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Airline Insecurity — a Symptom of a Worse Disease

Some weeks after terrorists turned several of our airliners into guided missiles, I flew — and got to experience our greatly “improved” security. My experiences brought a lot of response from readers.

Going through security at Denver International was interesting: because my shoes apparently have metal in them, they asked me to remove them so they could run them through the x-ray machine. I actually think that’s fairly smart; if you want to smuggle razor blades onto an airliner, that’d be the place to do it. The only gotcha: do you think they provided chairs for the dozens of people they were doing this to so they could put their shoes back on? Nope.

Then, on the way home, security at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in Texas was interesting too. They weren’t the least bit concerned that the metal detector beeped when they waved it over my shoes. But they were sure interested in my briefcase, since the x-ray operator spotted nail clippers inside. But wait: the government reassured us that nail clippers were OK! Yes, nail clippers are OK, I was told. But look at the included metal nail file with a (dull) point on it! That’s a no-no, I was assured — the 1.25″ file is apparently enough to overpower a heavily armed air marshal, and the screener broke it off and handed me my clipper. They said nothing about the several pens I had on me, of course; the pen is “mightier than the sword” in more ways than one. It would be pretty darn hard for the tiny file (mounted on a pivot) to hurt someone, so I sure as heck wouldn’t think a terrorist would choose that as a weapon over a nice long, sharp metal pen. At least Denver’s worry about metal in my shoes had some logic to it, and they realized that a tiny nail file wasn’t a weapon. But the opposite was true in Texas. It all comes down to the thought processes of a person who wasn’t smart enough to get a better-paying job at the airport McDonald’s.

Some stories from True show just how out of touch the people that supposedly watch out for the friendly skies are. So what does the government do about it? They take these underpaid, undertrained, bored operatives and make them federal employees. Giving idiots job security improves things …how, again? (If you really think making security agents federal employees is a good idea, think about it while standing in line at the post office or at the Social Security Administration sometime.)

Anyway, the stories. These several examples of the false sense of security we all live with are from the 27 January 2002 issue:

Travel Trouble

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Joseph J. Foss, 86, arrived at the airport in Phoenix, Ariz., to fly to the east coast, but was stopped by airport security because he was carrying something the security screeners apparently deemed suspicious: a Congressional Medal of Honor. “I kept explaining that it was the highest medal you can receive from the military in this country, but nobody listened”, Foss, the former governor of South Dakota, says. “They just didn’t know what it was but they acted like I shouldn’t be carrying it.” He got it in 1943 from President Franklin Roosevelt after shooting down 26 enemy planes in the Pacific. “It states all that stuff on the back of the medal.” So why was he carrying the medal? “I had it with me this time to show to cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.” — where he was going to make a speech. (Washington Times) …Good move, boys — that medal was for shooting down planes!

Doesn’t This Make You Feel Safe?

US Airways pilot Elwood Menear, 46, trying to get through security so he could fly his airliner out of Philadelphia (Penn.) International Airport, was apparently frustrated at the delay as his luggage was searched. “Why are you worried about tweezers when I could crash the plane?” Menear allegedly asked the security screener. Menear was immediately arrested, and charged with making terroristic threats and disorderly conduct. “The pilot made some comments that the screeners thought were inappropriate,” confirmed an FAA spokeswoman. (Philadelphia Inquirer, wire services) …If insightful truth is a crime, we’re all in big trouble.

Something Special in the Air II

U.S. Representative John Dingell, 75, flies a lot, but came under special scrutiny when he tried to fly home from Washington, D.C., to Michigan, since he was wearing a knee brace, has surgically implanted pins in his ankles, and a metal hip. Security screeners forced the congressman to remove his shoes, socks, knee brace, and pants, and ran a metal detector over his boxer shorts. “I complied, but tried to do it with some small bit of dignity,” he said. He never told the screener he was a congressman because “I don’t want any special treatment.” (Washington Post) …Good. Politicians need to know what people are going through every day.

