Airport alert: Will your viola pass the explosives test?

Airport alert: Will your viola pass the explosives test?


norman lebrecht

May 08, 2018

From the American viola player Jennifer Stumm:

I was just held up extensively at Gatwick Airport – already a hassle and risk as the only airport that insists on hand searching every instrument – but this was new and scary.

My viola set off the alarm on the explosive swab test machine. This caused a full-scale interrogation, reports filed, handling of the instrument in a very inexperienced way. Ultimately, I was forced to send the viola through the X-ray machine without the case, lying in the plastic bucket and then left out of the case around luggage while various personnel discussed the situation. Majorly dangerous.

Apparently SUNSCREEN can set off the machine. Cosmetics often contain sunscreen and apparently even traces in sweat on the chin rest or neck can be enough. Of course, if the case had been allowed through the metal detector like at every other airport, none of this would have happened. I was told the threshold has been lowered for setting off the alarm. It took a lot of pleading and discussion to resolve this. Reasons to avoid Gatwick if at all possible. As if musicians needed any more airport stress!



  • John Borstlap says:

    The grocer in the village here, a Hungarian immigrant who fled the continental refugee influx and who plays the viola as a hobby, was once arrested on the train to Manchester where he wanted to visit his family, because the case raised suspicions. He had to play a Bartok duo there and then in the path way (on his own!) to prove he wasn’t a terrorist and had to swallow some criticism from one of the officers who coincidentally also played the viola to make ends meet, for a couple of wrong intonations. When he told this story to his family they rolled over the ground with laughing, thinking it was his new viola joke. Since then, his looks have turned somber and prices have gone-up at the store.


    • Max Grimm says:

      Powder-like substances in containers seem to set the machine off, as I had a similar experience (Sichuan pepper). Also, I don’t think its quite so easy to tell curry from cocaine on the scanner…*1n2biAbDiX7lDQK6c0dJYw.png

      In any case, if history and track-records are any indication, I’d say it isn’t ‘their thing’ that’s useless but certain security officers and their (mis)interpretation of what the machine is showing them.

      • Max Grimm says:

        So I hear (unfortunately I’m a bit too young to have taken advantage of those times).
        I should have been more specific. When I wrote “…history and track-records…” I had the post September 11th 2001 period in mind.

    • Bill says:

      The swab test isn’t to detect drugs, it is looking for traces of chemicals that may indicate the presence of explosives. The metal tins may have obscured the view for the X-ray machine enough that a manual inspection was requested.

      • JR Hartley says:

        Don’s point was that the machine failed it was set off erroneously by curry powder and chilli, I doubt a swab would tell you anything from a sealed tin can kept in a kitchen cupboard full of herbs and spices! C4 would not show up nor even for gelignite and an old alarm clock.

        • Bill says:

          I doubt very much that an x-ray machine was set off by the presence of powder. It may have been set off by the presence of something that was apparently shielded (x-ray opaque metal tin) or the operator may have triggered the alarm when seeing such an area on the screen. I am not aware of any airport x-ray or microwave scanning machines which utilize any sort of chemical analysis.

          As for the swab test,one of the principles relied upon is that merely handling explosives (for example, while assembling your device) tends to put traces on your hands which then are transferred to the outside of the device, the bag you put it in, etc. Watch carefully as they swab something and you’ll see that they focus on the areas you handle such as zippers, handles, etc. Even if you have sealed the explosives up inside, they may still be tipped off by the traces you left on the outside.

          Finally, to the comment by the original poster about how none of this would have mattered if they just let me put the whole thing through the x-ray machine – yes, that might have been more convenient for you, but then they lose the opportunity to sniff for traces of explosives, and are relying on someone being able to recognize the device on the x-ray display.

      • Max Grimm says:

        “It may have been set off by the presence of something that was apparently shielded (x-ray opaque metal tin) or the operator may have triggered the alarm…”

        The latter seems to be the most frequent case. The person looking at the scanner images usually stays put and notifies a colleague that a bag needs inspecting. In my case the person scanning sounded a chime-like alarm and a colleague was briefed to search my bag for a metal container filled with what appeared to be a powdery substance (the pepper). Interestingly, the Swiss Army knife that even I forgot I had in the bag didn’t get noticed on the scanner nor by the security officer who “searched” the bag.

  • Sue says:

    Quick: bring out the viola jokes!

  • Courtney says:

    FYI hand lotions often contain Glycerin which will trigger alarms. Happened to me at 4:30 am in Seattle. Just before I got out of the car I slattered on AVEENO Intensive Care. Bingo. Full pat down, sequestered in a room, swab test. Finally a weary TSA person asked if I had recently used hand lotion.