It’s a simple piece of luggage, inexpensive but reliable. The perfect gift from a practical father received some years ago. During my first few trips with the bag, I used a small padlock that came with it to secure the main zipper.

At that time, the airlines were telling everyone to undo such locks after arriving for your flight. So I got in the habit of not using it, even though the lock was TSA-compliant, meaning screeners in the airport’s bowels responsible for searching checked baggage could unlock it with a special key. My bag’s side pockets had no locks, so why bother using any, I figured.

Eventually I forgot the lock’s code and left it dangling uselessly from one of the zipper handles. In other words, even though it was there, the lock served no purpose at all and prevented no one, including the TSA, from gaining access to the bag.

The TSA doesn’t physically inspect every bag checked at the airport. It randomly selects them for physical inspections, hence the pamphlet that will sometimes show up in your luggage reading “notice of baggage inspection.” The notice also includes this statement, which turned out to be remarkably ironic in my case:

If the TSA security officer was unable to open your bag for inspection because it was locked, the officer may have been forced to break the locks on your bag. TSA sincerely regrets having to do this. However, TSA is not liable for damage to your locks resulting from this necessary security precaution.

Recall that the TSA-compliant lock on my bag wasn’t locking anything and I don’t know the code. During a recent trip, hasty security officers not paying very much attention saw it and assumed the lock needed to be removed with the TSA’s master key. After searching my bag, they dropped in a paper inspection notice and proceeded to place the lock back on my luggage, securing it to both zippers instead of just one.

That meant I could not get into my own bag. Sorry, dad. I had to retrieve my clothes by cutting through a side pocket with scissors. (Also sorry for calling you a nerd in a tweet about the TSA.) See images below. Of course, my experience doesn’t rival the woman told to remove her prosthetic breast, or the man whose urostomy bag burst during a pat-down in Detroit causing urine to spill out.

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G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED,, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.