Ask the pilot

Confiscating shampoo? Forcing crew members to remove their shoes? The absurdity that is airport "security" continues.

Published October 12, 2007 10:58AM (EDT)

It has been a while since we've done airport security. Having devoted more than two dozen columns to the topic over the past few years, I try to keep my rants fewer and farther between. Of course, with the Transportation Security Administration being a source of limitless aggravation and befuddlement, one can only hold out for so long. Just when you think there's nothing left to say, the agency finds a way to outdo itself with yet another sparkling example of absurdity.

Reasonable or otherwise, pilots and flight attendants are required to pass through the same security checkpoints as passengers. They are subject to most of the same rules, but are granted the luxury of leaving their shoes on.

With this in mind, imagine for a moment that you're an airline pilot. You're assigned to an overnight flight from one of the country's busiest airports. Having commuted in from another city, several hours away, you show up at the terminal wearing civvies, as many pilots do. Your uniform is packed in your roll-aboard case. The plan is to change clothes in the crew room. Around your neck is a plastic case holding your employee identification badge, FAA licenses and medical certificate.

You lift your bags onto the X-ray belt, remove your laptop computer, and step toward the metal detector. "Excuse me, sir," says the guard, gesturing for you to stop. "Your shoes. You need to take your shoes off."

"I'm a crew member," you tell him, holding out your credentials.

"Yeah, but you need to be in uniform."

"I do? Why?"

The guard shrugs. "That's the rule. If you're not in uniform, you need to take your shoes off."

"But my uniform is right there, in my luggage."

"Sorry. No uniform, no shoes."

"But ... What's the difference? You can see my I.D."

More shrugging. "You gotta put your shoes on the belt."

And so you do, resisting the temptation to unzip your carry-on right then and there, throwing on your uniform in full view of passengers -- over your jeans and T-shirt.

Is the absurdity of this requirement not obvious? TSA grants a welcome and reasonable exemption for airline crew members, then negates it by demanding that those employees needlessly adhere to a dress code. Either you're a crew member or you're not; what difference does it make what you are wearing at that moment? By virtue of the addition of a polyester shirt and a pair of epaulets, suddenly a pilot is less of a security threat? The policy seems to say that clothes, not credentials, are what really count.

And what exactly constitutes a uniform? For the sake of comfort when commuting to and from work, pilots often remove certain components -- tie, hat, wings, etc. -- while leaving on the basic shirt and pants. Are they "in uniform" or not? (We could play smartass all day long with different variations: What if a pilot's work shirt is untucked? Can he wear a baseball cap? Pink socks? What if his otherwise regulation pants have been tie-dyed?)

You might recall one of my columns from last winter, when I attempted to get clarification from TSA as to whether a container of frozen tomato sauce could be brought onto an airplane. Turns out that guards are allowed to use discretion with respect to the liquids, gels and aerosol rules. They should have discretion in this matter as well. Better yet, the rule shouldn't be there in the first place.

Maybe this sounds like an entitlement tantrum. But the point isn't to demand perks for pilots, it's to illustrate the TSA's often arbitrary and contradictory approach to security. Remember that tens of thousands of airport workers, from baggage loaders to fuelers to cabin cleaners, receive little or no on-site screening whatsoever. Why then are pilots and flight attendants, who've undergone extensive pre-employment checks, put through the wringer? I'm not suggesting that the rules be tightened for non-crew members so much as relaxed for all accredited workers. At the very least, if the government is willing to allow the so-called Registered Traveler program to move forward, whereby, in exchange for a fee, passengers receive preferential handling after undergoing a background check, then it ought to let crews leave their damn shoes on at the metal detector. If nothing else, it would speed up the lines.

