Toward Smarter Airport Security

When I worked in Washington, DC, every once in a while I
would have to go to New York on business. I was encouraged by my firm to fly
“because it was easier,” but I always drove, especially after the September 11
terrorist attacks. I can’t tell you how many times I had to explain why to
bosses and co-workers, but it actually made perfect sense.

It was quicker to drive.

I kid you not. I lived in the Baltimore suburbs at the time
– actually, about five minutes from the airport, strangely enough, and since we the country went batshit after 9/11, it actually takes less time to
drive as to fly. From my front door to Manhattan took about 3 hours, usually,
and that included the inevitable traffic jams in the Lincoln or Holland Tunnel.

If I flew, I would have to get to the airport at
least an hour and a half before my flight in order to make sure I got through
security, then the flight would take about 45 minutes from gate to gate. It would take 5-10 minutes to get to the cab stand, and
then I’d have to endure a 30-45 minute cab ride into Manhattan from either
airport.  It’s not like I could just jump
on a plane and be there, right?

Flying has become a serious problem, really, and the reason it isn't is because we seem to have become irrational. Whereas we used to fight Nazis and the Imperial Japanese, and we faced down the prospect of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Soviet Union, now we're expected to be frightened at the prospect of some psycho lighting his pants on fire. Now, because of an irrational fear, we're about to take some phony approach to security to an even more irrational level. Flying should be the quickest way to
get anywhere, even Baltimore or DC to Manhattan. But our panicky
approach to safety actually endangers the very concept of air travel. We’ve made flying less feasible, even as we effectively clogged
the roads with more and more people. 

How did we make it through the first half century of
commercial air travel unscathed?

Let me start off by saying I have no problem with reasonable airport security. But the entire airport security
system as it currently stands consists of a series of cobbled-together reactionary measures
with no real purpose. Why hasn’t anyone organized a summit of sorts, so as to put together a security plan that takes into account most possibilities,
and actually deals with a way to stop the few bad guys in their tracks, without turning airline travel into an ordeal?

One thing American security “experts” seem to lack is a bit
of common sense; they seem to think over-the top measures are the best way to handle security. They're the best way to make others think you're handling security.

I remember being on the DC Metro subway system about a week
after 9/11, and found myself laughing my ass off. In several stations were
Marines armed with automatic weapons, patrolling the platforms. At the same time, Metro police officers were patrolling the crowd, wearing bright
neon-green vests that said, very distinctly, “Police.” All around them were
hundreds and hundreds of people, most of whom were on their way to work. But
their presence brought up some questions for those of us who think about things
more logically. First of all, why the automatic weapons? If they happened to
spot an “evildoer” (That was Bush’s word for them, right?), were they going to
open fire inside the station, and possibly kill more people than the potential
terrorist may have? And if the idea is to catch people before they can commit a
crime, isn’t the least effective technique to wear a goddamn billboard across
your chest? I mean, the police may as well have been saying “I’m over here! If
you’re going to commit a crime, go over THERE!”

About a year or so after that, I had lunch with a friend who worked in security at the Smithsonian. After the terrorist attacks,
they started screening everyone who went into one of their buildings. Not just
a metal detector, mind you; they would wand everyone and search every bag carried by a
tourist. As a consequence, there was always a huge gathering of at least 50-60
people waiting to get into each building. As we talked, I learned that it
hadn’t even occurred to security personnel there that they were effectively
creating a target for potential terrorists. If some nutjob with an exploding jacket wanted to take out 50-60 people, he wouldn’t even have to go inside the building
to do so.

A few years later, there were a couple of incidents in which
some numbnuts flew their small planes into restricted airspace over the White
House. Wisely, the Air Force assumed they were there for a nefarious purpose
and led them to the nearest airport. Less wisely, other government security personnel were acting like
buffoons. They actually emptied the Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings so that hundreds of people were standing outside.
You know, just in case someone wanted to attack the buildings with a Cessna. Again, if the intent was to attack and kill people, what better way to
maximize the carnage than by removing people from a huge building made or
marble, and put them out on a lawn, in plain view of the “terrorist.” Now, it’s
been a long time since I participated in a “civil defense drill,” but I seem to
remember them leading us deep into the bowels of the building, not out on the

I could go on with stories like this, but you get my drift. Security "experts" seem far more concerned with creating an appearance of safety than actually making people safe.

