Psychologist and former basketball player John Amaechi said he felt furious and humiliated after he was privately searched at Heathrow Airport after being told he was too big for security scanners.
Amaechi said he carried out the invasive search after first being “randomly selected” by a beep from a security arc. Staff blamed his size when flagged by a second scanner in the first class security queue at Terminal 5.
The 52-year-old, a renowned speaker, business executive and best-selling author, was heading to the British Airways lounge ahead of a flight to Dublin last Wednesday for a board meeting of a FTSE-listed company. He says that as a frequent traveler, he was singled out for additional airport searches on 50% of trips.
However, Amaechi said he had never been told before that he was “too big” at security. He said: ‘I’m a 6ft 9in black male standing in safety, clearly unable to move on with my free will – and the passengers in this salubrious part of the airport are staring at me, like what he did, as I stood there for 12-15 minutes before someone showed up.
“Then you walk into a private room where two men watch you as you are searched – more invasive than when people can see you. The idea that a random beep could escalate into this seems outrageous to me.
Heathrow said it was investigating the incident. The airport declined to answer whether there was a maximum height for passengers to pass through its scanners. Amaechi said they were “standard scanners”. I’ve been there many times.
After Amaechi tweeted about the incident, white British champion rower Matthew Pinsent replied, “Similar sized type data point. I have never been selected for a ‘private’ search at a UK airport. I didn’t even know they existed.
Other responses from people of color echoed long-standing experiences of being similarly “randomly selected” for further research.
Amaechi told the Guardian: “I am extraordinarily privileged. It exercises me so much because I recognize that if it happened to me – what the hell for everyone else? No education or preparation can prevent this.
Amaechi said two of the three security guards, who were Asian, were “polite, courteous, empathetic” and “apologetic and understand my humiliation, I think, from personal experience.”
But he said: ‘They were part of a system that says some people look like trouble and some don’t. It’s not Heathrow’s problem in terms of the source, but it’s in Heathrow’s gift to change the way they respond.
He compared this with previous experiences of being stopped and searched – including while wearing a suit. “A random beep shouldn’t lead to a point where the world walks past me for 15 minutes and wonders what act I did… They all wonder what I did, because most of these people don’t have never been arrested.”
He said he had no problem entering the United States, often considered to have the strictest borders, after going through his Global Entry Program process. He said: “I would be happy to have a conversation with the UK Border Agency in the same way if I could escape this – it’s not about time, it’s not about process. , it’s a matter of humiliation.”
A Heathrow spokesperson said: ‘We understand that being called in for additional security checks can impact a passenger’s experience at the airport, and that will only ever happen. For safety reasons. Whenever necessary, we will invite the passenger to a private room so that these checks can take place quickly and privately.
“We want everyone to feel welcome at Heathrow, whether passenger or colleague, and want to reassure that additional checks will only take place for security reasons.”