Common sense checks in

October 08, 2002

RELIEF APPEARS to be on the way for would-be travelers whose fear of flying since Sept. 11, 2001, has been based largely on oppressive and sometimes offensive security precautions.

James M. Loy, the retired Coast Guard commandant who took over the wobbly infant Transportation Security Administration in July, is moving swiftly to get rid of arbitrary procedures that achieve little beyond inconveniencing passengers.

His mission is to bring common sense to aviation security.

It's a refreshingly novel concept - in government as well as security.

He started small, dispensing first with the two questions ticket agents have been asking passengers for 16 years to determine whether something could have been slipped into their luggage. The questions were only a minor annoyance, but they were outdated.

Next came another small but even more welcome gesture. Passengers can once again carry coffee or other drinks through the metal-detector checkpoints. And no one will be asked to eat or drink from a container to prove its contents. That should put an end to the stories of new mothers forced to sip bottled breast milk.

Most encouraging is Mr. Loy's plan to do away with what he calls the "hassle checks" conducted on randomly selected passengers as they board the plane. These time-consuming pat-downs of toddlers, Eagle Scouts and grandmothers have raised serious questions about whether TSA has gone overboard on political correctness.

Pat-downs and poking through private stuff will continue. But Mr. Loy's goal is to focus the extra screening on passengers who raise red flags in the security system.

These red flags would be coded on boarding passes - as some are now - and all travelers would get their passes before entering the security checkpoints rather than at the gate, as many do today. Thus, all the extra layers of screening could be done at the security checkpoints.

Like most everything else in the new agency, the targeted screening system is a work in progress. A tip from the intelligence community can put a prospective traveler on a "no-fly" list of individuals to be stopped at check-in. A "watch list" contains the names of passengers with something in their background that suggests they should be carefully screened but allowed to board if nothing is amiss. Both lists are short.

Most passengers pulled aside at the metal detectors for a more thorough peek into their pockets and carry-ons would be flagged by a computer program that chose them based on travel plans, method of payment and behavioral criteria.

Mr. Loy is also trying to develop a "registered passengers" program that would ensure swifter passage through security gates of travelers who had submitted to extensive background checks.

The agency's goal is to find the needle in the haystack by getting rid of as much hay as possible. But it's trying to do it in such a way that terrorists can't be sure toddlers and Eagle Scouts and grandmas will necessarily get a free pass.

Federal takeover of airport security is far from complete. Procedures still vary widely across the country. But travelers can take heart that the agency in charge has adopted a more practical approach.

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