However, “security” (as the feds define it) has certainly increased. Contrast those stories (and similar stories that you’ve no doubt heard) to pre-9/11 security. From True‘s 26 January 1997 issue:

Can You Identify Yourself?

Colorado governor Roy Romer realized on a business trip to California that he had left his wallet in his limousine. With no cash and no identification, he decided to walk slowly down the aisle of the airplane in hopes someone would recognize him. When at last someone did, he asked if he could borrow some money. The passenger loaned him $45. Later, the ticket agent in Los Angeles wouldn’t let Romer board the flight back home since he had no ID. Romer solved that problem, too: he pulled a copy of the Denver Post from his briefcase and pointed to three pictures on the front page. “Hey, see that? That’s me. There, there, there. My name’s Romer. There! That’s my ID,” he told the agent. He was allowed to board the plane. (UPI) …Sure: anything to get rid of him.

15 Responses to Airline Insecurity — a Symptom of a Worse Disease

  1. Stephen, Idstein Germany April 19, 2009 at 6:23 am #

    These stories are funny. I have traveled around the world a few times. Since 9/11, I have seen many “interesting” things. A few weeks after 9/11 I was going through the security check point in Frankfurt, Germany and there was an American (of Arabian descent). The security took him off to the side and asked if it was his bag, he said yes… they pulled a hunting knife out of his bag. I didn’t consider this person a threat, but bringing a hunting knife on a plane is just “plane” stupid.

    A few years later (same airport) I was boarding a flight to the US, there was not one but two security checks. At the second check the took my nail clipper away because it had a nail file attached to it. I was not happy about it, but ok… whatever. While I was on the plane I looked 1 row back and to the left… there was a little old lady that had a scissors and knitting needles. So… If I understand this correctly, a nail clipper with a nail file is dangerous, but scissors and knitting needles are not?
    Or was it the fact the I was wearing a suit and tie that made me look dangerous? I guess the next time I’ll wear a flowered dress. I may look weird but apparently not dangerous.

    I have offered many times to show up in a bathrobe and shower sandals to make their jobs easier. But this offer is very often politely refused.

  2. Tom - Chestertown Maryland June 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm #

    There was a tremendous change in the perception of aircraft hijackings in the mind of the public that happened on 9-11 which the TSA, behind its Maginot Line of X-Ray machines, gas sniffers, and magnetometers, seems unaware.

    Aircraft passengers now view a hijacking attempt as an immediate mortal threat, and will take action to counter that threat even at risk of their own lives.

    The TSA can not strip me of weapons no matter how hard thy try: My shoelaces, my belt, my keys, telescoping luggage handles, (sporks) – items limited only by my imagination and desperation.

    A terror attack can not happen again in the same way. It did not even work the forth time it was tried on that day.

    Vigilance and intellegence are needed to anticipate and thwart the next terrorist attack, neither of which can be found by confiscating my nail clippers and my tweezers.

  3. Owen, Chocowinity, NC April 25, 2010 at 7:35 am #

    Tom is absolutely right. I’ve thought that the best security measure would be to issue each passenger a knife so any hijacker would be faced with dozens (or hundreds on large planes) of armed opponents. Unfortunately, some people could not be trusted not to injure themselves or others, so I don’t recommend this. Confiscating nail files and toothpaste does nothing to increase security.

  4. Luke in DC October 6, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    As a computer tech, I travel a lot and carry tools. I usually check them in my bags to avoid any unnecessary issues (although I’ve had TSA confiscate or steal expensive tools from my bag). I flew through 3 airports, 2 of which were international. On my final leg home, I went through a bag check again. My backpack contained a small keychain with a folding flat blade & folding philips head screw driver on it. When I say “small”, I mean “SMALL”. The entire length of the screwdriver when opened was an inch. At the most I could have poked someone in the eye. The TSA agent claimed they were “sharp instruments”. He offered to let me mail it to myself for “$9.95” I refused since the screwdrivers cost a whopping $1.99. What was irritating was that in the same bag, amongst the numerous metal pens, was a hard plastic “spudger” These tools have a very sharp pointed end and a flat bladed end. It’s made of a hard plastic that can be sharpened to a razor point. All I would have needed is a small flat file to sharpen it and some duct tape for a handle and I’d have a very deadly shiv. The point being, if prisoners can turn toothbrushes into deadly weapons, what is the point of confiscating minuscule items because they are metal? Between that, and having to remove your shoes AND belt now, I’m with Stephen. We are rapidly approaching the day when we have to show up in a robe and shower slippers.

