Friday, October 13, 2006

TSA: Never Mind

This just in ... Never Mind Dept.
PLAN B! The T.S.A. said today that many of the liquids and gels that had been prohibited from carry-on bags for six weeks may now be brought on a plane, if they are all packed in a see-through plastic zip-top quart-sized bag.

At its press coference, the T.S.A. could have said, "Listen, folks, we've carefully looked at the ban on liquids and gels under our ongoing process of sensible risk-management evaluation, and we've decided it is now o.k. to return to the status quo ante."

But noooo. Under Plan B, your lip gel is no longer suspect, so long as it can be seen.

Several quick points here:

1. Won't the need to rumnmage in your carry-on for the plastic zip-top bag create more confusion at the checkpoint?

2. For you day-traders out there, there is no stock play, at least on the major manufacturer of zip-top bags, SC Johnson, which is a privately held company that makes Ziploc bags, as well as Pledge and Fantastik and other consumer products.

3. For weeks, as frequent travelers know, a good number of T.S.A. screeners have been in quiet revolt against the new rules anyway. I've seen them use their heads to, for example, allow a mother with a baby to bring on an infant bottle of apple juice -- forbidden under the rules. A few screeners are humps, but most of them have been using their own discretion for weeks. In general, the ban was falling apart anyway.

Incidentally, I loved the Associated Press advance story on this, which said that the bans were "instituted after a plot to bomb jets flying into the United States was foiled." The same story early this morning also said that "British police broke up a terrorist plot to assemble and detonate bombs using liquid explosives on airliners crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Britain to the United States."

I am still waiting for someone to tell me something specific about this foiled "plot" that the news media credulously have assigned to the historical record. Was it real? Was it imminent? If so, why have we seen no evidence besides a cache of nutty jihadist videotapes that just as easily could have been made for YouTube. And come to think of it, we haven't even seen the videotapes; we've just heard tell of them.

I'm flying out of Kennedy tomorrow on an all-night trip on which toothpaste and deodorant will be welcome. I have to dash to the Pathmark for a Ziploc quart bag before there's a run on the shelves.
More later ...
posted by Joe Sharkey | 10:00 AM | 1 comments
Back from the Desert...
It seems like only a few days ago I was out in the desert in Tucson, worried about nothing more than the growth of pest-like grasses that sprouted up during an unusually rainy August.

"I got some knee-high buffel-grass growing around the base of a 25-foot saguaro. What do you have that will kill the buffel-grass and won't hurt the saguaro?" I was asking the man behind the counter of the Do It Yourself Pest and Weed Control store, who promptly fetched a jug of stuff to do the job. (That isn’t a conversation I could have ever imagined myself having a few years ago, by the way).

Buffel-grass is a pest, a blight on the Sonoran desert, introduced in southern Arizona a century ago by cattle people who thought that a desert was a good place for profitable grazing. Things didn’t work out all that well for the cattlemen, but their damned buffel grass spread over the decades through the native environment of cacti, mesquite, creosote and palo verde. Buffel grass thrives with moisture, but when it dries out, as it inevitably does in a desert, it creates a wildfire hazard.

So I killed it real good. Killed it and dug it all up and saluted my stately saguaros, of which there are two dozen, full-grown. And a few days later, my desert respite over, I headed home.

Now I'm back in grey, drizzly New York, and I wish buffel grass was all I had to worry about. Let me review some of the news, which seems heavily weighted to idiocies and felonious atrocities, that I have had to catch up on.

First, the aftermath of the great plot last month that created hysteria in London, a city that once faced the Nazi Blitz with aplomb. According to British cops, a gang of Islamic terrorists had hatched a plan to blow up transatlantic airplanes using explosives concocted of liquids or gels. Details were, and remain, very sketchy.

Initially, there was talk of a foiled plot to blow up 10 airliners in a spectacular display of horror over the cities of North America, but that quickly faded out due to the fact that no one seemed to be able to produce any evidence of this.

Still, the news media continued hyperventilating along with the cops, and for a few days airline passengers flying out of Heathrow weren't allowed carry-on bags. They couldn't even carry a book on board, lest it had been hollowed out to conceal something dangerous. Never mind that the most cursory visual inspection could quickly determine whether that tweedy gent had hollowed out his copy of "Great Expectations" to artfully conceal a bottle of NyQuil inside.

