"They call me 'The Wizard,' and I invented the gray bin."
The airport security line is slow today … more so than usual.
After what seems like an eternity standing shoeless with laptop in hand, and my boarding pass firmly between my teeth, I am reminded of a meeting I had in Washington, D.C., several years ago. Secret stuff, very hush-hush; it took place in a bunker-like brick building on the outskirts of the Capital.
After passing several checkpoints, I was led into a small room and greeted by an unassuming gentlemen with a mustache. The small man shook my hand vigorously, then handed me a business card that read simply "The Wizard."
“They call me ‘The Wizard,’" he said proudly. “And I invented the gray bin.”
Today, at the termination of six snaking security lines, stacks of plastic bins are being wheeled backward through metal detectors by TSA Blue Shirts. We all wait dutifully for the shallow tubs that are required to convey our laptops, shoes and tiny toiletry bags through the X-ray scanner. It’s a choreographed dance that requires two TSA staff members per line and happens hundreds of times a day.
“There weren’t always gray bins, you know,” The Wizard explained.
There was a time when security officials everywhere were content to place bags and laptops, like groceries, directly on a scanner’s black conveyor belt. And like at a local supermarket, where a sensor stops the belt when items reach the checkout clerk, the X-ray scanner too would stop and scan each item when a simple sensor was triggered.
But, The Wizard told me that he wondered if a bag could fool an airport X-ray scanner by making it invisible to its stop and scan sensor. “If the belt doesn’t know to stop, a bag can’t be examined,” he reasoned. Though this had never been a problem in practice, The Wizard then did an experiment, the details of which he did not fully share, and proved that a properly rigged bag could indeed foil a conveyor's sensor.
But put the same bag inside a plastic bin, and the sensor isn’t fooled. The gray bin was born; its use became policy.
Today, I make a point to look over the shoulder of a TSA tech manning an X-ray station. Strange orange and blue images roll by at a steady clip, under constant monitoring. The soft outline of the gray bins can be seen, as well as tweezers, scissors and any container larger than 3.4 ounces. As each prohibited item rolls by, the TSA tech calls for supervisor approval and a closer inspection.
But as far as I can see, there are no sensors that automatically stop the assembly line and tell TSA workers when to pay attention. Instead, every gray bin’s action-packed video journey is fastidiously inspected by at least one person, sometimes two or three. The stop and display systems, described by The Wizard, have long since been replaced by more modern and closely monitored technology.
On the other side of the X-ray scanner, I wait for my things to arrive. First comes my laptop, then an overstuffed carry-on, and finally a collection of odds-and-ends, from shaving cream to my shoes. Each rides in its own plastic bin, like a chain of gray carnival cars emerging from the "Tunnel of Love." To my left, a TSA Blue Shirt waits for me to clear out so she can finish off the stack and start the ride all over again.
Before rushing on, however, I take a moment to look for any attribution to The Wizard on the gray bins before me. Sadly, there is none.