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Compliance, Not Complaints, Needed for Airport Safety

Guest column by Eric J. Plosky

Although apparently well-intentioned, Brett Altschul '99 comes off as bitter, intolerant, and unnecessarily impatient in his critique of the Federal Aviation Administration's new airline safety precautions ["Airline Safety Precautions Seem More Pain than Gain," Aug. 25]. His pompous "I have no time for this nonsense" attitude is distinctly in the minority on this issue. Recent surveys have shown that a large majority of the flying public supports the FAA's security overhauls, even if more time is required at the airport for identification checks and luggage searches, and even if, indeed, "these security precautions are just a pain for travelers," as Altschul claims.

Altschul's mention of mathematician John Allen Paulos, intended to imply that airline security upgrades are not worth the trouble ("more people are killed driving to the airport," he says), is misplaced. The issue is not the statistical significance of deaths and injuries brought on by plane crashes. It is that relatively minor tweaks of airport security could help to end airline terrorism. Surely Paulos (and Altschul, as well) would agree that the elimination of airline terrorism is not wholly a matter of statistics.

The story of Altschul's recent airport experience, as told by him, perfectly illustrates the beneficial common-sense approach the FAA is taking. In fact, it makes clear that his negative attitude toward the whole process, and not toward the security procedures themselves, resulted in his having an exceptionally difficult time at the airport. His one experience should not be the benchmark by which the procedures are judged.

Altschul had to show photo identification before boarding his flight. This step is designed to make sure that the person boarding the plane is the person to whom the ticket was issued. Altschul's defiant, "of course, I could have just lied and said I was [a minor], since minors don't need to show any identification," is exactly the kind of inexplicable uncooperativeness that needlessly irritates airline personnel and the people waiting in line behind him.

Additionally, I refuse to believe that the airline clerk "demanded" to see identification, and a driver's license at that. I am a frequent traveler, and airline personnel have been nothing but courteous in asking for photo identification, be it a driver's license, a passport, or - and Altschul should have had no trouble with this - a student identification card.

Altschul was admonished not to leave his bags unattended, an entirely sensible measure from even the most elementary viewpoint. Forget bombs, what about theft? And does Altschul really think that the airline desk would like nothing better than to keep an eye on the bags of someone who hasn't checked in as a passenger? In any case, Altschul should have followed the old frequent-flyer maxim: Confirm your reservation before showing up at the airport. And he probably should have had someone on hand to help him with his "quite large and bulky" possessions if it was all he could do to feebly drag them through the terminal.

One of his carry-on items was thoroughly searched: "The woman emptied out the entire bag." Again, a logical precaution, as there are rules about carrying certain compressed gases, knives, and other materials in the passenger cabin. Although Altschul "can't imagine what sort of suspicious object they saw on the X-ray scanner," he probably can't imagine how a bomb, a blade, or a can of industrial-strength insect repellent might show up on the scanner, either, and therefore he has no basis for complaint.

In this case, too, airport personnel have never been anything but courteous to me. Never once has anyone made "sarcastic comments" about my carry-on items or their contents. In fact, there is always a business-like atmosphere around the conveyor belt when I travel, a sense of professionalism that helps to put me at ease. Realize that the conveyor belt, along with the other security measures, makes it virtually impossible for all but the most determined and clever to sneak a bomb aboard a plane.

Altschul also notes that since Rhine-Mein airport in Germany introduced "machine-gun-toting guards" into the corridors, there haven't been any "significant" security breaches. I say, and Paulos might agree, that there is probably no correlation between the machine guns and the lack of problems. Most major U.S. airports, though lacking in heavy weaponry, do not experience "significant" security breaches sufficiently often to consider letting an army of guards "patrol the corridors." I would wager that Altschul believes, also, that the threat of capital punishment deters would-be criminals - a theory that has been consistently disproved in death-penalty states.

Although Altschul concludes by labeling the FAA's security procedures as "largely worthless," his own story demonstrates their efficacy. Airport officials made certain, before he boarded his flight, that he had no bomb, large knife, or hazardous materials in his possession. Additionally, the "innumerate" fear experienced by the flying populace, who are suspicious of terrorism, is offset in large part by the presence of the FAA's measures.

Though Altschul can't deign to cope with these common-sense precautions, most travelers are relieved and grateful when they take note of upgraded airport security.