Did you hear about the two Muslim religious leaders -- both residents of the Memphis area -- who missed their Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight last week? No, this wasn't a security problem per se. They were cleared by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers and boarded the plane. Then, according to news reports, the pilot told them to take a hike.
Which no doubt gave the two gentlemen plenty to talk about at the conference in Charlotte they were headed to -- a conference on prejudice against Muslims (by the way, the men eventually received an apology and were put on another flight).
Maybe this signifies nothing more than an alleged bias on the part of the pilot, or perhaps a misplaced concern for passengers (the pilot reportedly refused to fly with the religious leaders "because some other passengers could be uncomfortable"). Or maybe it signifies a certain hysteria that the death of Osama bin Laden has done little to dampen.
Even with Bin Laden gone, flight security remains a hot-button topic for many Americans.
Sure, most people through the motions of airport security without outward protest, but many vent their bile over what they see as foolish or inept security measures on the world's bulletin board: the Internet. And the rage continues.
If you don't think so, just look at some of the comments left on the TSA's own blog. Here's one:
"Unlike shoes, shampoo, mastectomy scars, breast prostheses, and ostomy bags, bin Laden was an actual threat, and thus no concern of TSA."
The author of this comment is no doubt referring to the alternative to the body scanner: the "enhanced" pat-down. I've had both, and was certainly not crazy about my vigorous pat-down; when given a choice, I'll opt for the scan, with some misgivings (I'd like to see more testing and research done on any possible long-range health effects of these machines).
I'm not alone in this concern, of course. One of my employees recently told me about her "first time" experience with the body scan, saying, "Nothing to it." Then she added, "Of course, I've already had my children." She was joking. Kind of.
Love it or hate it, airport security is not going to disappear suddenly. As the TSA's own website trumpets in a headline, "Osama bin Laden Dead, Threat Still Very Much Alive." Understood -- but what angers some is whether much of our airport security actually works.
Consider the occasional story -- we've all seen them -- about people (often "investigative reporters") who somehow manage to get through security with forged documents or items on the TSA banned list. One fellow who apparently genuinely forget he had a gun in his suitcase had no problem getting it through airport security in Houston last fall. Later, when he discovered what he'd done, he reported it to authorities.
Still, we haven't had what I suppose could be called a true security incident since the attempt by the so-called "underwear bomber" on Christmas Day 2009, and let me add here that I think the vast majority of our TSA officers are diligent and hard working. However, many critics say the system itself is broken. Here's another comment:
"If the goal of the TSA is to continually keep the American public in a state of fear, you're doing a great job."
"Please stop these insane attempts to frighten us into allowing the TSA to violate our rights & our bodies. The TSA is, unfortunately, a failed experiment in both actual security & emotional security."
Airport Security: Bin Laden Dead, Pat-Downs Continue
Emotional security? The parents of the six-year-old old child who was given an enhanced pat-down last month had something to say about that; they claim their young daughter "started crying afterward because she thought she'd done something wrong" (which may beg the question: why post the video on YouTube?). Meanwhile, even Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said, "I wouldn't want my granddaughter treated like that."
Then there was the other news-making incident in April in which a former beauty queen posted her own YouTube video after a pat-down at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport. One of Susie Castillo's more memorable statements was, "Am I a threat to U.S. security? I was Miss USA, for Pete's sake!" The moral of the story is...what? Good-looking people can't be terrorists?
I think we can all agree a terrorist may not necessarily look like a stereotypical "bad guy," but finding the bad guys is the problem; look how long it took to get Bin Laden. Here's another thought: has our air travel security improved so much that terrorists have abandoned attempts at thwarting it? Recent news reports indicate a new interest in terror by train.
But let's get back to the air terminals; one commenter who opposes current airport security measures frames the problem this way:
"Trying to find a terrorist amid the flood of legitimate passengers is exactly like trying to find a needle in a haystack. So what are we doing wrong? We're focusing on the haystack, not the needle."
I don't have much in the way of answers. I'm like a lot of flyers these days who are resigned to the inconvenience of airport security, while ultimately wondering if it really does what it's supposed to. As yet another internet commenter put it:
"Once a given measure is in place -- shoes, liquids, etc. -- it requires enormous courage for any official to end it, because any resulting breach would likely end his career."
End a career? That's not the issue; the issue is whether a breach could end a life or many lives. And so we go on, removing our shoes, allowing our bags to be pawed through and our bodies to be scanned and all the while wondering if there's not a better way to keep us all safe.
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 that include ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.