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Airport security is mostly show, little go

Since 9/11, the traveling public has been subjected to an ever-expanding battery of security screening procedures that are onerous and misdirected. Millions upon millions of travelers’ man hours have been squandered at airport checkpoints. And adding insult to injury, the time and energy has been largely misspent: Current security procedures target terrorist strategies that will likely never be used, and they fail to address real holes in the country’s security barriers.

So says Patrick Smith, writing in the New York Times’ “Jet Lagged” series. Smith, author of “Ask the Pilot,” has a boots-on-the-ground view of airport security: He’s a commercial pilot.

Among the cases in point, Smith cites the ban on liquids in carry-on bags. The ban—no more than three ounces in a single container—in place for more than two years now, traces back to a plot by British terrorists to use liquid explosives to bring down commercial airliners. However, hard science later suggested that the terrorists’ plan was a non-starter. According to an expert interviewed for the article, “The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane lavatory is pure fiction.”

And yet, day in and day out, thousands of TSA screeners at hundreds of U.S. airports subject tens of thousands of flyers to this senseless rule.

Meanwhile, serious potential security breaches are left in place, exposing flyers to real danger. Here Smith focuses on security screening waivers. Current TSA policy exempts various categories of airport workers from screening when passing through security checkpoints. So while pilots and flight attendants queue up to be screened along with ordinary travelers, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners, and maintenance workers do not. As Smith notes, “These are individuals with full access to aircraft, inside and out. Some are airline employees, though a high percentage are contract staff belonging to outside companies.” In other words, many individuals who might be sympathetic to terrorist goals, or vulnerable to extortion by terrorists, have been left with unfettered access to passenger jets.

The picture painted by Smith is of a highly dysfunctional operation, reacting reflexively to the threat-du-jour, with no guiding sense of priority or proportion. And, dispiritingly, any sense of security engendered by the TSA’s intrusive tactics is mostly illusory.

Smith doesn’t place all the blame for the current situation on the government. We, the flyers, are part of the problem as well. “In the end, I’m not sure which is more troubling, the inanity of the existing regulations, or the average American’s acceptance of them and willingness to be humiliated. These wasteful and tedious protocols have solidified into what appears to be indefinite policy, with little or no opposition. There ought to be a tide of protest rising up against this mania. Where is it? At its loudest, the voice of the traveling public is one of grumbled resignation.”

What about the voice of the airlines? This is where Smith’s analysis, otherwise clear-eyed and cogent, veers off course. Rather than insist that the airlines should be promoting the interests of their customers—as I would—Smith lets his industry off easy, explaining it is “in something of a bind.”

All parties concerned are in a bind. If we are all part of the problem, we’ll all need to be part of the solution.

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