  5. Phil, Mississippi January 9, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    My 10-year-old grandson’s recent TSA experience:

    He traveled to Atlanta with his new “Magic 8 Ball” right after Christmas, to visit his father. On the return, TSA in Atlanta would not let him bring his 8 Ball through screening. They said it was a “suspicious device” and, despite a 10-year-old’s tears, threw it in their discard pile.

    Neither he nor his 13-year-old sister were able to convince TSA it was a harmless gift. Perhaps the Magic 8 Ball would have said that TSA’s intelligence, “Cannot be determined at this time.”

    “Outlook not so good”. -rc

  6. Neil, Australia January 28, 2012 at 1:35 am #

    I have a stainless steel plate in my leg. I was stopped in Hong Kong about 30 years ago. The metal detectors spotted something apart from coins and belt buckle. The mood changed. Suddenly guys with sub-machine guns appeared out of nowhere. I smiled a lot and move very slowly while I explained what it was. They took me to a quiet area and I had to take my trousers down so they could run the metal detector over a very obvious 12 inch scar. Then all was well. No other airport has commented, including Tel Aviv. But I have not tried USA recently!

    If you can pass in Israel, I am quite confident you will pass here — as long as you don’t have a Medal of Honor…. -rc

  7. Gilah, Israel January 29, 2012 at 6:11 pm #

    I traveled to the USA this past summer for the first time since before 9-11. I was gone 6 weeks and did a lot of flying and went through lots of security checks. Twice TSA saw fit to open one of my checked bags to inspect it without me being present. The second time was when I returned to Israel. Evidently one of my pairs of undies was deemed a security threat and was removed from my luggage and no explanation was provided. I really must be more careful in the future of what I pack!

    I guess they’re still sensitive about that “underwear bomber”…. -rc

  8. Ian, Malaysia January 30, 2012 at 8:19 am #

    Did Elwood Menear get exonerated in the end? I Googled but couldn’t find any report more than a month after the incident.

    Good question! Apparently so: his current Facebook page notes he’s a pilot for US Air — “1984 to present”. -rc

  9. Brian, CT January 30, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    As to your response to Neil from Australia above, Randy…I wouldn’t be so sure that getting through Israeli security means he’ll be able to get through (in)security in America. I forget where I read this, but basically it boils down to a key difference: we look for weapons, Israel looks for terrorists.

    I need to figure out where I read that.

  10. Keith, Reading, UK January 31, 2012 at 2:13 am #

    I don’t remember when I first heard the term “theatre of terror” (or its equivalent “theatre of security”), but that is surely what is happening. The powers that be need to convince people that they are “doing something” about terrorism, and making it visible at airports is one way. What Brian says is probably close to the truth. It’s a lot harder to get into (or out of) Israel than the US in the first place, and with its history of terrorism Israel needs to do things that work not just put on a show.

    On the other hand, I think people are often unfair to the security staff. It must be a pretty tedious job, with smart alecs to deal with all day. Also, the staff are human, they will make mistakes, be inconsistent and so forth.

    On the other other hand (!), I have never had a problem (had to throw away a very small pen-knife I had forgotten on a keychain once, but as it was from a Christmas cracker you can get some idea of its value), so maybe my experience is not typical.

  11. Gandalf - South Africa January 31, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

    These TSA obliviots are making sure that I will never travel to America, as I will clearly not be welcome there. I have a mediteranean complexion, a beard, carry tools with me as I am an I.T. guy, I don’t suffer fools and I can think for myself. At some point I expect that a braniac in some Swiss lab somwhere will invent a scanner that can estimate your I.Q. and sell it to the TSA. I expect that anyone with an IQ over 60 will be stopped and banned on account of the fact that they can think for themselves and ask logical questions. BTW, forget about the need to take weapons on board a plane, just order a few sodas, the cans can be easily split by hand to make a deadly sharp length of metal that can do all sorts of nasty things….

