October 12, 2011

The Knowledge

Regular YAFB readers (all three of you) will know that I'm based at Oakland (KOAK). Since Oakland's a busy airport with extensive airline, freight, and business GA operations as well as the whole light GA thing, I have to have a personalised security badge just to get out to the airplanes I fly. And that security badge comes with a serious background check, fingerprinting, TSA, FBI, OPD, and multiple other LEO TLA implications and obligations, and an in-person renewal every two years.

(Note that I'm not much bothered by the security requirements here: they seem fairly reasonable for a busy mixed-use airport where on a daily basis I might walk right by or cross paths with anything from beaten up old Piper Cubs through immaculate old P51 Mustangs to large Gulfstreams or commercial 737s to Justice Department MD-80's surrounded by gun-toting guards to late-model military planes and helicopters. I've made smalltalk with the OPD helicopter driver as his craft was being towed out of a hangar, I've chatted with the RNZAF crew whose plane was being refueled in front of the plane I was trying to refuel (size wins, ya know…), and been cheerfully shown around the interesting super-secret TLA-owned plane on the North Field whose purpose we're not supposed to talk about publicly — Oakland's that sort of airport…).

And this is renewal time… except that this year the process is different, as I discover when I visit the Oakland airport ID / badging page. You can't just walk up and get your badge renewed semi-automatically by brandishing the old badge and supporting ID any more, apparently. John's just been through the process himself, so I ask him what's in store: nothing onerous, just a more interactive process (and better documented) than before, involving booking a slot ahead of time, a useful checklist and supporting documents in PDF, and passing an hour-long interactive computer video training course on the basics. As long as I renew before the end of the 30 day window, I'm fine, so I wander in to Oakland Flyers (my badge is under their aegis), get the proper signoffs and authorisations (thanks Jim!), and book a slot from the Oakland Flyers PC, and wander off with the in-person bit set for a few days away.

* * *

So here I am, a few days later, outside the badging office up on the second floor of Terminal One, directly beneath the great old 1960's Jet Age control tower (within my memory there used to be a small restaurant and bar up just under the tower cab itself; the bar and restaurant were closed a decade or two ago for security reasons, but there's still an eighth floor button in the elevator for it — I didn't press it to see if it still worked…). You get a great view of the TSA security lines and procedures from outside the badging office, including direct views of the scanner monitors and what the operators are looking at, but I guess we're not supposed to talk about that.

What's immediately obvious as soon as I get there, though, is the surreal sound environment: over the usual clanging and clattering and loud voices from the security operations below, and the occasional noise of airplanes departing and arriving on the ramp outside, there's a loud thumping beat and cheerful dance music coming from one of the conference rooms next to the badging office. I can't help wandering over and seeing what's up — turns out it's the Oakland TSA Diversity Day, and TSA staff keep coming and going in small groups over the next hour. Looks like fun… but I'm here to do my rebadging, and after a few minutes I'm through with the first part, actually handing in the paperwork. The staff give me a sheet of paper with the computer training / testing login details and a minute or so later I'm sitting in the test room, with a handful of other testees sitting at booths around the room. I sit down, login, and start the process. Outside, it sounds like Karaoke mixed with security; inside, the effect is actually kinda cheering.

I go at the test and videos, and discover it's all a lot less irritating and hokey than I'd expected (especially based on the first time I did this, when the videos were like bad daytime TV with sinister-looking bad guys and ill-fitting uniforms and references to Pan Am and Eastern). I'm not allowed to talk about the contents of the video or training, but in general, it's pretty straightforward and the intent seems to be to help you learn and remember the rules and procedures, and there's nothing tricky about the tests (in fact, one of the dangers for me was the tendency to second-guess my own answers as though this was a typical FAA test where there might be a trick to the question, or even no right answer at all — this was quite straightforward by comparison). The videos were pleasingly localised — shots of real Oakland airport workers on the ramp or in the terminals, and obviously taken in the last year or two.

In the end, I press the final test button, and get 100%, which wasn't exactly difficult. You'd think most of this stuff was obvious or common sense, but from my own observation over the years at Oakland, common sense in these things isn't common, and a lot of people let their own attitudes get in the way of getting along or at least getting about. Which is why we're having to do the interactive testing regularly now, but never mind — despite a lot of grumbling, it's really a fairly reasonable and unonerous way to get The (secret!) Knowledge and to know how to use it.

An hour and a bit after getting to the office, I leave with my new badge. The world's a safer place as a result, I'm sure, but more importantly, I can keep accessing the planes I fly for another two years.

* * *

Downstairs, on my way back out of the terminal building I pass a limo driver waiting for an arriving passenger; he's holding up a sign saying "Brian Jones", which seems a little surreal to someone who once worked in the music biz and has a decent grasp of history.

On my way out of the parking lot, I brandish my validated parking slip and get waved through. Free airport parking — woohoo! Such a deal.


SkinnyDennis said...

As 1 of the 3 loyal readers, congrats on the 100%. And please post more often if you can!

Dave said...

Yes, the 8th floor button does still work (or it did last year). I sometimes take BART to my lessons, which involves taking BART to the commercial terminal, then catching the rental shuttle to the rental yard, then walking to Oakland Flyers.

One day after my lesson I thought a beer would be nice so I walked in and followed the Cocktail sign to the elevator. I thought it was a bit weird, expecting the bar to be on the main floor. But hey, this will be cool, it probably has a decent view of the field.

Indeed it does.

No booze however, rooms empty, taps are still there but are obviously dry. I looked around a bit and thought I probably should be up here. The bar is actually father down, by the TSA screening area.

Shows how often I fly commercial out of Oakland I suppose.

Hamish said...

@SkinnyDennis -- I try, I try :-).

@Dave -- I'm amazed that still works -- I had visions of gun-toting TSA agents greeting you as you got off at the 8th floor...