Ataturk Airport security in Istanbul: pretty weird

I made it to New York weary, but safe and sound. It was interesting flying 12 hours and then 10 hours to get here but more on that later. My first story is about airport security in Istanbul which was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

After arriving in Istanbul after a 12 hour flight from Seoul (Turkish Airlines review coming soon) we head to the transit passport check and are happy to see there is no line. But are told we have to do a special security thing for passengers to America. We go wait on line. A few minutes later we’re talking to some security guy who looks at our passports, looks at our eticket itineraries, wants to see my wife’s green card, asks if my wife and I are friends, asks if she changed her name, and then starts getting weird. He asks where we live, what our jobs are, if my wife has a social security card (which except for the last question are kind of like questions we got asked years ago interviewing for y wife’s green card – the social security card question makes no sense since green card holders don’t even need one until they want a job).

Then it gets even weirder. He asks about our jobs. He wants to see our business cards and my wife’s driver’s license. Then even weirder – he wants to know how we met and was far more thorough than US immigration was when we did the green card application. When did you move to Korea? When did you meet your wife? How did you meet? When did you move to Seoul? Where in Korea did you live before that? To make things more bizarre, there were strangers standing around listening to our story as they waited for their passports back.

Finally he got to the questions that seemed to have a point. Did you pack your own luggage? Where? Where has it been since it was packed? Did your laptop our digital camera recently get repaired? Has the luggage left your sight?

I got those questions but couldn’t help but think that it would have been much more efficient to just open our bags and have a look. Then he says OK, I just have to take your passports and tell your story to my supervisor. So we wait some more. Then they send us to a second desk where more people look at our passports and took us to a third desk. We wait some more.

While waiting here, things got a little interesting. One guy started complaining and asking for the police because the security people were taking a picture of his passport with a digital camera. He said “I’m not giving you permission to photograph my personal information. I don’t know who you are or what you plan to do with it.” He was right, of course, but I knew I wouldn’t argue in the same way because I just want to get through security as painlessly as possible and standing up for what’s right was just too much trouble in this case.

Anyway, they spent a few minutes with our passports and my wife’s green card doing something. Maybe taking pictures and posting them on the net for all I know but I wasn’t close enough to see (unlike the complaining guy who could see right over the counter). As we were waiting one lady asked us to go wait further away. I complained a bit because the guy from station #2 had told us wait just where we were. She apologizes and we step back a few feet and then the guy with our passports tells us to come back over. He talks to us about our luggage, photocopies our passports and my wife’s green card, and sends us on our way.

The whole thing was crazily disorganized. Why do they need 3 stops and 3 different people looking at our passports? And why do we spend so much time waiting around while they take your passports and go fool around with them? And why do they want to know our life stories? And why didn’t they just look in our luggage which would have been much faster and probably more effective for security? Actually they would do that later making all this life story stuff pretty pointless.

So we go back to the transit passport / ticket check and now there’s a huge mess of people who are waiting to go through. But there was no line – it was just a push and slide and bump your way to the front kind of thing. 5 years ago I’d have been very worried about cutting someone on line but not anymore. In Korea most lines are pretty competitive so I was in a somewhat familiar element and got to the front pretty quickly.

The whole security thing slowed us down about 45 minutes but after a 12 hour flight standing and stretching your legs is not such a bad thing. Still, it was the weirdest and least useful security check I’ve ever been through. I mean they didn’t xray our bags again or anything – they are relying on the questioning process alone and considering how the questions were all over the place I find it hard to believe it was any use. Unless having photocopies and digital images of hundreds of passports floating around out there is actually good for security…

At Ataturk they have one of those systems where you go through a security check to enter your gate. This was another inefficient experience. a passport check, another passport check, x-ray machines, a ticket check, a third passport check (this time we also signed next to our names on some piece of paper they had), and then finally they opened all our bags and searched them and patted us down. I get the search but don’t see why they needed all the other stuff, first to get into the terminal proper, and then to get into the gate. one passport check, one ticket check, one luggage search, maybe a pat down, and you should be done as far as I’m concerned. Photocopied passports and how I met my wife don’t seem all that relevant.

Another interesting tidbit of inefficiency – no restroom in the gate area so if you have to pee you have to do the 5 point security deal all over again. I guess it might go a little faster with no luggage, but not too much faster because you’d still be on line with a bunch of people with the normal amount of luggage, still have to get your passport checked a bunch, and so on.

Filed Under: Airlines + flying

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  1. Sharon says:

    Taking pictures of passports does seem odd, never heard of doing that, and you have to wonder what they’re going to do with them. Certainly illegal in my opinion, but arguing with airport security in a foreign country anywhere, unless you’re a citizen of that country of course, is probably not a good idea. I am curious though why you flew from Seoul to Istanbul, then to NY? I know you’re spending time in Istanbul on your way back, so maybe it was a good deal in some way.

  2. Jim says:

    Yes, just because we were cheap. Going direct from Seoul to New York and then New York to Istanbul, and then Istanbul to Seoul would have been way better for our mental and physical health, not to mention the environment, but we think also more expensive.

  3. […] on the plane. If you do fly into Turkey, you’ll need a visa, but you can buy it at the Istanbul airport for a fraction of the cost of buying it in the […]

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