Out-of-Whack Air Travel Security

Have I a bad case of whiplash. Not from any accident, though. It's from snapping my head back and forth as I watch air travel security hurtle from one extreme to another.

You know what I'm talking about. We start with a big, fat failure for the intelligence and security communities for not detecting the would-be Underpants Bomber, accused of trying to take down a Northwest jet on Christmas Day. Clearly, that was a case of too little security.

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Now zoom the other way, to too much security, as a sobbing three-year-old sees his Play-Doh confiscated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for "security reasons."

Zoom again: How about the fellow on a Midwest flight earlier this month, who belatedly realized he brought shot gun shells aboard the plane. Whoops! Where was security then?

As one of the readers of my blog wrote me: "My problem is with the lack of consistency in pretty much ANYTHING the TSA does or says."

But is consistency even possible? And it's not just the TSA's fault -- you can also blame the airlines, the airports, and even us, the flying public.

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Here's an example where I think you could fault the passengers and crew in a one-two combination punch of security run amok with a frisson of religious ignorance.

A flight operated by a subsidiary of US Airways was diverted to Philadelphia last week because somebody thought the religious items used by a 17-year-old Jewish kid for his morning prayers could somehow be a bomb. Travelers were later rebooked on other flights; I can only imagine the fun.

Airport Security Mistakes

It could have been worse, though (and here's where the security professionals fall down): remember how they shut down Newark International's busiest terminal after that romantic fellow just had to have one last smooch with his sweetie (and foolishly snuck through a security line to get it)?

Well, just two days later, another case of overzealous security resulted in the shutdown of the tiny Bakersfield, Calif. airport. No sweetie involved here, just honey.

That's right, honey: a gardener from Milwaukee put four bottles of honey in his suitcase as a tasty souvenir of the Central Valley. In fairness to security personnel, the honey was inexplicably placed in Gatorade bottles and officials noticed it sure didn't look like the sports drink; later still, the stuff tested positive for explosives. No one knows why. No charges were ever filed.

And no one knows why a TSA officer pranked a college student going through the security line, either, but call this a case of too little security over the security force.

The officer held out a baggie of white powder and asked the young woman, "Where did you get this from?" The shaken student began to cry as she tried to explain it must have been a plant; finally, at the end of what she called "the longest minute of my life," the officer said, "Just kidding."

Make that ex-officer; he no longer works for the TSA.

Protecting Airplanes from Terrorists

OK, most of us understand the problems: securing the nation's air travel system is an overwhelming job, not just here but around the world. And nobody wants to make a mistake.

Consider just last week, when authorities in Germany shut down Munich's airport after a man's laptop set off alarms. It sure made for scary headlines: "Man on the run at Munich Airport!" and "Man flees in airport laptop explosives alert!" But there was no terrorist. The man in question apparently never knew his laptop triggered any sort of panic. He didn't flee. He was later seen on security cameras killing time browsing in the duty free shops.

What this shows is how nervous we all are, which may account for intense fascination with all stories even peripherally related to security, including the alleged "plane pickpocket" who was arrested for suspected pilfering (well, part of the fascination surely had to do with the fact that the arrestee's mother was actress Cybill Shepherd). Charges are still pending and the young man has not publically commented on the incident.

And then there was this past weekend's drama, when a passenger tried to open an aircraft door in mid-flight. The plane was diverted and the fellow is expected to get some "medical evaluation."

So, yes, we're on edge. And the security pendulum continues to swing between overreaction and plain old human error and sometimes, machine error. I just wish there was some way to grab hold of that pendulum, and move it to the middle.

In the meantime, watch your neck because the whiplash continues.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.