This column comes in the immediate aftermath of the news that Britain and the U.S. just escaped a major terrorist scrape. Therefore, it is necessary to qualify it with “if things are as they currently appear.” When the Brits shot down a man for nothing more than being scared of pistol-waving loons, they showed themselves capable of The Big Lie. And of course The Big Lie by the Bush Administration put us in the middle of the (allegedly nonexistent) Iraqi civil war. So relying on first impressions from these governments is always chancy.
While no airplanes have been blown out of the sky, the convenience of air travel has taken another major hit, as have airline stocks. Such is the terror value of close calls. In my life experience, the convenience of air travel is fairly new, so I have a long term view.
I grew up in rural Oklahoma, where travel was Tulsa in one direction and Oklahoma City in the other and the most common method was hitch-hiking, a means of transport that remained a habit for me until it dies of interstate highways and crime paranoia.
Naturally, I traveled by air when in the Air Force, but there was no bureaucracy involved. A superior pointed at which plane and I got on. I remained ignorant of commercial air travel.
When I graduated from UT and became a judge, I started an offensive against domestic violence in the Austin criminal justice system, bringing in the women who had put together one of the first women’s shelters in the country to advise on the many places where the system was failing battered women. When the changes in Austin got media notice, I began to get invitations to speak around the state. These came with plane tickets, and I began to learn the drill of flying.
In the nineties, my wife got a job with Southwest Airlines and one of my daughters got a job with Delta. I had free flying privileges on two airlines, and I became an expert at navigating the “non-rev” (non-revenue=empty seats) universe. There are many tricks to predicting which flights will have empty seats and, of course, when you are non-reving you are not bound by published itineraries and you can get somewhere with splendidly roundabout flights. I wonder how that is done now, when you can no longer just walk up to the gate, flash a pass, and get on? You can’t even get to the gate without a ticket, and flying with no luggage gets you the hairy eyeball.
My wife quit Southwest on September 10, 2001. I consider us lucky the FBI never came to ask about that. On September 11, my daughter who worked for Delta was in Finland. It took her quite a while to get home and she got her corkscrew confiscated, something she carried only for her flight attendant duties. Non-reving on Delta got more complicated, as you had to make a reservation, understanding that if all the seats sold you would not get on. Standing around the airport waiting for an empty seat became pretty impractical, given the bureaucracy.
I’ve come the full circle now. I avoid flying whenever I can. When I can’t, I need a Valium. Not for fear of flying, but for having to silently endure all the indignities that go with flying these days. You don’t dare call the idiots idiots. They will bury you under the jail. Which brings me to the new (as of yesterday) protocols.
Nothing liquid, because the terrorists finally figured out that you can make boom with a chemical reaction and it does not take much boom to depressurize an airplane.
Comment from my mother-in-law: “They took all the expensive stuff and left the cheap stuff!” This from an elderly Republican woman.
Comment from a CNN reporter who does travel news: “I lost $125 worth of stuff.”
Comment from a terrorism consultant: “They are looking for things, not threats.”
The protocol is akin to the assembly line. Students of labor history will recall how production became efficient by breaking the process down into tiny tasks that required little training. It no longer took a craftsman to make a serviceable automobile. Medical protocols are designed to avoid obvious mistakes even if they sometimes result in wasted motion. On my last visit to the Veteran’s Administration Clinic, I was asked whether I had sexual relationships with other service members when I was on active duty and whether any of those relationships were traumatic? “I was seventeen years old. What do you think?”
The terrorism protocols at airports are designed to be used by minimally educated people, who are all Homeland Insecurity will get for what they are paying. To avoid claims of racial profiling, the people on the ground have little discretion and elderly Republican women lose their cosmetics. To avoid public condemnation when the next strike hits, protocols get redesigned to take in what is publicly known about prior attempts. Therefore, we get to take off our shoes in honor of Richard Reid.
El Al, the Israeli airline that would be a highly prized terrorism target, takes a more specialized approach. You practically have to have your head shrunk to get on, given the depth of the interview, but once you get on you can cut your meat with a knife. I don’t know which is more surprising—that El Al allows knives or that they still serve food.
The Brits, in addition to banning all liquids in the hope of avoiding the reactants, are also aiming at ignition sources. Therefore, no ipods, cell phones or other electronic devices. In one previous attack, the ignition source was a Casio watch, but I am not informed whether they are banning watches.
The downside to these protocols, besides mass inconvenience to people highly unlikely to pose any threat, is that terrorists can learn over time to game the protocols. Overtly profile Arabs and the next strike will be by non-Arabs. Train the dogs to sniff nitrates and the task becomes to identify non-nitrate explosives.
The safer method is the one El Al uses, but U.S. and British carriers have a lot more flights than El Al. There has been some experimentation with allegedly foolproof identification for frequent flyers, but that has yet to catch on. There is somebody named Steve Russell on the terror watch list, making flying even more of an adventure for me. A quick Google search will demonstrate that there are many Steve Russells inconvenienced by one of us. While my views are anti-government, they are also non-violent and quite public for my entire life. Since I have to fly a couple of times a year and I can demonstrate to anybody with a brain that I pose no terrorism threat, there ought to be some way for me to just get on and off the damn airplane. There isn’t.
I have sworn off flying short of dire necessity. So have many others. Flying is just too much trouble and likely to remain so as long as our government puts the public relations of random stops over the practicality of, for example, screening cargo. The purpose of the protocols is currently not to identify threats but to show the public that the government is on the ball in terms of known threats. Therefore, the terrorists can continue to ratchet up the inconvenience factor at will and harm the airline industry at very little cost. If things are as they currently appear.