Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bag Check

Being employed in the airline industry, and a frequent flier to boot, I got a good chuckle from this cartoon. The mouse over is especially good. (If you're not familiar with xkcd go check it out here. Whenever the mouse hovers over the picture, additional text pops up.) Sadly, I have resigned myself to both the absurdities and the indignities of airline travel. Putting the Federal government in charge  has done little to make us safer. Nothing against the men and women who work hard, day in and day out, at the TSA, but quite frankly the rules are absurd.

Just this week, I had my water bottle confiscated going into work in Philadelphia. Silly me, I forgot to remove it from my backpack. If only I had thought to avoid the security line completely by using my ID badge to access one of the secured doors to the airport. I could have carried in my bottle of Evian.

Part of the problem with airport security is the fact that screeners will typically miss the dangerous items that are rare, like guns, knives and bombs. On the other hand they will almost always catch the water bottle and the 4.6 ounce tube of toothpaste. Studies have shown that it is very difficult to train for the rare occurrences, but people become very adept at finding the things they see often. Moreover, security personnel expect to see water bottles and such household contraband, which serves to reinforce their ability to find it. All of the hype over these common items actually detracts from the overall effectiveness of bag searches.

Another failure in airport security is the refusal to use profiling techniques that allow security personnel to more easily identify potential security risks. Similar to they way we restrict water bottles and small tools, choosing to randomly search the entire population instead of a more targeted approach actually reduces the odds that law enforcement officials will be able to identify potentially dangerous individuals attempting to pass through security. The current security system is politically expedient, and it is politically correct, but like many bureaucracies, it isn't very efficient or effective.

Like the guy in the cartoon, I used to chafe at the inconsistencies of TSA rules. They have my life history on file, updated regularly, along with my fingerprints, address, phone number, passport information and I expect that they'll be asking for DNA next, and yet security is a hassle. As the years go by, I have resigned myself to suffer in silence, and dream of a day when such things will no longer be necessary. I'm not going to hold my breath.

It is a sad fact that in the past twenty-five years, we have gone from being able to freely access an airport and walk onto an airplane, to subjecting ourselves to removing shoes and other articles of clothing, random searches of our person and property, and seemingly arbitrary rules about carrying a bottle of water with you to work. As we look to the future, how far are we willing to go as a society, to remain safe? How much are we willing to abandon, before the price exceeds the benefits? And in the end, will the sacrifices really make us safer? In the meantime, we should demand better water dispensers in airports.

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