If you don't want the entire world to have a look at it, don't try to carry it aboard an airliner. But has the new world of the TSA accomplished anything? After a half-dozen intimate searches, AVweb's Paul Bertorelli says maybe.
November 21, 2002
I've laid my soul bare on a couple of occasions in my
life but this is getting ridiculous. There, spread before all on a cheap
folding table at LaGuardia Airport, were the contents of my shaving kit, sans
the nail clipper, which I'd presciently left at home.
"What's this?" asked the white-shirted, freshly bepatched TSA screener,
brandishing a small metal cylinder from the assorted implements of my personal
ablution on display. Her look implied that she was acting on "credible"
intelligence and that she expected me to crack under the pressure, whence I'd
be rerouted from Tampa on JetBlue to Guatanamo Bay on a Navy trash hauler.
"That," I hissed through a thin-lipped smile, as though I'm accustomed to
the modern equivalent of what we used to call a short arms inspection in the
military, "is dental floss." She seemed profoundly disappointed.
Welcome to the brave new and character-building world of domestic airline
travel. This is not an activity for the feeble or shy. Got hemorrhoids? The
world will know. A Mickey Mouse toothbrush? Hope you don't mind the
snickering. You might consider chipping off the larger encrustations on your
razor and buy your Metamucil at the destination. Other than that, let me tell
ya, the damn thing is a lark.
Because I do a lot of airplane ferrying around the country, I've sampled
the TSA's work more than the average traveler. One-way tickets seem to
magically open that door into the "enhanced security" line. It rarely fails.
But I'm not exactly complaining here.
From my credit-where-credit-is-due file comes this observation: The newly
created Transportation Security Administration deserves a tip of the hat. As
we report in today's
news dispatches, over
the course of eight months, it has managed to recruit, train and deploy
screeners at 424 of the nation's commercial airports. Personally, I thought it
would take five years, if it ever got done at all.
But there they are, white shirts, blue pants, beepers and all; a veritable
army of people lovingly trained to poke and prod their way through your
underwear and socks. They'll even lay hands on your occupied socks, if
you're one of the select few deemed likely to have knitted a little Semtex
into your soles.
Cutting to the chase, do we have better airline security than we did before
9/11? The cynical wisdom says no; it's all just window dressing. But I
disagree. The net is now cast wider, the filter screen is finer. It's harder
for a passenger to get on an airplane with a weapon, although not much harder.
The system is more alert than it was 18 months ago.
But there are still enormous gaps in security, chiefly on the airside where
aircraft aren't watched carefully and unscreened people still have access to
them. It may take another disaster before this is taken seriously.
That said, I'm not convinced that TSA screening delivers value entirely
commensurate with the effort and cost. But on a passenger-to-passenger basis,
it is better than what went before it. TSA screeners are more professional,
appear to be better trained, and I have found them courteous, even friendly,
to a fault. They almost always speak English. (Even Floss Lady was, after a
They are a vast improvement over the contract morons who used to man the
ramparts before. Hired at minimum wages, many contract screeners were surly,
bored and seemingly over-qualified for a job flipping burgers. Good riddance
to them all.
I'll call that progress, however minor. Yet the system is still broken and
the TSA has a long way to go to improve it. First, the notion of random
detailed searches is deeply flawed. It's ludicrous to sidetrack blue-haired
grandmothers for cavity searches while most of the remainder of the airplane
boards unhindered. All this will do, ultimately, is drive people away from the
airlines and into their cars. Given the current economic climate, the airlines
won't be able to sustain this degree of harassment for long. They will lose
passengers in droves.
If it were my show, I'd propose several solutions. First would be one which
Americans have little stomach for: profiling based on instinct and
intelligence. Experienced cops get good at picking the perp and if the TSA
develops such expertise — and why shouldn't it? — it could back off the rate
of random searching and increase the rate of searches based on profiling.
Does that mean that Hani from Riyadh or Abduhl from Aden always get the
third degree while Mildred from Minneapolis sails aboard unhindered? Yeah,
that's what it means. Call it wising up to the ways of world. Either that or
sacrifice what's left of the airline industry on the altar of civil
Next, deploy the simplest technology first, the sophisticated technology
when it's ready. Bomb-sniffing dogs are ready and able now and are a proven
adjunct to security. We should put an enormous push on fielding more dogs for
random passenger search. Explosive detection equipment seems barely practical
for large-volume use. It may be wiser to let it mature rather than deploy it
too soon and clog up the works more fully than they already are.
Last, the aircraft crews need a break. While you and I are subjected to TSA
scrutiny only occasionally, it's an everyday hassle for airline crews on the
way to their workplaces. The TSA and the industry need to develop some
reliable identification/security check method that can allow crews to bypass
the same harassment passengers have to endure. Enough is enough. While it's
true that any identification system can be counterfeited, it's also true that
the risk of this happening with a well-designed system is low enough to
The TSA is right to expect some patience and tolerance from passengers.
It's unrealistic to assume that, as airline passengers, we won't occasionally
be sidetracked for a pat down. That's life in the modern world and we might as
well get used it.
Although the TSA is off to a rapid start — and one that's not bad, in my
view — it now needs to back and fill the training of its screeners, push hard
for profiling and get much smarter about the way it uses its resources to vet
a load of passengers.
It's not a question of whether it can be done. It will have
to be done if the airline industry and travel in general are to ever return to
the kind of vibrancy they enjoyed before 9/11.