Baby toys and national security

Plus: The 787 takes to the air, and gift ideas for frequent fliers

Published December 18, 2009 1:17AM (EST)

Man standing in his underwear, waiting to go through an airport security check station (James Steidl)
Man standing in his underwear, waiting to go through an airport security check station (James Steidl)

Here's a good one: A friend of mine is passing through airport security at San Francisco International, and the Transportation Security Administration takes a toy away from his infant daughter. The toy is a sort of liquid-filled baby rattle, smaller than an ice cream cone. It's doubtful there is more than 3 ounces of liquid inside, but the guard "can't be sure," and so the toy goes into the garbage barrel, where it joins all the other highly dangerous liquids and pointy doodads hauled in by the screeners that day.

Bad enough, but now what if I told you that my friend is an airline pilot? Well, he is. On the day this happened, he was heading out of town on a short vacation, and his wife and daughter were going with him.

When he told me this story, all I could answer was, "I know, I know." It's right up there with the time that I had a butter knife confiscated from my roll-aboard crew bag. My own story is even more absurd, actually, since I was on duty in full uniform and the butter knife was no different from the ones given out to passengers during meal service. Not to mention, would an airline pilot at the controls of a jetliner really need the help of some dull-edged cutlery if he wanted to crash the plane? Just asking.

Mike pleaded his case at SFO, just as I had done in New York, but the guard wasn't the least bit impressed by his Federal Aviation Authority certificates or his airline credentials. In other words, common sense wasn't allowed into the picture. Simple common sense. That, perhaps above anything else, is what is so acutely missing from airport security.

There are, of course, two fundamental flaws in TSA's screening philosophy: The first is that it considers everybody who flies -- the old and young, fit and infirm, domestic and foreign, pilot and passenger -- a potential terrorist. The second is a foolish fixation with the tactics used by the terrorists on Sept. 11, and the subsequent fixation with weapons -- particularly knives and other sharp objects -- rather than the people who might use them. TSA will not acknowledge that the success of the 2001 attacks had nothing to do with the hijackers' ability to sneak weapons past airport security. For one thing, even a child knows that a sharp object as lethal as a box cutter can be fashioned from virtually anything. But more to the point, the attackers were exploiting a weakness in our mind-set -- that is, our expectations of how a hijacking would unfold, based on numerous earlier incidents -- rather than any weakness in airport security. The element of surprise, not box cutters, is what took control of those four aircraft. And even before the first of the twin towers had fallen to the ground, that element of surprise -- as well as the box cutters that went with it -- was no longer a useful tool. Paradigm over.

Combine these fundamental errors and you've assembled what is basically an impossible and unsustainable task: keeping any and all "weapons," from hobby knives to hair gel, out of the hands and luggage of 2 million travelers every day of the year. I'll remind you that tough-as-nails prison guards cannot keep drugs and knives out of maximum security cell blocks, never mind the folly of TSA guards trying to root out liquid-filled baby rattles at overcrowded airports.

(Apologies to my regulars. I've made these points numerous times in past columns, I know, but remember that a percentage of my readers each week consists of newcomers. This is a grass-roots effort and, dammit, one has to be tenacious.)

The proper course of action, need it be said, would be for TSA to overhaul its entire approach. For several reasons -- not the least of which is the traveling public's apparent eagerness to be subjugated, harassed and humiliated -- this is not going to happen. Is it too much to ask, in consolation, for the agency to exhibit a little common sense instead? How about a policy whereby a TSA inspector, encountering a fully credentialed airline pilot traveling with his young daughter, is able to, well, like, you know ... just let it go.

What TSA desperately needs is a bit of flexibility in its protocols. If we're to believe that TSA screeners are indeed well-trained professionals, can they not handle the responsibility of making an occasional judgment call, some on-the-spot decision making? "Our screeners are allowed to exercise leeway in some cases," says a TSA spokesperson. "They have the training, and the obligation, to exercise discretion in some cases."

I asked if those cases might include an airline employee and his child's playthings, but the spokesperson wouldn't get into specifics. As it stands, I'm not seeing much leeway and discretion. I'm seeing blind adherence to nonsensical rules. I'm seeing a draconian obsession with the exactness of container volumes and the precise dimensions of harmless objects. When that knife was taken away from me, a guard and supervisor actually took it aside to measure the size of its miniature serrations, as if they alone were the difference between unsafe and safe. Enforcement of this kind transcends mere tedium. Not only does it do nothing to improve safety, but it is also a national embarrassment.

Now, the reason I bring all of this up is because of the recent brouhaha over certain TSA "secrets" having been accidentally revealed to the public. Through an improperly redacted document that was posted online, we have learned, for example, that the nationalities of a traveler could be grounds for yanking that person aside for a more thorough secondary screening. If your passport happens to be the property of Yemen or Syria, say, rather than Iceland, you may be looked at more carefully. Profiling, you might call it. We also learned that airline crew members, with proper ID and in uniform (that was Mike's problem; he wasn't dressed the right way), are exempt from having to take their shoes off, and from some of those annoying restrictions on liquids and gels.

