Elaine Thompson  /  AP
A man passes through an X-ray security scanner as TSA officer Tim Engelby controls the device at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport earlier this year.  It’s time to stop thinking of the checkpoints, the uniforms, the magnetometers and the long lines as the last line of defense terrorist hijackers — and more as part psychological deterrent, part safety blanket for nervous airline passengers, travel columnist Christopher Elliott writes.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/30/2007 4:44:10 PM ET 2007-07-30T20:44:10

Bogus bomb scares. Porous airport security. Whistle-blowing air traffic controllers.

It sounds like the plot of straight-to-DVD disaster movie — or, on second thought, maybe the premise of a new British TV comedy — but sadly, it is neither. They’re actual events, and they happened last week here in the United States.

In fact, the last week of July 2007 was as close to a textbook example of what’s wrong with security in air travel as it comes. But each event also offers a lesson or two about what needs to be done to fix the problem.

Is all this security just for show?
You couldn’t help but wonder after a Phoenix TV station showed footage of employees at Sky Harbor International Airport walking into secure areas without being searched and given only a cursory identification check. It reminded me of an incident this spring, when 13 handguns, an M-16 type automatic weapon and several pounds of marijuana were smuggled on a Delta Air Lines flight at Orlando International Airport by two men who avoided checkpoints because they were employees. The Transportation Security Administration promised to tighten security in Phoenix. But a good place to start might be to make sure the bad guys can’t get their hands on a TSA uniform, which, according to one report, was readily available from a Salvation Army thrift store.

Of course the TSA shouldn’t be waving gunrunners and drug couriers through its checkpoints. Even the ones wearing uniforms. But passengers need to manage their expectations, too. As a matter of fact, the security is for show. We can’t afford an impenetrable, El-Al-style security screening system. It’s time to stop thinking of the checkpoints, the uniforms, the magnetometers and the long lines as the last line of defense terrorist hijackers — and more as part psychological deterrent, part safety blanket for nervous airline passengers. A few resolute criminals will get through, no matter how well the TSA does its job.

That video game really bombed
Just to show everyone how serious they were about screening everything that came through its checkpoints, the TSA intercepted a “suspicious item” later in the week at Long Beach Airport. Several hundred people were evacuated from the terminal for more than an hour and five arriving aircraft were held until they determined the device was a handheld video game device.

TSA screeners catch things they shouldn’t and don’t catch things they should. Earlier this month in Albany, N.Y., federal inspectors tried to bring bottles of water and a fake bomb through a checkpoint. The water bottles were confiscated; the bomb sailed through.

I guess when your boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, is telling everyone he has a “gut feeling” that we’ll be attacked soon, you take anything that looks remotely dangerous, and perhaps a few things that don’t, and then ask questions later. Maybe the secretary should keep his feelings to himself.

Yes, the skies are unsafe ... sorta
In congressional testimony last week, air traffic controllers warned that poor working conditions could endanger the flying public . Among their gripes: their equipment is old, their facilities are dilapidated, and working conditions are awful. Defining the problem seems easy. A solution isn’t. Some are calling for more money to repair aging equipment, even though an upgrade to a $15 billion satellite-based system, called NextGen, is in the works. (There’s more in my column on the future of airports that appeared last week.)

Others say consolidation of obsolete facilities is the answer. It might be nice if the $3 billion Congress authorized for FAA facilities and equipment actually went to the agency, instead of the $2.5 billion the Bush administration requested.

One thing seems certain: The discussion of air traffic safety isn’t even a blip on passengers’ radars, and it will remain absent from them until planes start falling out of the sky. The first half of 2007 was the safest in aviation history, according to a report by Flightglobal.com. The problem will have to get worse — much worse — before it gets better.

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Doctor, there’s an explosive device on your flight
When Dr. Kou Wei Chiu of Bellevue, Tenn., missed his Northwest Airlines flight in Seattle, he called 911 from a payphone and told them there was a bomb on the plane . Three times. Not a smart move, Dr. Chiu. The tardy passenger was arrested and charged with making a false threat against an aircraft. But the report needed to be put in context. The good doctor technically didn’t miss his flight. He arrived at the gate too late to board, which may have meant that the ground crew literally closed the doors in his face even though the plane was still there and the Jetway remained extended. Perhaps they even told him he was a “no show” and had to buy a new ticket. Northwest’s policy is that customers must be on board “15 minutes prior to departure” — a rule that’s pretty standard for an airline industry that is often more worried about its on-time record than its passengers.

That doesn't excuse Dr. Chiu’s behavior, but cutting off boarding 15 minutes before departure is silly. What I find remarkable is that there aren’t more airline passengers who feel so powerless that their only recourse is to phone in a fake bomb threat.

Let’s just ban parents from flying
It’s been a rough summer for kids who fly. A few weeks ago, a toddler’s sippy cup caused a stir at a TSA checkpoint. Earlier this month, a 19-month old boy and his mom were booted from a Continental Airlines flight because he kept repeating the words, “Bye bye, plane!” But things went from bad to worse last week when Tamera Jo Freeman was charged with hitting her children and threatening a flight attendant on a Frontier Airlines flight from San Francisco to Denver. Passengers reportedly witnessed Freeman repeatedly hit her 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son on their legs, shoulders and knees and said that the children tried to hide from her. Why was she taking a swing at her own offspring? Maybe they were misbehaving and she was afraid that they’d end up getting kicked off the flight, too.

I’m no fan of corporal punishment, and it’s my personal belief that the only kind of spanking that should be legal is the kind that takes place between two consenting adults. But that’s neither here nor there. One interesting solution to the problem of kids and parents who misbehave is a family section on the flight, which is something Southwest Airlines is currently testing . That could potentially ease the pressure on families, allowing them to have a smoother and stress-free trip.

Will any of these ideas fly? It’s too early to say if they have a chance. We can only hope that some of these solutions will be given a chance.

I’ll be taking a closer look at what makes the travel business tick in a new weekly column that will appear here. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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