Monday, December 07, 2009

The Person You Love .. At Airport Security.

I never brag. I'm just an aging newspaperman in a busted-valise industry.

My business-travel column in the New York Times has run weekly for almost 11 years -- but I am awfully proud of the first four or five paragraphs in my column in tomorrow's paper (which is difficult, as usual, to find on the newspaper's Web site.)

I teared up seeing this, writing it and, tonight, even reading it. This, I thought, is the nation that won the Battle of Midway six months after Pearl Harbor. And here were two once-young lovers, after all of these years, unable to protect each other's simple dignity in some crummy joint with this asinine name,Newark "Liberty" International Airport, where an old man and an old woman felt so powerless to even communicate with one another.


Just in case the link doesn't work, here's a paste-up of my column. As I said, it's the first couple of paragraphs that matter:

Published: December 7, 2009

The man looked old enough to have gone ashore on D-Day, and that thought haunted me. He was ordered to stand behind a security partition while a security screener worked over a frail woman bent in a wheelchair.

“Your wife?” I asked.

He nodded but did not take his eyes off her. As the screener ran the wand up her legs, the elderly woman glanced anxiously at her husband, and you thought how many years — 50 or more? — they had spent looking after each other. Transportation Security Administration agents stood around idly in their crisp blue shirts at security gates at the airport in Newark, but the screener worked energetically, poking and prodding and patting every inch of the body of the woman in the wheelchair, as if she were a suspect just dragged out of a cave in Afghanistan.

The screener roughly turned the woman’s palm upward and swabbed it with a chemical to check for explosives. Beside me the man stiffened. “I suppose they have to be careful,” he said. Finally, his wife was wheeled out to join him.

As yet another busy travel season approaches, how many times will we all witness sad scenes like this, which make you question the common sense of many security procedures. Watching screeners confiscate Christmas snow globes, bags of frozen tomato sauce, nearly spent toothpaste tubes, how many of us will have this thought: Are they making this stuff up as they go along? Once they X-rayed and intimately patted that woman in the wheelchair, what was the point of swabbing her for explosives?

Readers often write about perceived security absurdities. One women said her pumpkin pie was confiscated, on the ground that pumpkin pie contained gel-like material. Caitlin Chaffee, concerned about “inconsistencies,” wrote that at one security checkpoint, “I even had an orange confiscated, because they said it was a liquid of more than three ounces.”

The Homeland Security Department recently reminded travelers that liquids and gels could be carried on only in “three-ounce containers” that all fit in a quart-size zipper bag. But even that was slightly incorrect. For some time now, the maximum container size has actually been 3.4 ounces, in a nod to the European Union’s insistence that the standard should conform to the metric system (3.4 ounces equals 100 milliliters).

The T.S.A. says the limits on liquids and gels are based on chemistry, because such small volumes make it virtually impossible to assemble explosives on a plane. On the other hand, a separate T.S.A. regulation says that “travelers with disabilities and medical conditions” are “not limited in the amount of volume” of liquids or gels they may carry, including “items used to augment the body for medical or cosmetic reasons,” including “bras or shells containing gels, saline solution or other liquids.”

This is not to say that people with medical needs should have to fly without vital liquids or gels, but rather to underscore the inconsistencies, sometimes understandable, often infuriating, that we all face at the airport. A better effort is needed — and perhaps we should start here, with readers’ suggestions — to require airlines and security personnel to get the rules straight and to use more common sense in their application.

That includes some strange rules enforced in flight in the name of “safety.” As I have mentioned in several columns, some airlines had been instructing passengers that, based on Federal Aviation Administration safety rules, nothing could be placed in seat pockets — not even eyeglasses. In the commotion that ensued, the F.A.A. issued a notice on Nov. 12 to “clarify” that, saying small items not exceeding three pounds could be placed in the pockets.

SkyWest Airlines, which had been enforcing a total ban, immediately changed its policy to comply. But on Southwest Airlines, where the ban was sometimes enforced and sometimes not, evidently not all flight attendants got the word.

“I had two flights on Southwest this week,” Stephen Meltzer wrote the other day, and the flight attendants “on both flights making the safety announcements were very stern in telling us that nothing could be placed in the pockets.”

Southwest has now also clarified that. The F.A.A. “asks the airlines to take a common sense approach to items in the seat-back pocket,” said Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman for Southwest. “Personal items are allowed in the seat-back pocket, but the heaviest items must be secured.”

Let’s hear it for common sense.



Wanderluster said...

Thanks for pointing out the silly inconsistencies and the preposterous behavior that has now become common.

I was "busted" at security for carrying peanut butter because it was "spreadable". Could never find it listed on the TSA site...

Now we get to contend with xray body screenings!

paleolith said...

Our current security procedures are based on walls. History tells us, from the Great Wall of China to the Maginot Line to the Berlin Wall, that all walls fall eventually. Our security is better enhanced by bridges than by walls.

Averill said...

Dear Mr. Sharkey:

I am an employee with US Airways in Philadelphia, and found your story about the elderly couple and the problems encountered because the wife was in a wheelchair very frustrating.

It is indeed a sorry situation that the joke called “airport security” has come to this, and I agree with your thoughts.

However, there is something else to think about. What if the elderly woman, who was obviously frightened by this whole affair, was traveling by herself and not with her husband?

Because of the TSA’s continuing stupid policy of “ticketed passengers only” past security in force, she would be alone; her husband would not have been there to comfort her as he did not have a ticket.

I have a web site, while in no way is as popular as your blog, it deals with the issue of only letting ticketed passengers past security.

I ask you and your readers to look at my site and see how the whole folly of “ticketed passengers only” is not only a waste of time, and has nothing to do with security, except, perhaps, the illusion of security, and is a real hindrance to passengers and meeters and greeters as well.

If you have the time, I would appreciate your input concerning this “non” security measure and how it can be stopped. Perhaps you can help me with your site in this endeavor.
Thank you,

Averill Hecht