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Airline Safety Precautions Seem More Pain than Gain

Column by Brett Altschul

Over the past several months, airline safety seems to have declined. A ValuJet plane crashed into the thick Everglades muck. TWA flight 800 went down over the Atlantic Ocean, and speculation of terrorism has been rife. Overseas, the airport in Bogota, Columbia has joined the one in Lagos,Nigeria on the unsafe list.

Thanks to all this furor, the Federal Aviation Administration has ordered a major increase in airport security. No luggage may be left unattended. Every adult who flies needs to show government-issued picture identification. It's all in the best interest of the American people, right?

A little dose of reality could do wonders for the whole situation. The American people suffer from wholesale "innumeracy," to use the word coined by mathematician John Allen Paulos. Sure, plane crashes are really impressive when they appear on the evening news, but more people are killed driving to the airport than die on their flights.

These security precautions are just a pain for travelers. When I flew to Colorado for my vacation this summer, the attendant at the check-in desk demanded to see my driver's license after I announced my age. (Of course, I could have just lied and said I was seventeen when she asked my age, since minors don't need to show any identification). I tried to explain that I don't have a driver's license, at which she practically told me I couldn't fly. I had to explain to her that I did have a passport, a perfectly valid form of airport identification.

Unfortunately, identification is almost the least of the inconveniences. The admonition not to leave bags unattended caused me unending trouble as I arrived at the Portland International Airport for my trip back to MIT. I had two suitcases, and two carry-ons. One of the latter, my viola case, is quite large and bulky; it just barely fits within the restrictions for carry-on luggage.

When I reached the check-in desk, after lugging these bags from the curb, I discovered that an error had been made in my reservation, and I needed to talk to somebody else, in a different place in the terminal. Of course, until I took care of that, I couldn't check my bags. I asked whether I could leave my suitcases at the desk; the answer was a resounding "No!" Thanks to recent FAA security measures, all my luggage had to remain in my view at all times.

I resigned myself to dragging my possessions from one end of the terminal to the other. After doing just that, then having a 20-second conversation, Idragged my bags back to the check-in desk, where I was finally able to check my two bulkiest bags.

At the security station, Iran into another consequence of the beefed-up airport security. One of my carry-ons was pulled off the conveyor belt to be searched by hand. The woman emptied out the entire bag, making sarcastic comments about my choice of airplane reading. I can't imagine what sort of suspicious object they saw on the X-ray scanner. The only metal objects in the bag were a pair of scissors and the sliding metal cover on a three-and-a-half-inch computer disk.

To an outside observer, the silliness of these measures is obvious. Security at many foreign airports is vastly superior to what we have in the United States. At Rhine-Mein airport in Frankfurt, Germany, all passengers need to state the location of any electronic devices in their luggage, and machine-gun-toting guards patrol the corridors. The whole atmosphere, while somewhat intimidating at first, is not nearly as annoying as the much less serious security measures in the United States. The German system works; since these measures were established, there have been no significant security problems at Rhine-Mein.

The "innumerate" atmosphere that pervades the United States provides us with a collection of aggravating and largely worthless security measures. Thanks to television images of frogmen diving through the Florida swamp, constantly in fear of hungry alligators, U.S. airplane travel is now more difficult than any time in the last 10 years.