I appreciate airline security as much as anyone. If I’m going to be
stuck in a small tube with a few hundred complete strangers as it hurtles
through the sky at 500 miles per hour, I’d appreciate someone doing what they
can to keep bad things from happening. But jamming people up in the airport for
hours in order to check everyone thoroughly simply pisses people off and makes
people not want to fly.  And our approach to security
is completely haphazard, and based on a patchwork of reactions and
overreactions to potential problems, without creating actual solutions to any problem.

I see no problem with scanning carry-ons,
for example, but one reason there are so many of them is because of the
increased hassle checking baggage. It’s not just the extra charge some
airlines are imposing, but the overall handling of baggage, which hasn’t improved
much in the last 30 years. Airline personnel still throw luggage around like so
many rag dolls, and it's not uncommon to get to a destination, only to find that something is missing when they get to the hotel. Even if it's something minor, it causes passengers to avoid checking
baggage, especially if it contains anything valuable.That problem has been exacerbated by the security directive that all checked bags should be unlocked. As a result, there are probably more bags in the cabin on many flights than in the cargo hold.

In other words, one of the reasons the security regimen at
the airport entrance goes so slowly is because of a complete lack of security
in other areas. Basically, we need a complete overhaul and recreation of a comprehensive security plan.

Think about it. We pass through metal detectors and our
carry-on bags and everything in our pockets are x-rayed so that we can’t bring a weapon on board. So far, so
good. We take off our shoes because some dipshit tried to light it and blow up
the plane. We can’t take liquid on the plane because some idiots planned to
carry liquid explosive or acid onto a plane. We couldn’t take nail clippers
onto a plane, because they had a sharp edge to them and the 9/11 hijackers used box cutters. Now, because a Nigerian threatened to damage a plane on
Christmas Day, now TSA has instituted another set of cobbled-together rules to
make the flying experience even more unbearable than it already is.

God help us if anyone ever boards a plane with explosives
shoved up his ass.

President Obama and the Democratic Congress, please; bring
some sanity to this process. Create a commission to study airport security and work with other countries to
make everything uniform and sane. Study what other countries do, and adopt measures that work, and discard those that are merely a pain in the ass. Last year, when I flew out of Brisbane Airport in Australia,
the entire security process took less than 10 minutes. They performed baggage checks,
but they made sense and they didn’t require stripping to my drawers and
reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

Get experts together and come up with a plan for doing
those things necessary to keep the planes safe, but implement security measures
that make sense.Here are a few sketchy ideas.

Frequent fliers, such as regular business travelers, should get
an ID card, and be put through the process faster. It may not even be necessary
to create a new ID card; just put information on our driver’s license. When I
go to the drug store to buy allergy medicine, they’re able to scan my driver’s
license and determine that I’m not a meth dealer; surely, we can create a
process whereby trustworthy frequent fliers can bypass most of the process.

Now that you’ve eliminated half the line by scanning
frequent fliers, let’s be smart about the rest of the passengers. Create a list of
items that may not be carried on board under any circumstances and make that
list available to passengers as part of the ticketing process, and publicize
the hell out of it. No one except the most infrequent fliers should be
surprised by what they’re not allowed to bring on board.

Create a screening database that means something.
Apparently, the Christmas bomber was on several lists, but no one recognized
him, which makes one wonder why we have them in the first place. The “no-fly” list is absurd,
because it only lists names. The list has to be more comprehensive, and more
usable. Having to take every “Robert Johnson” aside for an interview is a waste
of time that could be put to good use actually securing the plane.

Use more bomb-sniffing dogs and undercover security
personnel. Bomb-sniffing dogs are the best idea in the world, because I have little confidence in the ability of security personnel to guess who the
bad guys might be based on their looks. The last time I came through LAX, I was waved through
customs without anyone even asking me a question, probably because I have
blonde hair and blue eyes and I look pretty docile. Profiling is a stupid
idea. I want security personnel running a bomb sniffing dog by me to make sure
I’m ok. That total strangers assume I’m ok based on what I look like scares the
hell out of me. I know I’d never hurt a fly, but they don’t.  Undercover security personnel make more sense
than uniformed personnel, because bad guys shouldn’t know who to stay away

Make sure cockpit doors are locked tight, and make it known
that no passenger is allowed in the cabin for any reason, even to discuss
movies featuring gladiators.

Improve baggage handling procedures, and make
baggage-checking more pleasant, so that people are less inclined to carry
everything they own on board.  Fewer and
smaller carry-ons will make the process more pleasant for everyone.

These are a few suggestions, but I’m not pretending to be a
security expert. All I know is, someone needs to hold a summit and come up
with a specific set of rules that everyone can follow, and which makes air
travel pleasant again. Chaos is not pleasant, and the current security regimen
is pure chaos.

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