Is there anybody who didn't already know this?

Predictably, certain politicians and pundits are on the warpath, calling this lapse a "giveaway to terrorists." To me, what's worrying isn't that our enemies are suddenly privy to useful information that will help them bring down planes. They're not. What's worrying is the idea of a government agency that is unable to keep confidential data confidential. It's a bureaucracy issue, and potentially a privacy and civil rights issue, more than a public safety issue, per se.

Beyond that I have little to take away from the scandal, other than a feeling of extreme annoyance that this, out of all the things that airport security gets wrong, is the best that the general public and media can rouse themselves to be shocked about. We're reading headlines like, "Leaked TSA Guidelines Reveal Confidential Procedures." Here's a better headline: "Billions Wasted in Pointless TSA Screening Methods."

The agency promises to investigate and assures us that our safety has not been compromised. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, there's a new TSA sheriff in town. Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent, was appointed by President Obama earlier this year. He replaces Kip Hawley, under whose tenure there was little in the way of clear thinking. Both industry and passenger groups seem to be fond of Southers, calling him a likely advocate for reform. We'll see.

But enough of that. Here we are a week before Christmas, and I'm going all Scrooge on you. I'm grumpy this holiday season and I can't help it. First, I had to work over Thanksgiving, and now it turns out I'll be working over both Christmas and New Year's Eve as well. Not all pilots get roped into flying on the holidays -- only we seniority-list bottom feeders. But I suppose I shouldn't mind holiday flying. The lines are longer, delays are longer, planes are more crowded ... I mean, what's not to like?

I'm joking. I really do enjoy it. Last year I spent Christmas in Egypt. The year before it was Hungary. Before that, Ghana. As I said, what's not to like?

My favorite holiday flying memory dates all the way back to Thanksgiving, 1993. I was captain of a Dash-8 turboprop heading to New Brunswick, Canada, and my first officer was the always cheerful and gregarious Kathy Knight. Kathy was one of only a few pilots I've known who'd been flight attendants before learning to fly. She'd spent a few years serving peanuts to passengers at Delta. Today, she was serving me. Literally, for she'd brought along an entire cooler packed with food -- huge turkey sandwiches, a whole pie, and plastic tubs of mashed potatoes. We assembled the plates and containers across the folded-down jump seat. Just one of those sentimental oddities a pilot files away in his mental logbook.

The real reason I'm grumpy this year, maybe, is because Peter Hughes, bassist from the Mountain Goats and an Ask the Pilot aficionado, neglected to remind me of his show here in Boston a few weeks ago. Instead of a guest-list invitation to see one of my all-time favorite bands, I got to sit home and watch Bill Moyers. Hughes did send me a Christmas present a few years ago. It was a flea market find, and here's a picture of it. It is what is appears to be: a small plastic doll, about 3 inches tall, encased in a transparent shell, like a miniature trophy case, adorned with '60s-era airline logos, including those of BOAC, Pan Am and the beautiful old JAL crane. The doll is supposed to be a stewardess, possibly. Beyond that, I'm hoping that somebody out there can explain where it originally came from or what its purpose might be. It says "Cragstan" across the bottom, which I take to be the name of the company that produced the item.

OK, staying on the Christmas theme, how about a stocking stuffer recommendation for the frequent flier on your list? Something funny, because travelers out there need a little take-along humor to keep from going berserk at the X-ray machine or renouncing their citizenship and moving to Denmark. And because I'm so tirelessly allegiant, and because there aren't any other funny travel gifts around, I'll make the same recommendation I made here in 2006: That'd be a copy of SkyMaul, the in-flight shopping parody magazine created by the San Francisco-based Kasper Hauser comedy troupe. It's 3 years old, but so what? I dig out my copy pretty regularly, and it gets funnier every time.

SkyMaul is the perfect sendup to a concept -- in-flight catalog shopping -- that was screaming to be sent up for a long, long time. The real SkyMall, which assumes that every American has an insatiable hunger for necktie organizers, remote-control pool toys and mail-order steak, is always just half a step away from self-caricature. The K.H. gang give it that last little nudge. With 120 pages of fodder, it's hard to pick a favorite "product," but I’m partial to, among many others, the bee thermometer ("There is only one way to know the true temperature of your bees"), the How I See Myself Stoner Trophy, and the Three Veterinarians of Nazareth figurines ("In ancient times, these beast-healers gamboled about the countryside, laying hands upon sick flocks. Here we see Japeth and Magog looking on as Tomargah nurses a lamb back to consciousness with his own man-breast"). And I've been known to use the pseudonym "Blaine Cardoza" when ordering Chinese food or signing for a FedEx package. (Get a copy and you'll understand.) My only gripe is that whoever designed the cover collage managed to cull some of the book's least funny highlights.

