December 2, 2001

Flight Risk
Airports' Achilles' heel

By Edwin Black.
Edwin Black is the author of "IBM and the Holocaust

It's good to have a published book. It's bad to be on a 20-city, three-week author speaking tour these days. In the past few weeks, I have flown in and out of airports across the U.S. and parts of Canada, on a gamut of carriers from Air Alaska and Jet Blue to United and American. In 48 hours alone, I crisscrossed the continent from Los Angeles to San Francisco to New York to Washington to Rochester to Buffalo. I passed through Washington's Dulles security eight times during these three weeks.

The result is an upclose and personal perspective on the post-Sept. 11 state of air travel and airport security.

The inescapable conclusion is not good. What passes for heightened security at America's air ports and airlines is in fact just a cosmetic intensification of an ineffectual system with built-in obstacles thwarting genuine improvement. In other words, every airline passenger is still vulnerable.

In city after city, the front door to air travel is still wide open. Everyone has seen them: undereducated, undertrained, underpaid, woefully unprofessional passenger screeners, especially those who work for security subcontractors such as Argenbright. One would think that all of the nation's passenger screeners would have taken Sept. 11 as a personal challenge to clean up their act and take the job seriously. But I found the same air of pre-September incompetence in most airports. Worse, a party atmosphere prevails among these screeners even as passengers nervously look around and flight attendants make plans for personal combat.

At Oakland International Airport, for example, the screening stations were characterized by giggling and chitchat among security personnel. Just before midnight, as many staffers were coming to the end of their shifts, but when the airport was busy preparing for those fuel-intensive coast-to-coast red-eyes, Oakland seemed its most vulnerable. Anxious to go home, the screeners I saw kept glancing at their watches, even as passengers were filing through the metal detector. One staffer leaned against a wall, her chin down almost in a snooze.

Oakland International security has been roundly criticized by watchdogs and the media. But it's not just Oakland.

Otherwise engaged

At Buffalo's airport, a young security screener at a gate was busy publicly seducing another screener, which included a slow reach into her shirt pocket to retrieve a pen; finally, an outraged passenger loudly complained, to an expression of thanks from the equally frustrated gate attendant. One couple waited 90 minutes in a security line at Detroit's airport and, when they finally passed through the magnetometer, a male screener wanded the woman's breasts--twice, even though a female screener was hanging around just steps away; the angry husband said he dared not complain lest they miss their flight.

But nowhere was the party attitude and atmosphere of incompetence more visible than at Washington's Dulles International, where little English is spoken by the mainly non-citizen security staff, and where the constant chatter among screeners is heard in Bengali and Arabic dialects (an estimated 80 percent of Dulles screeners are foreign nationals).

I started giving security screeners a test. I would ask them to spell the word "security." Out of 63 asked, only six could spell the word correctly: two at Miami's airport, two at Ft. Lauderdale's, one in Orlando and one in Buffalo. None of the five staffers at Oakland International could spell the word. None of the Argenbright screeners I asked anywhere could spell it, and many Argenbright employees could not pronounce it even when shown the word on a notepad. This should probably be the first new federal guideline for screeners: Can you spell "security"?

Aggravating America's flight risk is a system of computer-selected special security checks. To avoid claims of profiling, intuitive eyeball-oriented security checks have been replaced with random checks devoid of profiling. Consequently, elderly grandmothers and even children can be subjected to a luggage search and body wanding--even as a genuinely suspect passenger may not. This country will never get serious about airport security until we install the same type of security that Israeli airports, and even American shopping malls on guard against shoplifting, have long deployed--sharp eyes on the lookout.

Yes, sharp eyeballing will have an ethnic and national dynamic, and even stray into the realm of profiling. So what? Every American in an airport now carries a driver's license, ready and eager to offer it for a security check. Our genuine national emergency requires this. We should not construct shields around men of North African or Middle Eastern extraction, or even Islamic non-citizens visiting our country. But that is exactly what some local police departments are doing.

Matter of probable cause

For example, at the Oakland International Airport, three city police officers assigned to the terminal repeatedly refused to even check the identity of three nervous passport-holding men from North Africa booked on a Jet Blue flight for Newark. Even though terrorism experts, in the wake of the Sept. 11 hijackings, have openly asked airport security to take a second glance at groups of Middle Eastern and North African men traveling together on a single flight, the Oakland police refused. The officers staunchly declared they had "no probable cause."

Until we can install serious passenger screeners, intuitive eyeballing scrutinizers and local police who play their hunches at the airport the same way they do in everyday street patrols, this country is vulnerable to a substantial flight risk. And remember to always ask, "How do you spell `security?'"

Copyright 2001, The Tribune Company. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited. The Tribune Company archives are stored on a SAVE (tm) newspaper library system from MediaStream, Inc., a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.