Yet despite legions of British police tromping through woods in yellow slickers looking for evidence, and various British government officials harrumphing about what a close call it all was, the details of the alleged plot remain … well, let's be kind and say they remain hard to find. Evidently, the plot, such as it was, was not imminent. Perhaps, it was just talk and jihadist videos, augmented by excitable British authorities looking at the polls.

But the talk was persuasive, evidently. Because six weeks later, the farce is still playing at the world's airports, long after anyone has put much faith in the basic narrative. From the get-go, American authorities reacted in lock-step to the mania in England. Gels and liquids of all kinds were absolutely banned from carry-on bags. Nothing that was not solid was allowed!

That lasted about a week, until the disabled Americans lobby was heard from. O.K., gels and liquids of all kinds were banned -- with the exception of gel-filled wheelchair cushions and gel-bras. Gel-bras are, of course, prosthetic devices used by women who have had mastectomies.

But it turns out that gel-filled bras are also worn by millions of women as fashion accessories – the new falsies, if you will excuse the 1950s-era word for it. Egad! someone at the T.S.A. undoubtedly said. How can we distinguish between the prosthetics and the fashion accessories? "We recognize it's a sensitive issue," a T.S.A. spokesman admitted.

Remember a couple of years ago, when female travelers in the United States created a huge and justified outcry about being patted-down intimately at airport checkpoints, evidently because two female terrorists in Russia had been arrested for planning to blow up airplanes with gel explosives concealed in their clothing? The U.S. pat-down party ended soon after the outcry. And so gel-bras – conceivably filled with enough gel to blow up a Wal-Mart -- are now permitted. And so is a personal supply of K.Y. jelly, for some reason that neither I nor anyone I have broached the subject with can even guess at.

Still, toothpastes, lip gels, bottled water and almost all other liquids are still banned, as of this writing. Now, I am not trying to make a point about the danger of gel-filled bras here, as I consider the entire liquids-gels ban absurd. This is a view with which every security expert I know agrees.

But the hyperventilation continues. Not long ago, I was floored by a lead editorial (that's the one on top) in the New York Times that actually called for a ban on all carry-on bags. The mind boggles!

Meanwhile, may I draw your consideration to an assortment of news events of note that have occurred in the time since my last post, for no reason other than to help us all come to a consensus on how to define absurdity (because I think the word is with us at some force for a while). Also, you can't make this stuff up:

-- Dancin' pants: In Los Angeles last week, according to numerous press reports, a man was charged with smuggling from Thailand two baby leopards, a number of exotic bulbs and several pygmy monkeys. After Customs officials at Los Angeles International Airport found the kitten-sized leopards and the bulbs in his carry-on, the man was asked if he was carrying any other contraband. "Yeah, I got monkeys in my underwear," he replied. Yep. He had concealed two live pygmy monkeys in his shorts.

-- Lost in translation: At a security checkpoint at O'Hare airport in Chicago in mid-August, a female security screener removed a rubber device from an Iraqi man's backpack and asked him what it was. The man was traveling with his mother and evidently was too embarrassed to fully describe the object, a penis pump. He simply quietly replied "It's a pump." But his accent apparently made the word "pump" – think of it – sound like "bomb." The poor schnook was arrested and charged with a felony and is awaiting trial. But my guess is the screener was a hump, no matter now you pronounce it.

-- Speaking of penises (last time, I promise): Two weeks ago, the editors of the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina saw fit to run ON THE FRONT PAGE a warning to readers that a photo of a fresco published in an inside section that day contained "nudity" that might be offensive. The fresco? Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam," from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The appendage the editors were so primly worried about belongs to Adam, in one of the most famous artistic scenes ever created. Later (while inadvertently demonstrating why some newspapers are being laughed out of existence), Ted Vaden, the News and Observer's public editor, actually defended the asinine page-one warning. "Oh well. With a family newspaper, caution is prudence (not prudish)," he wrote.

-- Nuclear physics and your average terrorist: A top terrorist suspect secretly interrogated by the CI.A. readily identified a photo of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen being held on terrorism-related crimes, including the suspicion that he was involved in a plot to create a so-called radioactive dirty bomb. According to the New York Times, however, the suspect told his questioners that Padilla "was ignorant on the subject of nuclear physics and believed he could separate plutonium from nuclear material by rapidly swinging over his head a bucket filled with fissionable material."

-- The bum's rush: An Indian man who works as an eco-scavenger recycling material from dumps in Delhi was planning to fly in business class on Alitalia a few weeks ago to attend a waste-disposal conference in Brazil. The ticket had been purchased for him by a grateful local recycling group. But the airline told him he couldn't board the plane, and had security remove him from the airport, because "he did not look like a businessman," according to the newspaper Asian Age. Alitalia said it's investigating.