    TSA does have their problems, but the stories on this page are from before TSA existed — note the page was written just months after 9/11. -rc

  12. Suzanne, Australia February 1, 2012 at 7:16 am #

    My Mother’s surprise 60th birthday party was in Australia… on 18 September 2001. I was flying from the UK via S.Korea, my brother from some tiny town in Iowa. My flight was scheduled to leave 3 hours before his, but by the time I boarded I’d only managed to get confirmation that he’d made it onto the puddlejumper to LAX. Nobody knew if Qantas was flying, although rumours were rife.

    By the time I got to Australia, we still had no idea whether my brother had even left the US. It was Wed, and our flight to Cairns to surprise my mum was Friday morning. Finally, Thurs afternoon, we got an email: “v brief stop in NZ, en route to Sydney, should be in Brisbane ~ 0600.” Turned out his direct LAX-BNE flight had been disappeared, & he’d ended up on the horrific LAX-Hawaii-NZ-SYD run instead. Still, we went out, collected him, had breakfast & then drove to the domestic terminal for purr next flight. I think — right about then — I could’ve slept for a week. It was just chaos.

  13. Henry, France February 1, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    About three years ago in London Stansted Airport just in front of me, two couples, the women dressed up in fur coats and the men in expensive suits, were pulled over after the metal detector pinged. The security office then opened one of the ladies real Louis Viton handbags and pulled out a dozen or so Knives, forks and spoons obviously taken (stolen) from the hotel where they had been staying. The security office said in a loud voice (so everyone could hear) “Madam, I do not care if they were stolen from the Ritz Hotel (he was looking at the cutlery as he said that) you cannot have them back.”

    Then last year in the same airport I had my toothbrush and toothpaste in my plastic bag (reused several times). “Sorry” said the security officer “that plastic bag is too large” (by 3 centimetres!) “You have to go back outside security, buy some plastic bags and rejoin the queue.”

    The queue had taken me 10 minutes to pass and I was now late so I jumped the line (passengers said “go for it” so they then made me take off my now all-leather belt. The buckle had already been taken off on the first pass. This annoyed them so they strip searched me!

    I now, only when travelling alone (my wife and daughter would disown me if not) do everything to annoy them. I now take extra plastic bags that I hand out to others who have no bags so they don’t have to go landside and waste time. Security give me some black looks.

  14. Beth, Fort Worth, Texas February 8, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    I admit I’m a little scattered at times, but I often find that I’m not the only one. Since 9-11 I have flown many times. I usually carry a very small swiss army pocket knife with a blade, scissors, nail file and tweezers in my purse. I’d say I’ve flown 8-10 times and have forgotten to take the knife out. I was never stopped.

    The only time I had a problem getting through security was when I was taking some homemade soap to my family back home. The agent pulled it out of my bag, asked what it was, and when I said hand made soap, smell it, they sniffed, smiled, and sent me on my way.

    Fortunately I now remember to take the knife out of my purse and to ship the soap USPS.

  15. Gregory, Chicago May 27, 2016 at 9:27 pm #

    So, here in Chicago, the latest news is that lines are stretching across the airport on both sides of the terminal and are going to get much longer, all in the name of stupidity…err, security.

    So, if I wanted to be a terrorist, I wouldn’t even have to board a plane or get to the gate to cause a crap-ton of damage. I’d just go right to the ticket counter where the huge lines of people are waiting to go through security and leave something nasty there.

    So, I’d imagine the people on the other side of “security” are definitely very secure…because TSA has stopped anyone from getting on a plane armed…of course, now they have to figure out how to stop someone from causing damage to the lines.

    I think we should just ban airplanes, trains, automobiles, and revoke passports. That’d show those mean ol’ terrorists not to mess with us! ‘Merica!!!

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