small sheet of metal I bought from the EFF. I’ve flown with it twice, the first time they wanted to see it but didn’t take it, the second time I went through the checkpoint without issue.

  32. A quick look at USAJOBS.Gov shows that TSOs, the burger flippers that make the on the spot decisions about airline safety, start at $29,131.00 to $43,697.00 / Per Year, so 14 – 22 an hour depending on market. Frankly, $14 an hour in some tiny midwestern city might be great, but even $22 an hour in NYC? Not really going to make ends meet.  So yes, they get paid crap.

    1. TSA pay scales

      The median wage in the US right now, including benefits, is $60K.  That’s about equivalent to a $40K salary with a full benefit package, which is mid-range for a mid-tier TSA job.

  33. So, why did the 9/11 terrorists crash the planes all on one day?
    Wouldn’t it have been a more effective terrorisation to, say, crash a plane a day for a month? Essential to the meager weapons employed was the precept ‘give the hijackers what they want, and everyone will be OK’. With the demise of that precept, nobody’s getting into a cockpit with much less than a machine gun. Harassment over pocket tools is farce.

    1. Farce, and theatre. I think those who complain about these rules are in the minority. My hunch is that most people trade “security” for freedom quite happily and they truly believe these idiotic rules prevent terrorist attacks.

    2. @boingboing-301177f5a6d749487c3804830662d488:disqus
      “Essential to the meager weapons employed was the precept ‘give the hijackers what they want, and everyone will be OK’. With the demise of that precept, nobody’s getting into a cockpit…”   

      Excellent!  And well said, hedgemage!  I was hoping someone would point this out.  Another crucially important aspect of this is that THE CITIZENS won’t allow 9/11 to happen again.  Heck, a few citizens on flight 91 almost prevented part of 9/11 from happening at all.    

      The TSA Gestapo (and other nations’ equivalents) should be dismissed.

  34. “(no builder in a white van shows up at your house to do repairs with his belt buckle)”… unless he’s… MACGRUBER.

  35. $60K?  Yikes!

    $33,03, for all workders 25 yrs+, according to to Wiki page on ‘Personal income in the United States’.

    According to the ‘Median household income’ Wiki page, the annual median equivalised disposable household income in the US is $31,111.   ‘Equivalised’ income – which is meant to adjust for hausfraus, basement-dwelling teenaged games, and, I suppose, pets.

    I’m not sure what the figure is, but I’m pretty confident that half of the US working population does NOT earn more the $60K/year.

    1. Bureau of Labor statistics from a few months ago. This is income including cash value of benefits.

  36. True story: In 2007 my wife and I decided to go on a ’round the World trip. Out last port of call was NYC where we decided to go and visit Liberty Island. After queuing for several hours in the freezing cold to wait for security to check us onto the boat, we were escorted by a gunboat out to Liberty Island. We then queued for another few hours to get through x-ray checks, pat downs, and an explosives ‘sniffer’ test. Finally, we were allowed in to the base of the statue…abit of a disappointment (but that isn’t the story). After getting back on the boat and visiting Ellis Island we decided to have a drink, whereupon I reached into my rucsac to get my Sigg bottle and found my 3.5inch lock blade Swiss Army Knife…

    Not exactly sure what the moral of that story is…

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