-- Some good news (I guess): A pilot on an Air Canada Jazz CJR-100 left the cockpit to visit the lavatory 30 minutes before landing in Winnipeg. Per regulations, the cockpit door was locked after he left – but when he was finished he couldn’t get back in because the door had jammed. After lots of banging and attempts to force the cockpit door open, the pilot marooned outside and the first officer in the cockpit finally managed to take the hinges off the door -- a process that took time and, let’s remember, cooperation from the flight attendant and the passengers. Now if the PILOT can’t get through the reenforced cockpit door under these favorable circumstances, I’d say that pretty well indicates that the next time a maniac terrorist tries to pull that stunt, a la 9/11, it isn’t going to work out so well, and the passengers will have ample time to, let's say, react appropriately.

-- INCIDENTALLY (and with thanks to Joe Brancatelli, channeling the late and great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon for the use of the formula: "Nobody asked me, but …")
-- Why do they pat down PILOTS at security checkpoints? In fact, pilots say they feel they get the secondary inspection more often than the average passenger. One captain told me he tried to reason with the screener but was informed: “We can’t let you take on anything that could let you take over the plane.” … Does the fact that Jennifer Aniston ends up blissfully in the sack with Jack Black at the end of the movie “Friends with Money” mean that the world really, truly is coming to an end? … When did we first start routinely referring to popular singers as “artists” -- and why? … And speaking of music, has anyone else noticed the striking resemblance between mariachi music and polkas? How in the world did that happen? … Is there some way to get flight attendants to cease using the phrase “At this time?” to begin an announcement? … Who thinks these things up? Bumper sticker seen recently on a car driven by an attractive blond woman in Tucson: “I STILL MISS MY EX – BUT MY AIM IS GETTING BETTER.” … R.I.P.: A California man, George Johnson, died recently, aged 112. If he had any secret to longevity it wasn’t his diet. “He had terrible bad habits. He had a diet largely of sausages and waffles,” a physician who knew him said, according to the A.P. … THAT explains it: Hitler and Stalin were possessed by the devil, the Vatican's chief exorcist said recently. CHIEF Exorcist?? You mean they have a staff?

At this time, we shall end it a day. Cell phones and other electronic devices may be used.
posted by Joe Sharkey | 2:41 PM | 4 comments
But First This...
"You can go, Joseph," said the rent-a-cop at the security counter where they inspect your papers at the airport in Fort Myers. He briskly handed back my boarding pass.

"Listen," I told him, "my name is Mr. Sharkey. You shouldn't call people you don't know by their first names, o.k.?"

I bristle at bad manners, but I especially get my back up when some functionary -- the clerk at the DMV, the 19-year-old gum-chomping cashier at the drug store prescription counter – calls me "Joseph." I admit there is some psychological baggage at work here, as I attended eight years of Catholic grade school and "Joseph" was what an angry nun often shrieked right before she whacked me upside the head for some sin, whether ecclesiastical or procedural.

Whatever. The rent-a-cop just laughed as I collected my papers and headed to the security checkpoint.

At the checkpoint, I was busted, by an actual T.S.A. employee, for a corkscrew in my carry-on bag.

"This isn't going on the plane with you," the man said. He said it politely, I was gratified to note.

"But corkscrews are allowed, according to the T.S.A. list," I said.
He flipped out the little inch-and-a-half dull blade on the side of the corkscrew.

"Not with a blade, they're not," he said.

"Under the rules I can carry on sharp scissors with four-inch blades."


"A scissors is two sharp blades, and this is one little dull one you couldn't open a pack of gum with."


The screener was not a hump.

"What could I tell you?" he said with a shrug. "I don't make the rules."

Into the confiscation bin went my $3.98 corkscrew, newly purchased from Walgreens. Somewhere, somebody has already gotten rich buying corkscrew futures.

That was two weeks before the recent fiasco in London involving the alleged terrorist plot to -- what was it, now? I seem to have missed the actual details, as has the news media. Blow up 10 airliners in a spectacular pyrotechnical display of hellfire over "major urban areas," as I read somewhere? All I know is that Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and JFK were an unholy mess well after other airports in the U.S. and Europe had recovered. My friend Mike Boyd, the airline consultant, sometimes refers to airport scenes as resembling "the fall of Saigon," and that's what this looked like.

