Flight tests family's sense of security

August 19, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd

IF YOU THINK flying is nuts these days, you won't get a whole lot of argument from Ron Brothers of Marriottsville.

Brothers and his wife, Donna, and their daughter, Brittany, 12, were boarding an America West flight last week in Las Vegas when they came face-to-face with the full lunacy of post-Sept. 11 air travel.

They were headed home after a short business trip/mini-vacation - Ron's a computer specialist whose work often takes him to Vegas - and had already endured a flight cancellation and a mix-up with the rescheduled flight.

Now, as they presented their tickets to the gate agent and prepared to board, more problems.

"The gate agent said to Brittany: `You've got to go to security and get checked,'" Ron Brothers recalled.

OK, fine, thought the Brotherses.

No big deal. Everybody's getting checked at airports these days. Nuns, octogenarians, nursing moms, Scandinavians, Al Gore, Dan Quayle - if you've got a pulse, chances are someone will wave a security wand over you at some point.

Even if you're only 5-foot, 80 pounds and look about as threatening as a cherub.

"I understand the need for heightened security measures," Brothers said, ""and I'm all in favor of them."

But when Ron and Donna tried to follow their daughter to where the security checks were conducted, they were stopped.

"The gate agent said: `You can't go; you're already checked in. You've got to wait in the [jetway],'" Ron said.

Brittany was visibly upset at being singled out - let's remember she's only 12, OK?

And here was this rather abrupt adult in uniform telling her, in effect: You, come with me. You look like the type who might try to blow up an airplane.

But she dutifully went over to the security area behind the ticket counter, about 10 feet away. Donna Brothers waited inside the jetway, but Ron stayed near the jetway entrance so he could watch Brittany.

At the security area, Brittany had a wand waved over her. Then the agent waved a wand over her knapsack, which contained CDs and headphones and a little stuffed bull she'd won at a Vegas hotel.

Ron could see Brittany was getting more and more upset. This was only her third time flying and here she was in a crowded terminal, with all these other passengers staring at her as if she'd done something wrong.

Then the security people asked Brittany to take off her shoes.

"That's when she just lost it," Ron Brothers recalled. "She was crying. And that's when I went over there."

Ron's appearance on the scene, it must be noted, did not go over real well with the agent doing the security check.

"The security woman said, in a kind of stern voice: `What are you doing here?'" Ron recalled.

"I'm the father," Ron told her. "And she's crying."

At this point, Ron said, the security agent looked at Brittany, saw the tears and said: "Oh."

"She [had been] completely oblivious to it," Ron said of the agent. But at least the agent then attempted to comfort Brittany, he said, telling her: "Oh, honey, that's OK. Put your shoes back on."

Once on board, Brittany was still so upset that she cried and sat in a fetal position all the way to Phoenix, where the family changed planes for Baltimore.

"She's a little sensitive anyway. But she literally felt like a criminal," Ron Brothers said of his daughter.

Ron and Donna Brothers say Brittany was so traumatized by the whole ordeal they wonder if they'll ever get her to fly again.

Again, let's be clear here. The Brotherses have no problem with security checks, even if they involve checking their own child.

But they have a big problem with parents not being allowed to accompany the child during these checks.

"I felt like I was in some communist country where the children are plucked away from the parents," Ron wrote in an e-mail to America West detailing the incident. "I understand this is a common procedure that your security people do every day, but to a child this is pretty scary stuff."

Anyway, according to guidelines set forth by the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency that oversees security measures in airports, America West screwed up.

"That should not have happened," TSA spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said when informed of Brittany's screening. Rhatigan added that TSA guidelines say that if a parent is present, the parent should be allowed to remain with the child while the child is screened.

In an e-mail to Ron Brothers, America West apologized for "any difficulties you experienced." And airline spokeswoman Janice Monahan told me: "If the situation happened as described by Mr. Brothers, then we owe [the family] an apology."

Fine. But the whole thing could have been avoided with a little common sense and a little compassion, a little empathy for what it's like to be a kid.

Flying is scary enough these days.

Let's not go making things worse.

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