Heightened anxiety from the ground up

April 03, 2002|By Andrew Ratner

"VICTORY," declares a billboard for the airline industry that I pass on the way home, with the "V" fashioned from the wings of a jetliner in flight.

Yet one of the last places where I feel victorious these days is an airport.

During the past six months, I've been uplifted by seeing handmade signs on highway overpasses, by singing "God Bless America" at ballgames, just by being with loved ones. But dozens of hours spent at airports this winter make me wonder when and whether we'll figure out how to heal what we lost in September.

The act of flying hasn't been the hard part, although like many travelers I admit to summoning a little extra personal courage and faith when boarding a plane.

Rather, airport security is causing the insecurity, and that was before recent reports that government inspectors successfully slipped guns, knives and mock explosives past airport guards nearly half the times they tried.

In December, before the federal takeover and the addition of new baggage X-ray technology, profiling seemed routine.

As an olive-skinned white male, I was stopped numerous times. I took to wearing slip-off sneakers because I knew I'd be asked to remove them often for inspection. Airport agents asked me several times if I was "traveling alone" before pulling me aside.

More recently, however, airports have become an absurd performance in the opposite extreme. There's now a conspicuous avoidance of profiling.

So many and varied travelers were pulled out of line for closer inspection before a recent flight that, with a little stirring, patriotic background music, the faces could have made a commercial for America the melting pot.

There were women in corporate suits, an African-American male in a FUBU sweat shirt, a mother and baby girl, a Hasidic Jewish couple and a long-haired white man with an earring and guitar who complained it was his 10th time searched in two trips. Airport security has become an equal-opportunity annoyer.

Fellow passengers shared similar frustrations: They couldn't understand why passing a thorough inspection and X-ray meant nothing at a subsequent checkpoint even if one hadn't left a secured area. The purpose of the searches often was unfathomable. And the security detail was woefully understaffed for the enormity of the task.

Some of those frustrations may be unavoidable. The security system is indeed built to be redundant and with elements of surprise.

Someone able to slip a weapon past one checkpoint may be caught at another, and the system shouldn't be so predictable that we can easily conclude how to beat it.

In the short run, airlines probably need more pointers from businesses schooled in crowd control, such as Disney.

Passengers might feel less abused if airports had more and better signage informing them of the realities of frequent and multiple searches.

Airlines need to respond more quickly with personnel and roped-off lines when a mass of incoming flights causes disorder and a crush at X-ray machines.

The airlines need more staff for the gargantuan task, too. Before an AirTran flight I took from Baltimore to Atlanta in March, a lone woman was assigned to inspect luggage piece by piece on a small table. At least half a dozen passengers were lined up before her at any one time as she removed almost every stitch of clothing before putting it back.

"Leaving on a trip would be bad enough, but I'm on my way back home," one man complained. "I don't want her going through my dirty shorts."

She was, fortunately, a meticulous folder. But she didn't open a camera bag in my suitcase even though, to my untrained eye, it seemed a greater potential threat and hiding place than my neckties.

My frustration gave way to more grave concerns hours later as we finally boarded the flight after additional searches.

When a passenger couldn't find his seat, a stewardess realized someone else was in it. A woman, bound for Orlando, Fla., mistakenly boarded our plane for Atlanta.

Terrorist? No, she was more terrorized by the idea that she might have missed her own flight. I couldn't help but wonder what was the point of suitcase dissections if someone without a proper ticket could pass several flight attendants and board the wrong plane.

The flight departed and landed late, causing me to miss an overseas connection. "Station delay," the airline said.

I was rerouted from my destination of Dublin through Charles de Gaulle International Airport outside Paris.

I explained what happened in a postcard home:

I saw Paris,

I saw France,

Because security had to inspect socks and underpants.

A poor attempt at humor. But at least it felt more akin to victory.

Andrew Ratner is a reporter on the business desk of The Sun.

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