Let's stipulate that this plot was real, and not just a reaction, perhaps stimulated by an overzealous undercover operative, to a bunch of religious wing-nuts e-mailing each other in a delusional frenzy about those 72 virgins in paradise. (And by the way, has anyone ever closely examined the prospect of suddenly acquiring the intimate and demanding companionship of 72 – count 'em – 72 virgins, in paradise or anywhere else? Has it occurred to any of these mutton-brains how many doors would be slamming, dishes smashed and tears shed every single day in this heavenly house of horror?) Furthermore, does no one have any consideration for the poor virgins, who made it to paradise and now have to put up with these morons?

But I digress. As you know, the authorities banned all carry-on bags on flights from the U.K. A man headed from Heathrow to Chicago told me they wouldn't even let him bring on a book.

"They said it could be hollowed out to conceal a weapon," he said. "I told them to flip through it, but they said the rules were the rules."
As I write this, the madness seems to have subsided a bit. But wait a minute, yesterday came the latest news, and I take that back.

Some hyperventilating former third-runner-up prom queen on the television suddenly was braying about a transatlantic flight being diverted, under escort by fighter jets, to Boston. After a while, it became apparent that – damn, some stories are too good to check out – the authorities have already made assurances that this was not a terrorist incident, but rather a somewhat impressive reaction to an on-board "incident" involving a distraught 59-year-old passenger who proclaimed herself "claustrophobic" and created a big scary scene, as the claustrophobic mentally disturbed are wont to do when confined in a tight space under duress.

Comes the morning paper today and I am further informed that among the woman's transgressions included the fact that she "pulled her pants down" -- and evidently refused to pull them back up, as she was then restrained by flight crew and passengers, cuffed and confined to one of those rear-cabin seats where those without frequent-flier elite status are typically stowed. Then, the woman was evidently upgraded to first class, or at least to the first-class gallley, there to be better observed by the frightened crew, as the pilot radioed in his alarm.

With fighter jets on each wing, the plane landed without further incident to a waiting entourage of armed authorities. "We just landed and were told welcome to Boston," one passenger told the New York Times.

What can be done, with nuts pulling their pants down in the aisle next to 27-D while other nuts evidently conspire to blow up planes with ersatz tubes of Pepsodent and Vagisil? Don’t worry! The T.S.A. – that's the agency that has spent about $15 billion on checkpoint security, while the checkpoints still operate with inconveniently uneven and unmatched tables and bins that resemble a hastily organized garage sale – has a new plan: Behavioral Profiling.

It is regarded by the authorities, I am again informed by the Times, as "a valuable addition to their security tool chest."

O.K., perhaps it's early in the game, and I am not yet as well informed as a travel columnist ought to be. But I have to tell you, I do not like the looks of "Behavioral Profiling," if only because (perhaps as another consequence of those years under stern supervision in Catholic school) I myself can appear to be lying even when I am telling the absolute truth – if, for example, I believe that my skeptical interrogator has the power to begin proceedings that could send me to Guantanamo or, to again evoke the nuns, to hell.

I can see it now.

"Did you have a good time seeing the sights in Tucson, Joseph? What sights did you see?"

Resisting the urge to protest the 'Joseph,' I might reply, a la Ralph Kramden, "Hamanahamanahamana," -- as the only sights I will be seeing in Tucson are the endless desert and mountains, from the vantage point of the pool in the back of our hideaway house out in flat-out Sonoran desert by the National Park. For the next two weeks, I will be out there, alone, working and doing lazy laps.

"I was holed up in the desert working on a project," I might reply truthfully, trying to sound truthful.

You can see where this could lead.

Incidentally, I read in the Times that the authorities will ensure that screeners trained to spot villains by their facial expressions, gait or other signs of guilt will have the "necessary behavioral analysis skills."

Now, I think most TSA screeners are decent working people just trying to do a difficult job under awful stress, but I have encountered a number of them who I suspect got the job only after failing to pass the exam for the post office.

The Times account helpfully was accompanied by six thumbnail photos of a prototype face expressing various degrees of deception to be on the lookout for. I swear to you, I could not tell whether the face was male or female, but I do know that my face routinely registers every one of these signs, which were labeled in the paper as: "Fear, Disgust, Anger, Determination/Anger, Sadness (Eyebrows drawn up) and Sadness (Lip corners down).

Again, to quote Ralph Kramden, "Hamanahamanahamana."

See you in September.
posted by Joe Sharkey | 12:31 PM | 50 comments

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