17 September 2006

Fly Away With Me

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Since the threat of airline terrorism raised its head again in mid-August, I have had the not-quite-pleasure of taking a few flights, both internationally and within the U.S. In doing so, I have discovered an odd byproduct of the tightened security rules at airports: air travel is actually easier. Not pleasant, but slightly easier.

For the first time since September 2001, it seems that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the airlines are now all on the same page in terms of security and baggage issues, particularly where carry-on bags are concerned. Under normal circumstances, most people do not pack lightly (that, if anything, is an understatement). But when both the airlines and the government are cooperating to scan passengers for nefarious liquids or gels, and when most cosmetics are prohibited in the cabin – period – the completely bizarre, arbitrary, and mostly-unenforced rules about the size of bags people can carry turn out to be largely irrelevant. Gone are the days of over-stuffed “roll-aboard” bags that don’t really fit in overhead compartments. Gone are the last-minute battles for luggage space because some obstinate folks refuse to put smaller items under the seat in front of them. Over the last month, airplanes have felt less crowded, by which I mean that the volume of crap people carry on board has dropped, making the environment more comfortable and less stressful. Even passenger security screenings seem to be moving faster and more efficiently, no doubt a result of more luggage being checked.

All that said, American airline security mania has nonetheless revealed a rip in the fabric of globalization – one that suggests there are still discrepancies within the TSA’s management of our air travel safety. From airport to airport across the country, one can find many of the same chains of shops and restaurants (for better and, mostly, for worse). However, the announcements that are made over the public address system are still different, airport to airport: not only are the voices different, but the wording of the security messages is different. Consider that for a moment: the process and procedures involved in flying are essentially the same from city to city, and the need for security screenings is the same, too. Yet the federal – national – organization that manages the security of airlines does not yet have a standardized message for use in airports across the country.

In Houston, the voice is female, and the language cryptic, telling us that “certain measures have been implemented...” Chicago’s voice and message are different from San Francisco’s, which has two, one male and one female, saying slightly different things. In both cases, passengers are “advised,” as if the conveyance of advice over a public address system is more meaningful, or more polite, than saying simply: “Do not leave your bags unattended.” If these announcements reflected regional styles and accents, the differences might make sense – but the Chicago voice sounded no more accented than the one in Houston, and I’ve never known Texans to speak in such cryptic terms. (New York being New York, there seem to be fewer overall announcements at the airports, perhaps under the assumption that we New Yorkers won’t listen anyway – although if they had the character of the old taxi cab buckle-your-seat-belt advisories, they might get our attention.)

It is not all rosy out there. The no liquids / no gels rules are annoying, particularly where drinks are concerned; beverages purchased on the “secure” side of check-in should be exempt from these restrictions. Likewise, being forced to check even small items one might normally carry on board – say, for an overnight trip, where much isn’t needed – is a nuisance; but if toiletries are involved, those are the rules. And all of this is taking place in an environment where the luggage-handling capabilities of the airlines does not seem to have improved to meet the environmental challenge: it still takes an improbably long time to move bags from plane to passenger, by my count almost 30 minutes spent waiting at the “carousel” at different destinations.

Overall, I do not object to having a more thorough and intelligent security process, if that’s what it really is; but maybe it isn’t. James Fallows has a terrific article in the September 2006 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, titled “Declaring Victory” (well worth reading for other reasons entirely). In it, he touches briefly on the question of airline security and our federal expenditures and efforts to ensure passenger safety, writing:

The widely held view among security experts is that this airport spending is largely for show. Strengthened cockpit doors and a flying public that knows what happened on 9/11 mean that commercial airliners are highly unlikely to be used again as targeted flying bombs. “The inspection process is mostly security theater, to make people feel safe about flying,” says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State and the author of a forthcoming book about the security-industrial complex. He adds that because fears “are not purely rational, if it makes people feel better, the effort may be worth it.”

If the incident earlier this week is any indicator – a United Airlines flight in which passengers jumped a guy who apparently tried to open the emergency exit, mid-flight – awareness may be our best defense.


UPDATE, 26 September: As you probably heard, the TSA yesterday "relaxed" the rules on carry-on items. Relaxed them to some new, odd kind of obscurity that seems designed to benefit the makers of Ziploc bags more than anyone else. But if most airports don't have screening machines that can test for dangerous chemicals, how does having a bunch of unlabelled, 3-ounce bottles of assorted liquids and gels, presented together in a clear plastic bag, really help protect us?


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