Transportation Safety: Is It Improving...Really?

Everyone is concerned about transportation security and safety, and a recent event that touched home for me points to continuing problems. Is airport security as safe as we'd like to believe, as safe as the government and airlines tell us it is?

By Sandy Smith

The Transportation Security Administration recently installed a new explosives detection trace portal that will be used to screen passengers at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Terminal One. The equipment is part of a pilot program to test and evaluate the trace portal for screening passengers for explosives.

"By adding this new technology, LAX remains on the cutting edge of post-9/11 security," said Larry Fetters, TSA federal security director. "The new explosives detection trace portal adds another important layer of security here at LAX."

LAX joins San Francisco; San Diego; Tampa; New York (JFK airport); Baltimore (BWI airport); Las Vegas; Miami; Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Providence, R.I.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Phoenix as hosts to this new technology.

In other transportation safety/homeland security news, it was recently announced that as of June 26, travelers from 27 Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries must have a machine-readable passport to enter the United States without a visa. Machine-readable passports have a sequence of lines that can be swiped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers to confirm the passport holder's identity quickly and to obtain other information about the holder typically found on a passport's inside cover.

These efforts, along with many others instituted or planned by the federal government, are meant to protect travelers and increase transportation security. But as a person who travels frequently, I continue to have doubts about the real-life effectiveness of some of these security measures, especially given what goes on in airports every day. This is the story of what happened to some friends of mine.

Four friends recently traveled from Cleveland to New York City. The two couples originally planned to fly to NYC together on a Friday, but one of the women delayed her flight by a day due to a family emergency. The other three flew to New York on Friday as planned.

The group did what people do when visiting New York. They saw Broadway shows, ate some great meals, went sightseeing. They also did some unusual things. The two men are Cleveland firefighters, so while the women shopped, they stopped at several fire stations; something they do in every city they visit. They also visited Ground Zero, because they can't visit New York and not pay their respects to the many people – especially their brother firefighters – who died there.

When it was time to return home, they went to the airport to check in. The woman who had flown in on Saturday, by herself, was checked in for the return flight without a hitch. The other three members of the group, however, were stopped. The ticketing agent from the airline informed them that their tickets had been cancelled. "What?!" they said. "We never cancelled our flights!"

"No, you didn't cancel them," said the agreeable ticketing agent. "We did. Because you never showed up for the flight from Cleveland to New York." But, my friends argued, obviously they were on the flight. "We're here, aren't we?" they pointed out.

Despite their protests, the airline employee was unswayed. She was not going to let them on that flight; it was a security issue. In the meantime, the woman whose ticket had not been cancelled, and who was having a bad week to begin with and was in no mood for delays, began to consider the implications of what the airline was telling them.

Since the airline had no record of them boarding the flight in Cleveland, it was essentially admitting that it had allowed checked baggage (because they had all checked bags in Cleveland) onto a flight without checking in the owners of the bags. The airline had allowed unaccompanied baggage onto a flight.

"Aren't you supposed to pull that baggage off the plane?" she asked the airline employee. "Do you make it a habit of allowing unaccompanied baggage onto flights? That's scary. What about terrorists?"

As soon as the word "terrorist" was uttered, supervisors and managers got involved in the discussion. The three passengers were told that if they could prove they were on the flight from Cleveland to New York, they could board the plane to fly home. Otherwise, they had to purchase one-way tickets for a later flight. But, they wondered, isn't the airline supposed to keep accurate records?

Fortunately, one of the men, lovingly referred to as a "pack rat" by his girlfriend, had kept his boarding pass. She had tried to throw it out but he had stopped her. Since he could prove he was on the Cleveland to New York flight, they all were allowed to travel to their gate.

As they waited for the flight to depart, they started discussing the sequence of events that led to the showdown with the airline. A trainee in Cleveland, working with an experienced employee, allowed them on the plane without ripping their boarding passes or scanning them in. She was new, and mistakes happen, they reasoned.

But that doesn't explain why checked luggage, for passengers who did not, according to the records of the airline, get on the plane, was allowed to remain on the plane. And it doesn't explain why a red flag did not go off for the flight attendants who counted heads based on the information provided by personnel at the gate, found three additional people on board and did nothing about it.

"I can't take a lighter on a plane because I might ignite a bomb in my tennis shoe, or a pocket knife, because, god forbid, I might use it to take the pilot hostage and crash the plane somehow, but they will allow baggage onto a flight without its owner and let passengers onto the plane without officially checking them in," said my salty friend. "So much for transportation security."

As the old saying goes, two wrongs don't make a right. In the case of my friends, a couple of "wrongs" – lax check-in procedures, errors at the gate – resulted in frayed tempers and short travel delays. But as we learned on 9/11, two or three wrongs can add up to disaster. Breakdowns in communication between agencies and within agencies and a lack of checks and balances for security systems, combined with human error, can result in tragedy. We don't have the luxury of two wrongs anymore.

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