I don’t fly, thank the Lord, as much as George Clooney’s character in the funny and engaging new film Up In The Air. Clooney’s road warrior – his name is Ryan Bingham in the movie – is on the quest to reach 10,000,000 miles in the air and earn even more special perks – the platinum ID card and visit with the Chief Pilot, for instance – that go with such numbers. The traveling Bingham brags that he spent only 42 days at home last year.
I’m no Ryan Bingham, but I traveled on average once every other week during 2009. In my world, that is good enough to get special treatment – well, early boarding – on Horizon Airlines. You gotta start somewhere.
Any frequent traveler will identify with the scene in Up In The Air where Clooney is explaining the travel ropes to a young novice. Don’t over pack. Never check luggage. Wear slip on shoes. Never get in the TSA line behind a couple with children or where the swarthy looking young men will be targets for “additional screening.”
All this movie truth seems particularly relevant in light of the latest breakdown in air security that allowed a would be bomber to board a Northwest Airlines flight in Europe and come close to causing havoc on a fully loaded airplane approaching Detroit. Now the all to familiar, post-terror incident cycle unrolls once again. Bring on the political outrage. Cue Dick Cheney. Order up an investigation. This just in: air security doesn’t work very well.
My only qualification for comment on any of this is travel experience. I observe. I wish TSA would, too. So, at the risk of getting placed on the dreaded list that causes my wife, Pat – she does look like a terrorist – to get “additional screening” whenever she travels, I offer up Three Sensible Alternatives. My own little TSA.
Screen for the most obvious threat. I know, I know, no racial profiling. I’m a card carrying member of the ACLU, but lets be clear: the terrorist threat against the United States of America is overwhelmingly centered in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Young men from these places tend to be the operatives. When a traveler matching this profile attempts to fly into the USA, maybe they should automatically get additional screening, including a very detailed personal interview. This is the Israeli model. It is not racial profiling. It is managing against the most obvious, demonstrated, repeated threat. A sensible alternative would be to concentrate more and more resources on the most obvious threats and spend less and less time at SeaTac Airport frisking the 89 year old woman in a wheel chair.
Observe behavior and ask questions. I have done my own little survey on this point. You can try it yourself. You know the drill. Present your photo ID and boarding pass at the TSA checkpoint and start observing how often the agent actually compares your ID to your face. I’d say it has happened to me about one time in 50 in the last year. The agents appear to be trained to make sure the name on the ID matches the name on the boarding pass. That’s good, as far as it goes. A sensible alternative would be to train them to actually look at the passengers and assess what they see. Same goes with the little clear plastic bags of toilet items that now must come out of your carry on luggage. Does anyone ever really look at what is in those bags? Not in my experience. My point is this: our security system will never get better until we train the screeners to be more aware of what and who may pose a threat. To do better, humans must be able to observe critically and ask probing questions. Well-trained police officers do this all the time. They question and observe. As a nation, we have long lacked “human intelligence” capabilities. In other words, our system assumes that observing and questioning is beyond the boundary of acceptable airport security. I think it is the key to a better system.
Finally, use the best technology. We know full body scanners work. Use them. Spend what is needed to get the TSA database to interact with the State Department’s list of foreign nationals holding American visas. Why haven’t we done this? Beats me. Must be politics. Or perhaps we could just outsource our security to the Israelis…or the Canadians. With a valid US passport in hand, clearing security in Ottawa for a return to the USA earlier this year was a professional and thorough process. Lots of questions. Lots of observing. Lots of technology. Gotta love the Canadians.
I wonder what the response will be to the latest terror threat? The shoe bomber caused us to remove our shoes. The next threat produced those little zip lock bags for toilet items. Considering the most recent would-be bomber was reportedly carrying explosives in his underwear, I can see where this is going. No more boxer shorts on international flights.
Now, I’m moving over to the line for additional screening. And, go see Up In The Air. Clooney is great.