Flaws in airport security the real issue

October 23, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

I was at BWI the other day, checking the "Arrivals" monitor at Concourse C for my wife's flight from New York, when the woman next to me said something about box cutters.

I turned to look at her. She was about 70 and wore gray slacks and a black sweater decorated with orange pumpkins, and I wondered if I could take her.

Some of these seniors, they can fool you. Sure, they look frail. Then you try wrestling them to the floor and shouting "She's got a box cutter!" and it turns out they know tai-chi or karate and make you look silly.

But before I could make my move, the woman said to her companion: "That college student who brought the box cutters on the plane, he's made me so nervous."

It turned out she was just another jittery flier talking about this stupid kid, Nathaniel Heatwole, who smuggled box cutters and other banned items onto some Southwest Airlines jets.

And the thing is, how could you not be a jittery flier, after all that's come out about this case?

Heatwole, who's 20, says he smuggled box cutters, bleach, matches and other banned items onto the jets to show there are still huge flaws in airport security, as if this were some revelation.

But all you have to do is stand in line at a security checkpoint and watch the crack personnel doing the passenger and baggage screening to know security isn't exactly airtight.

All you have to do is see a Transportation Security Agency screener flag a 4-year-old for carrying his plastic Star Wars light saber - a friend actually saw this happen - to think: That's it, we're all doomed.

Todd Curtis, an aviation safety expert who runs the Web site AirSafe.com, says dryly that TSA screeners "are trained. But the requirements for being a TSA screener aren't that, um, high."

Meanwhile, the ramp workers, the people who clean the plane, the people who bring the baggage and food and beverages aboard, still undergo no more than a cursory level of scrutiny and background checks, says Curtis.

In fact, he says, background checks until recently consisted mainly of questions like: "Have you been convicted of a crime in the last 10 years?"

As a jittery flier myself - I'm waving for the beverage cart about 10 seconds after take-off - this is not exactly reassuring.

My fear is, OK, we're making sure some little old lady from Dubuque doesn't bring her sharp-pointed knitting scissors aboard. But meanwhile there's an al-Qaida operative on the plane in a "Joe's Catering" uniform hiding a bomb in the galley.

We're making sure little Timmy doesn't get on the flight with that dangerous plastic light saber that he might use to storm the cockpit and hijack the plane to Syria.

But the disgruntled carpet cleaner who's nursing a burning grudge against the airline and becoming increasingly unhinged, why, he can come and go on these planes as he pleases.

As of right now, we don't know how this Heatwole smuggled the box cutters onto the Southwest jets - he's clammed up, on the advice of his mouthpiece.

In fact, he's back in college now, which is another beautiful thing.

Here we're always saying college kids are apathetic these days, that all they care about is where the next keg party is.

Then a kid like Heatwole decides to get involved, committing a self-described act of "civil disobedience" to show how screwed up airport security is, and we threaten to throw him in the slammer!

Still, if this is how college kids are getting involved these days, I'd say apathy is probably a good thing.

Anyway, I'm sure all the details of how Heatwole smuggled the banned items aboard the jets will be in his new book, which he's probably shopping around to publishing houses right now.

Or they'll be in the TV movie they make about him - I see them calling it something like Whistleblower of the Skies: The Nathaniel Heatwole Story - in which he'll be portrayed as the airport Erin Brockovich.

Don't laugh - some members of Congress are already making the kid out to be a hero.

Rep. Edward J. Markey from Massachusetts called the kid "a well-intentioned college student" and said that instead of going to jail, Heatwole should work for the TSA as a consultant, pointing out possible security breaches.

Sure, that's just what we need: college kids sneaking dangerous stuff on planes and getting jobs out of it.

How come there's never a good frat party around when you need it?

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