Rotation Speed (Aviation Blog)

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My Great Experience with TSA and Technology

This is a good TSA story.  Sometimes it seems there aren’t many good TSA stories these days, but I had a recent travel incident and over the following few days the TSA did some good work on my behalf.

So this is a good TSA story.  A good people story too.


I was on a business trip to Phoenix, the first long trip with my iPad 3G.  Heading home, I went though security at KPHX as usual but my mind was distracted by some work I wanted to do while waiting at the gate.  So after screening, I grabbed my laptop, video camera shoes and iPad and walked a few feet away to get organized.  (I know, you don’t have to remove your iPad for screening, but I wasn’t sure… and don’t get me started about that now!)

Having a bit of experience traveling through airport security I had developed a regular ritual that I followed religiously.  That included moving a lot of things from my pockets into my carry-on for scanning as well as placing my shoes in the first bin to go through so I could begin getting dressed on the other side.  Nothing amazing, just stuff you do to make things go smoothly.

So as I moved away from security, I had a few things in my hands and on my mind. 

I set everything down on a bench nearby and started by putting on my shoes.  Then I grabbed the stuff from out of my carry-on and placed it back in my pockets and put away the camera.  Then I did something I never do, which was to turn on my laptop to get it ready for some work I wanted to accomplish.

Normally I put the laptop back in my bag, but this time it felt like I needed every minute of boot-up time, so I turned it on planning to carry it to the gate.

The problem with this unusual scenario is that I had the laptop sitting on top of my iPad and when I grabbed my bag and laptop to begin walking away, I completely forgot to put my iPad back in my carry-on.  I just walked away.  Drat!


Fast forward about an hour.

I’m sitting in my seat on the plane getting everything ready for the flight, when I noticed the iPad was not in my bag.  Total panic in that moment as you can imagine!

After taking a good minute or two to freak out and verify that I wasn’t just missing it in my bag.  I went to step two, which was resignation that the device was lost forever.  I quickly opened my iPhone, launched the Find My iPad app and knowing I only had a few moments of connectivity, I sent a wipe command to the iPad.

I was fairly certain that I had left the iPad locked, so this was merely a precaution, but put my mind at ease a bit prior to take-off.

Unfortunately, because I had been charging the iPad that morning, I had turned it off to maximize the charge speed.  So I knew it was locked but turned off.  As a result, the wipe command was listed as “pending” and I wasn’t surprised.  As I turned off my iPhone for taxiing, that’s all I knew.  It hadn’t been turned on by someone and wasn’t yet wiped but I’d done everything I could from my airplane seat.

I landed in Boston 5 hours later and anxiously turned on my phone expecting to see that the iPad had wiped.

But it hadn’t.  (And those of you who understand how Mobile Me works may have already figured out why.)

So I figured all was lost, but I knew that it was locked and was still hoping that at some point I would get word that it had been wiped.  Talking with my co-workers after the flight, there was general skepticism about ever seeing it again, but one did suggest I call the TSA.  So while waiting for bags, we got the PHX phone number, spoke to someone there who gave me number for the PHX TSA office.

The way that works is that you leave a message with all of your contact information, what you lost, where you lost it etc. and they call you back to let you know if they found anything.  So I left a message and waited.

That was a Thursday and I heard nothing until late the following day.


My cell phone rang and it was a Phoenix area code.  When I answered, on the other end was a TSA agent who told me they had found my iPad.  I was amazed and relieved and quickly began to describe physical things about my iPad to prove it was mine.  (I had done one thing in particular to make it unique.)  But she interrupted me and simply said, “we know it’s yours.”  Surprised, I think I said something like, “how?”  She said simply, “we turned it on.”

Not wanting to get into a detailed discussion about it, and just happy that it was in some sort of protective custody, I moved away from that line of questioning to a discussion of getting it back.  Their procedure was to send me an email with instructions for replying with a FedEx account and other relevant information, which I did less than a half-hour later.  The e-mail went back to multiple TSA agents so I was comforted by the fact that it seemed like something they had done before.

And the following Tuesday, a FedEx package arrive with my iPad in it.  Now all that remained was to figure out why it had never wiped and how they knew it was mine.


The first question (why did it never wipe?) was baffling and but then quite easy to understand.  When I opened the package, the iPad was off.  When I turned it on, it was so low on power that I couldn’t do anything with it until I charged it for a few minutes.  Eventually it was charged enough to turn on at which time I confirmed that it was in fact locked.  (Good for me!)  So after it charged a bit, I unlocked it and waited for it to wipe… but it never did.  Then it dawned on me.

The night before I left Phoenix, I had changed the password to my Mobile Me account.  After doing that I had updated it on my iPhone but NOT on my iPad.  I later remembered that fact and when it was missing was glad that the iPad would not continue to sync my mail, contacts and calendar.  What I forgot was that the iPad would also not communicate with the “Find My iPad” part of Mobile Me.  By changing the password, I had effectively eliminated the possibility that it would be wiped.  To test it out, I entered the new correct password on the iPad and within 10 seconds it began to wipe!  Amazing really, and good to know for future reference and better protection.

But now to the other question which doesn’t really have an answer still.  How did they know for certain it was mine?

When I opened the cover of the iPad there was a handwritten note on a post-it, correctly identifying the tail number of one of the planes I fly a lot.  The iPad was locked, but of course in the locked mode you can play a slideshow of images on the pad.  So clearly they had played the slides and saw the pictures of my rental plane and noted the number.  That might have led them to me.

But I think what really did it was that pesky incorrect Mobile Me password.  You see, when you change your Mobile Me password online, but don’t update it on your device, it yells at you.  Yells in the form of a warning alert, telling you that it can’t connect to your Mobile Me account.  So when I turned it on, I got several alert messages saying that the iPad couldn’t connect to my e-mail account, which contains my name.

So that’s probably how they got my name even with the iPad locked.  And my call saying it was lost matched the name they had seen on that alert.  So I now still wish I could have wiped it, but not being able to wipe it helped them return it to me.  But I still wish I could have wiped it and proved it was mine some other way.


There are some things I learned here.

-       Always use a lock code on your mobile device, no matter how inconvenient.

-       Keep your device connected to Mobile Me with the correct password or you won’t be able to lock or wipe it should it be lost.

-       Be aware that anyone who finds it can look at your pictures.

-       Don’t leave your mobile device at airport security.

-       But if you do leave it, don’t assume it is gone forever.  There might be some nice people trying to help you.  Make the phone call.

-       Don’t be afraid to contact the TSA.  They have very nice people, trying to do a good job under difficult circumstances.