Airport Security: From Dysfunctional to Degrading

Each day we awake to yet another report of an airport security calamity. Today’s report comes from women across the country, who have filed complaints alleging that they have been groped and otherwise molested by airport security personnel. While the complaints, as of this writing, remain unsubstantiated allegations, they keep increasing in number and frequency. The fact that 35 of these complaints have been made to the Attorney General of the State of Colorado, and that 18 have been filed with the FAA, adds credibility to them. Given the track record of failure engraved in stone by a number of the security companies providing screening at the airports, another allegation of wrong-doing doesn’t come as a surprise to those of us who continue to monitor airport security.

Last October, in response to the September 11th mayhem, the FAA directed all airlines to implement secondary security searches at airports. For those who have not flown since the disasters of that day, America’s airports now require that a number of passengers be randomly selected to undergo a second screening at the gate before the aircraft is boarded. To accomplish this mandated task, airlines initially drafted their own ticketing and other terminal personnel to conduct the searches. The FAA mandated a minimum of three hours of training for those who were to conduct the task. Since October, most carriers in most airports, or at least in the larger ones, have transferred the duty to their contract security vendors, who are required to have at least eight hours training. In some airports, ticket agents are reported to still be conducting the screening function at least some of the time.

Gate searches are often conducted in a partially screened-off area to protect the “selectees” from the eyes of the other passengers, who may be wondering what was so menacing about them that they needed to be searched again. This creates the potential for abuse either by a “three-hour wonder” ticket agent transformed into an airport screener or by a vendor security guard about whom we have already heard more than we ever wanted to know. That members of either group might wish to exploit the opportunity to fondle, grope, or otherwise force already intimidated female passengers to suffer degrading body searches, has brought the entire process to a new low, even for some of those vendor companies.

Over the past few months, it has become apparent that the new system is not working. The American people, always willing to give government the benefit of the doubt, has, for the most part, gone along with the program in the expectation that improvement is just around the corner. Well, folks, unless we rid the airport of the rascals who have turned aviation security into a circus, it’s not.

The well-publicized tales of attempted cockpit intruders, weapons carriers, and bomb attempts aside, every day sees yet another reported security breach at airports, often resulting in terminal or complete facility shutdowns, aircraft diversions, delays, and arrests. On flights from New York City to Washington, I am accustomed to not being able to use the lavatory while the flight is in progress, because standing “may result in the diversion of the aircraft.” Blessed with a strong bladder for a man of my years, I have experienced no problem with the ridiculous rule. I have wondered about some of the other folks on the plane who might be less fortunate than I. Today, I learned of the consequences of a violation of the standing rule. During the Olympics, on a flight within 30 minutes of Salt Lake City, a passenger attempting to engage in “illegal” standing so that he could visit the lavatory was arrested by a Sky Marshall — another example of our misguided program to make flying safer. I am sure that most of us can think of better ways of protecting the cockpit.

Reports by passengers — including inadvertently carrying guns on board airplanes and then turning themselves in after discovering what they had done; removing a bag from a screening station with a mock hand grenade in it only to have the grenade roll down the aisle of an airliner; and the discovery by a National Guard trooper that the metal detector being used at the screening station was unplugged — have resulted in airport chaos almost daily. Now we have physical abuse by those who, acting under the color of government authority, allegedly cross over the line to sexual abuse. How much will the traveling public tolerate before letting Congress and the White House know that fighting a war on the home front by putting amateurs, incompetents, and miscreants in our airports will result in a strong reaction by travelers who will use their voices, their votes, and the courts to redress their grievances?

I have repeatedly called for the employment of retired law enforcement officers to operate security in the airports. Perhaps because the plan is so simple and the bureaucracy so cumbersome, government has been unable to even experiment with it. Today, I had the long-awaited opportunity of meeting with both an airport operator who is considering requesting such a program, and a very enlightened member of Congress who, like the rest of us, has had it with the bungling of the new security law he was proud to have voted for. I will leave it to the congressman to identify himself when he is ready, hopefully in a day or so. When he does, he will have the public support of the law enforcement community and a grateful public — me included.

Children should not be subjected to random body searches as has been reported; senior citizens should not be “profiled” for enhanced screening when we know that they don’t fit the profile of a terrorist; disproportionate numbers of women should not be patted down for weapons because they are easier to handle — and under no circumstances by male screeners; and no passenger should ever be degraded by an unlawful touching in exchange for the freedom to travel, even in wartime.

After years of pleading for a change in America’s airport security, today I saw a glimmer of hope in the prospect of putting professionals in our airports. Since 1991, when the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center was first formed, we have been willing to settle for nothing less than the best security available under the circumstances for the traveling public. That goal continues.

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