Hominy & Hash TAKING THE EASY WAY TO AIR SECURITY
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- After my E-ticket was converted to paper, the U.S. Airways reservation clerk said, "That will be $28, please." "Twenty-eight dollars? What for?" I demanded.
"That's a security tax. It goes directly to the government to pay for the extra security at airports. It started February 5th."
Since I had been quick to say we need better security and now see the government is providing it, I couldn't exactly complain about the bill, now could I?
"By the way," the clerk added, "I can put you on the 6:00 a.m. flight so you don't have to wait around for the 7:30." It didn't matter to me what airport I spent time in, so I agreed.
I had only 15 minutes to spare. Would I make it through allthe security checks? I had arrived two hours before flight time as instructed, and wore slip-on shoes to make entering the gate area less time consuming since shoes and bags were to be searched. Sure enough, I had to show my identification three times before I got to Gate 4, but I didn't have to take off my shoes.
The first indication my security tax dollars were at work was thepresence of a tall military man in camos just inside the walkway toward the gates, still very close to the main terminal where other military-garbed men and women stood around talking to each other as they scanned the crowds. The tall one, however, was such a formidable presence that one look at him and G.I. Joe wouldn't come to mind as quickly as a Watusi Warrior.
Anyone up to no good would think twice before passing his station, but I was just catching a plane. His warm smile and "Good morning, ma'am," made the $28 security tab worth every penny.
That was in Jacksonville, Fla.
There was a two-hour layover in North Carolina at Charlotte and I used the time to watch the security team go through the paces. For the most part, it was not too different from the way it was before 9/11. If you set off the detector, you had to go back and forth to find out what set it off: sometimes a belt buckle, sometimes jewelry, a stray coin, metal shoe arches or the like.
The difference now is that you are pulled aside (while your possessions traveled the conveyer belt, belongings of passengers behind you bumping into your luggage) and asked to "spread 'em," in police parlance. White footprints are painted on the floor for placing yourself in position for the officer to run a scanning rod over your body: up one side, down the other, up the inner leg to the upper thigh, and down the other side. No one feigned ticklishness as the rod swept the underarms. Without exception, the passengers I watched were blushing.
So that was Charlotte, the midway point in a fast weekend journey to Pennsylvania to visit a long-time, wonderful friend, now terminally ill. I traveled light -- one carry-on bag -- and in a rather somber mood. Normally, I chat with everyone I pass. Not this time. I looked atpassengers wondering who they are, where they're going and why. I saw no passengers in wheelchairs, and I usually see one on every flight. There were few children. There were more than a few older couples.
According to recent report on race in America, "Current population trends suggest that within 50 years there will be no single ethnic majority in the United States," and if this airport provided a microcosm of the United States as a whole, we won't have to wait 50 years.
Although the airline staff for the most part was white, the security was more black than white. The custodial help spoke Spanish. The majority of passengers, neither black nor white, appear to be from countries at war with each other, but here at the airport they laughed and ate cinnamon bagels as they waited to board.
I couldn't identify their language, but they were Americans or soon will be -- I can see it in their eyes and demeanor.
Jacksonville and Charlotte were more typical of airports across the country -- unless they are in a highly vulnerable region for attack. Such is the case with Harrisburg, Pa., with its close proximity to the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island. The trouble there years ago was prelude to what I saw this week.
My host couldn't drive me into the parking area, nor could he pausemore than 15 seconds to let me out of the car.
"Why, Chris?" I asked. He said it was because he was driving an SUV with tinted windows and they are not allowed to stop or park. That's when he told me about how close we were to Three Mile Island and the perpetual threat of another nuclear nightmare at that site.
Inside, the line moved faster than I expected but not so fast that I couldn't witness the process in place for each passenger; it was farmore stringent here than in Charlotte or Jacksonville. Coats had to be removed, wallets, keys and change placed in a basket, purses and cameras had to be x-rayed, laptops and cell phones had to be taken out of their cases, shoes had to be removed and some passengers were scanned at random -- whether they set off the metal detectors or not. All this is done as you hold your tickets and photo identification vready to checked as the line moves along. Dignity fell away as scarves dropped off coatsleeves and gloves out of jackets slung over our arms.
After clearing the security station, an hour's wait at the gate isusual. When the call to board finally came, a female security officer selected a woman from the line, scanned her person, patted her down as well, had her open her suitcase and then sent her back into the line.
She selected a woman of 75, who was supporting her equally aged but more decrepit husband, as they struggled toward the boarding ramp. The officer gently guided the husband to a wall he could lean against and promised, "She'll be right back." The man watched in confusion while his wife went through the procedure.
But the next person the guard selected was a young blond man in a soccer shirt, crew-cutted and smiling -- and also very non-threatening. She laughed and chatted with him.
Since I always fly U.S. Airways, I'm familiar with their system.They used to automatically search every fourth person, but there was no pattern this time. Following the young man, another older woman was pulled from the line. And then I did see a pattern.
Rather than face a lawsuit for racial profiling, the airline is apparently selecting the least likely of the passengers for random checks -- although I expect that if any really did appear threatening, they would check them, too.
And, of course, that saves time and got us off the ground. If they had profiled those with the same apparent ethnic background as Osama bin Laden, on that flight half of us would have been frisked, and that would take all day.