That SkyMaul hasn't been a staple at airport bookstores, where it surely would sell hand over fist, is impossible to explain. My own book was victimized by a similar exile. It was written explicitly for airline travelers, who by and large never saw a copy. To help us through our suffering, why not get a copy of each? Order "Ask the Pilot" through my home page, and get a complimentary autograph, which is sure to increase the book's value when you pawn it off on eBay or leave it on the sidewalk somewhere. Really, what could be a better under-$20 gift for a frequent flier than a signed copy of "Ask the Pilot"?

OK, to be honest, you might notice that I've lowered the price. And that's because, while I wish that I could tell you that my book has aged as well as SkyMaul has, I'd be lying. At 5 years old it's a little behind the times in the facts, stats and figures department. The bulk of the content dates to circa 2001-02, and it shows. How bad does it get? In a discussion about the use of electronic devices during flight I make reference to a Sony Walkman, and I refer to the Boeing 787 by its long-discarded preproduction name, "7E7."

As it happens, I've recently begun the process of updating and revising "Ask the Pilot." A fresh new edition should be out by summer, packed with loads of new information. There's a lot of work to do, and if this winter I'm occasionally absent from Salon on my normally allotted day, this is why.

By "loads" of information what I really mean is "some." That's how the publisher wants it, anyway. For reasons I don't fully understand, they aren't looking for a major overhaul, only a here-and-there update. I'm trying to abide by their wishes, but there's quite a bit that needs changing. I've been working on the thing for a month, and I'm yet to make it past Chapter 2. I think my editor is going to hate me.

Ah, that's right, the Boeing 787. Is it really true that the 787 made it into the air on Tuesday, Dec. 15, for its long-delayed maiden flight?

Don't ask me. I was traveling. I managed to catch some snippets on the CNN monitors* at the Atlanta airport, but at that point things were uncertain. The plane was taxiing around, testing its flaps and landing lights, but there were questions as to whether it would fly. Eventually I lost interest and went to Chik-fil-A.

(*Such every-so-often usefulness does not justify the existence of these infernal chattering devil-boxes, all of which deserve to be destroyed.)

The plane's inaugural is fairly exciting, though hardly on the scale of, say, the 707 or 747. Those aircraft essentially redefined air travel. The 787's advances, by contrast, are strictly technological. It is the first commercial airliner fashioned mostly from high-tech composites, and it promises remarkable operating economy for airlines. Passengers will appreciate such innovations as higher humidity levels, lower cabin altitudes, and (my favorite) larger windows. Airlines already have placed over 800 orders for 787s -- the most ever for an aircraft yet to carry a passenger.

I have to say it's a sharp-looking plane. It's not as distinctive as past Boeings (727, 747), but they don't design 'em like they used to, aesthetically, and we need to keep it in context. The tail is a little impotent, but I dig the scalloped engine nacelles, the sharply tapered wings and raked landing gear doors.

I'm joking again. I'm well aware that the 787 successfully completed its maiden voyage -- a three-hour loop from Paine Field outside Seattle on Tuesday afternoon.

Boeing's shares fell 38 cents.

And finally, speaking of falling stock ... I was a little dismayed by some of the comments posted in response to last week's column about Northwest 188 -- the flight that went AWOL over Minnesota back in October. I fail to understand some of the angry accusations that I was justifying, exonerating or otherwise excusing the flight crew's lack of attentiveness. I was doing no such thing. The point of the story was only to show that the incident was, in all likelihood, more complicated than people think; I was trying to give you insights into how such a thing might happen.

The pilots have openly admitted responsibility. For me to suggest they were not as blatantly negligent as is commonly assumed, and to advocate that they be allowed to fly again at some point in the future, is by no stretch giving them a "free pass," as one e-mailer inexplicably put it. Neither does it square with many of the posted comments, a few of which were downright hostile.

Other criticism was more measured and, I think, fair...

"To suggest that a loss of situational awareness does not put a flight in peril is simply wrong," writes Christine Negroni, New York Times correspondent and the author of "The Crash Detectives." It is important not to fall for the notion that simply because no one was hurt, the event is not serious. For years now air safety experts have been trying to underscore how important it is that events be investigated with as much attention as accidents, because only a single factor might separate such an episode from a disaster. Pilot inattention over a period of time, as occurred on flight 188, is a serious safety issue. Though I agree with you these pilots have learned a lesson they won't forget. Complacency is not going to be their sin in the future."

I've always had mixed feelings about the one-way nature of Salon's comments forum. Not all writers review their feedback, but I do, and it can be a frustrating exercise, especially now that Salon closes the letters thread a day earlier. Answering a simple question or providing a rebuttal is often impossible.

As a reminder, you can always write to me directly.

Happy holidays!

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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