Ask the pilot

Pay extra to avoid long security lines when you fly? Plus: No singing on the way to the airport!


Patrick Smith
April 28, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)

There's good and bad news from the trenches of airport security.

On the positive side, several airports are expressing an unexpected reluctance to join the Transportation Security Administration's long-hyped "Registered Traveler" program. Under the proposed scheme, fliers would pay an annual fee and submit to a series of background checks and biometric scans. After being issued a special identification card, these passengers would be entitled to their own dedicated security lines offering speedier access through concourse checkpoints.

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Several airports that originally welcomed the idea, including Boston, San Francisco and Detroit, are now balking. Some have announced they will not participate. Shorter security wait times, combined with TSA's downscaling of Registered Traveler privileges (participants would still be subject to random secondary screening along with everybody else), have left many people wondering what, exactly, the benefits would be. Airports, which would be responsible for setting up their own designated lanes, are leery of investing in a program with only marginal appeal.

A pilot program has been underway since June 2005 at Florida's Orlando International Airport, managed by Verified Identity Pass, a New York company headed by Steven Brill, creator of Court TV and founder of Brill's Content magazine. Registered Travelers are paying $80 per year.

TSA claims that upward of 20 airports are still signed on, and Brill's VIP has already agreed to contracts in at least four locations, including Cincinnati and San Jose, Calif. But without the support of the largest and busiest, Registered Traveler is doomed. Which, if you ask me, is the best thing that could happen to it.

Airport security is not a consumer good. By implementing Registered Traveler we effectively commodify public safety while throwing up yet another pillar of support for the ever-growing security-industrial complex. Those who can afford it receive preferential treatment, while those who can't, or choose not to, languish in line. All the while, security isn't improved one whit.

Rather than deal with its own incompetence, the government is offering you the privilege of paying $80 to a private contractor to scoot around it. This has nothing to do with security and everything to do with taking advantage of people's patience. Instead of encouraging fliers to pay to avoid bottlenecks, the whole system of concourse security ought to be overhauled to get rid of the bottlenecks. Those allegedly shorter lines at Detroit and San Francisco notwithstanding, here we are more than four years after You Know What, and still airport security is in many ways a scene of makeshift, improvised chaos -- a melee of barking guards, clattering plastic bins and annoyed people milling around in their bare feet.

While it's heartening to learn that not every American is hungry to embrace a bad idea, the news out of England isn't so promising. There as well as here, the many gratuitous security measures put in place in recent years, hand-in-glove with ample willingness to part with civil liberties, were bound to land the people someplace weird, if not outright dangerous. It's been a long and tottering ride along the proverbial slippery slope, but it seems the Brits have arrived.

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If you're like me, you'll find yourself reading this story more than once, each time convinced that you're missing something.

Let me get this straight: A fellow in England named Harraj Mann is seated in the back of a taxi on his way to the airport. He's listening to music, and decides to sing along to the Clash's 1979 hit "London Calling." A short while later, Mann is escorted from his flight by authorities and interrogated for three hours. All because the song's lyrics make vague reference to "battle" and "war" -- and because, we have to assume, Harraj Mann is of Middle or Near Eastern descent.

As everyone knows, any jihadi would, in preparation for imminent martyrdom, be sure to preannounce his mission by singing aloud in the back of a taxi. And he wouldn't be wailing out some verse from the Quran; he'd be crooning along to the Clash. We can all sleep soundly knowing ever-vigilant cabbies are on the prowl, quick to recognize that dastardly combination of a dark complexion and a fondness for late-'70s Brit punk.

The lesson here, thanks to a demented fixation on terrorism and security, is that it's not only verboten to mention certain words or phrases at the airport -- but now you shouldn't say them on the way to the airport either.

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The plight of Harraj Mann is absurd enough, but more disturbing was the 2004 case of another Briton, Mike Devine, who found himself hauled away for questioning after sending out a text message containing lyrics to the Clash song "Tommy Gun." According to authorities, Devine, a musician who plays in a Clash tribute band, had intended to send the lyrics to a friend, but punched in the wrong number. The message ended up going to a woman in Bristol, who contacted police. The cops traced the sender and apprehended Devine at his office.

That's the official story, though some terrorism experts have maintained that the British intelligence office GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) actively monitors the content of mobile voice and text messaging. It has been speculated that GCHQ's antennae seized on a snippet from "Tommy Gun" that goes, "One jet airliner and 10 prisoners."

The price of liberty, observed Thomas Jefferson, is eternal vigilance. What he hadn't banked on is that the price of eternal vigilance seems to entail a slow descent into lunatic paranoia. That being said, both of these overreactions took place in England, not the United States. We Americans like to think our own government, armed with the Patriot Act and the smiling subservience of its populace, has cornered the market on domestic surveillance and the erosion of civil liberties. It's Britain, however, that has set the bar for privacy invasion. On top of the alleged communications monitoring, hundreds of thousands of closed-circuit cameras monitor the activities of British citizens and their vehicles. The average London commuter is covertly videotaped anywhere from 10 to 300 times daily.

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(But here at home, just to test things out, and in the spirit of long-forgotten alt rock, I was tempted to text-message the full lyrics from Stiff Little Fingers' "Suspect Device" to the cellphones of every airline representative and government official in my Rolodex. "It's time the bastards fell ... We're gonna blow up in their face!")

The Clash, of course, in addition to being one of the greatest rock groups of all time, were in many ways the progenitors of modern left-wing agit-pop, and on one level the misfortunes of Mann and Devine dovetail sublimely with the band's leanings. Nonetheless, there's something so perversely misconstrued about all of this, we can imagine that the late Joe Strummer is spinning in his grave.

The Clash's more political songs could be grating at times. I'll take the bouncy, rock-rasta fusion of "Let's Go Crazy" or the hammering fury of "Complete Control" over the maudlin "Washington Bullets" any day. And as for the British cabbie who turned in Mr. Mann, one theory -- mine -- suggests he did so not because he thought Mann might blow up a plane but because he chose to sing along to "London Calling," albeit a commercial hit but possibly the least compelling song from that landmark double album of the same name. Had he gone with "Rudie Can't Fail," he'd have stayed clear of trouble.

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GO-AROUNDS

Re: Wrap rapping

"There have been recorded cases of drugs being smuggled inside luggage after check-in by criminal organizations, causing, well, some annoyance to the unsuspecting travelers upon arrival. Hence the popularity of plastic wrappers in airports in Central and South America."

-- Salvador Monroy

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"Drugs have been placed in passenger luggage. As perhaps you know, a young Australian woman found with marijuana in her bag in Indonesia was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison. She claimed it had been put there -- possibly by airline or airport personnel -- during luggage processing. It might be ecologically unfriendly, but when traveling to places where narcotics possession can lead to a death sentence, I would wrap my checked luggage."

-- Jeffrey Harris

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business Transportation Security Administration




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