Considering all the many dastardly options at a saboteur's disposal, the shoe rule itself, six years after Richard Reid marched his explosive sneakers past guards at Charles de Gaulle airport, is largely a waste of time. But if it's going to remain in place, it ought to be enforced with a dash of common sense. And wait, it gets sillier: Although a crew member in uniform is allowed to wear his or her shoes through the metal detector, should those shoes cause the machine to beep, they must be removed and X-rayed. This, even though the beep signals only the presence of metal, not explosives. Yet the potential for explosives, not metal, is the whole point of having shoes X-rayed to begin with. Thus, TSA will only X-ray your shoes for precisely the wrong reason.

If the rules themselves aren't crazy enough, the physical setup of the screening stations is atrocious. After all this time, they remain a jury-rigged assemblage of noise, clutter and disorganization. A couple of particulars: Why are the X-ray platforms at waist level, requiring people to lift their heavy bags on and off? How difficult would it be to have an incline on the front end, and a carousel of sorts on the back end, allowing passengers to collect their belongings in an orderly fashion. The typical pickup point -- a cluster of flailing arms and the dangerous slinging of heavy bags -- reminds me of the mosh pits of the early 1980s (we called it "slam dancing" in those days, but you get the idea).

At this point, the whole apparatus of concourse security is little more than a stage presentation, a theater of the absurd, choreographed to the cowardly notion that confiscating shampoo bottles and forcing airline captains to remove their footwear actually makes us safer. How we got here is an interesting study in reactionary politics, fear-mongering, and a disconcerting willingness of the American public to accept almost anything in the name of "security." We have come to equate intrusiveness and inconvenience with safety.

Many people won't want to hear it, but in fact we do not live in a time of imminent risk and peril at the airport. Air crimes, including numerous terror attacks against jetliners, have been with us for many decades, and the threats we face today aren't a whole lot different from those we've always faced. Meanwhile, the true nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from airplanes takes place off-screen, as it were -- the duty of intelligence professionals and law enforcement. It was not a failure of airport security that facilitated the attacks of Sept. 11. It was a failure of intelligence and foresight at the highest levels of government. Unable to accept this, and desperate for a way to respond, we grew fixated on the tools the perpetrators used -- box cutters, knives and, in the case of Reid, shoe bombs -- no matter that such devices can be fashioned from virtually anything, contraband or not. Then, along came the liquid bomb farce of 2006, further expanding the canon of useless prohibitions. We can only imagine what's next.

Especially worrisome is how the system shows no signs of improving. The hysteria hasn't passed, it has become codified. We know that sharp objects can be fashioned from almost anything, yet we continue to fish through bags for hobby knives and screwdrivers. The London liquid bombers weren't close to pulling off an attack, and experts contend there is little practical purpose in restricting liquids and gels, yet we continue seizing toothpaste and bottled water. Caterers and cargo loaders are exempt from screening, yet pilots are subject to shoe inspections. And so on. Rather than rethink these useless protocols, the best we've come up with is a way to skirt them -- for a fee, naturally -- via schemes like Registered Traveler.

Who are the winners in all of this? The contractors and vendors of the security-industrial complex, from purveyors of high-tech surveillance equipment to S.C. Johnson, the maker of Ziploc bags. Travelers, obviously, are the biggest losers, but airlines too are victimized. If delays and sloppy service are No. 1 on passengers' list of complaints, security hassles are a close second. Unfortunately, the industry is stuck in a Catch-22. On one hand, we'd expect it to be outraged over customers' and employees' being forced to endure long lines and humiliate themselves for no good reason. On the other hand, imagine the outrage among security zealots should airlines be caught lobbying for what is perceived to be a dangerous abrogation of security and responsibility -- even if it's not. Carriers caught plenty of flak, almost all of it unfair, in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Understandably, they no longer want that liability.

According to various lawyers and politicians, the private screening companies that manned the checkpoints at the time of the 2001 attacks were incompetent and unprofessional. The airlines knew this, but either didn't care or weren't paying attention. In response, the TSA was created. It's a quaint notion, is it not, in this era when seemingly every facet of the nation's defense is being sold to subcontractors, that a government bureaucracy be devised to take the place of free-market enterprise? I'm not normally in league with the current outsourcing trends, but when it comes to airport security, count me among those nostalgic for the old days.

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

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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