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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Airline passenger inspections

By Dick Hirsch

I have an opinion regarding the controversy related to the enhanced screening procedures for airline passengers being conducted by the Transportation Security Administration. As usual, opinions are developed based upon experience.

We were touring in France on Sept. 11, 2001, in a picturesque village in Provence called Fontaine de Vaucluse. It was there, in mid-afternoon, when we heard the first reports of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center in New York. It was very sketchy; some tourists in the group had been told by a shopkeeper who heard it on a newscast on the French radio network. We were shocked but we didn’t yet know the whole story. At that point we assumed it as a dreadful accident.

The truth became known an hour or so later when we arrived at the inn where we were staying that night. The television was tuned to CNN’s domestic channel; it’s very unusual to see CNN programs prepared for the US audience broadcast abroad. It was then we learned that it was a terrorist attack, with new details emerging about the crashes into both World Center buildings as well as the coordinated attacks with hijacked planes crashing at the Pentagon and in rural Pennsylvania.

If you felt dazed and frightened after hearing the news, think of the reaction of travelers far from home. Conversation at dinner that evening was restrained and seemed to focus largely on how and when we would be able to get home. You’ll remember that all flights to the US were canceled for three days, but then the news came that the airlines would be returning to their original schedules and we would be flying back from Nice to New York on schedule.

We arrived at the Nice airport early. I like to get to airports early, just in case, but on that day I was anxious to see what kind of measures had been put in place. There were uniformed soldiers at every level. Before 9/11 there was security before boarding international flights, but it always seemed rather casual. That became history after 9/11 and even a few days later in France it was obvious, with police and soldiers on duty, studying the passenger lists, searching the faces of travelers and examining luggage, all the while cradling Uzis in their arms. It was both scary and comforting.

My wife, Lynn, scanned the crowd in the departure lounge and focused on the appearance of one fellow traveler. She poked me and directed my attention to him. Uh-huh. She is not a suspicious woman, but on that morning, with no evidence but reasonable cause, she was wary.

We’ve learned its good to be suspicious. The man boarded and joined us on the plane in what was a tense but non-eventful flight to New York. In the years since we’ve been aboard other planes, some headed to foreign destinations, and we have always regarded the security measures as a reassuring necessity. The world changed that day. Is it inconvenient? Of course. In the old days a person could get to the airport just in time, get a boarding pass and rush to the gate. That template is no longer applicable.

I’m happy about that. Inspecting passengers and their hand luggage has always been a somewhat inexact procedure. But our country has been lucky and we were fortunate to thwart crazies with bombs hidden in their shoe or their undershorts. The present system works but from my vantage point the officials of the TSA are absolutely right to review procedures and take whatever steps they feel are necessary to protect our passengers, our crews and our planes.

Full body scanning and the body pat downs, which incorporate some physical contact by inspectors with clothing in what were once called private areas, have raised protests. The body-scan screening is optional but passengers who decline will receive a pat-down. Opponents of the procedures include the predictable rants from those who consider it to be an infringement on their personal rights, another example of what they usually call “big government” invading an area in which they consider further regulation unnecessary.

Those who criticize the new security measures, whether average travelers or supposed experts, have been very vocal, claiming either method is an invasion of privacy. That’s true. But it is a necessary step to make air travel safer and a recent CBS poll reported four out of five Americans support the scans. Yes, it isn’t normal but what once was normal is normal no longer.