Security Debrief founder/editor Chris Battle and I took to the skies today in search of homeland security adventure – well, actually just a 6:00 AM flight to Dallas/Fort Worth on business, but travel before the sun rises always brings an element of excitement. We’ve just reached our cruising altitude, and I’m tucked in a window seat watching the pre-dawn sky.
Now, unless you have the good fortune to fly business class (which I do not on this flight), airplanes are, on the whole, irritating and uncomfortable. Reverting to our inner six year old, “are we there yet” is the mantra. Airports aren’t much better, and the post-9/11 security checkpoints have been a core cause of travelers’ anxiety.
What do you mean I have to throw my latte out? But I can’t take off my shoes, I’m not wearing socks! Can’t you hurry this up, I’m going to miss my flight! This is just unbelievable, I will not submit to a physical pat down. You’re being ridiculous!
I’ve heard and shared sentiments like these many times. While the terrorist threat is lethal, the day-to-day impact of the War on Terror most felt by Americans is our airport experience, which is more inconvenient than anything else.
Over the last decade, we’ve no doubt gotten much better at aviation security. The checkpoints of today are evidence of that, replete with Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines, advanced baggage scanning, and plenty of Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) learned in TSA SOPs. Certainly, problems still arise and mistakes are still made, but on the whole, airport security is tight.
When I compare my checkpoint experience from this morning with some I’ve had over the last decade, I’ve got to hand it to TSA. Their task is generally thankless, like the dentists of the aviation security realm that no one wants to see ever again after that experience (insert your worst checkpoint story).
Less than a month after al Qaeda attacked on 9/11, I flew to Washington, DC via Newark. I remember camouflaged military personnel, lined up firing squad-style with collared K-9s, sometimes barking and baring their teeth (the dogs that is). There were long, disorganized, twisting lines of frantic fliers, and the checkpoint screeners scrutinized IDs and boarding passes with a speed and grim visage that suggested they actually wanted you to miss your flight. Indeed, Newark that day was a sight more akin to a Third World bus terminal than a major U.S. airport. Flying elbows, screaming children, I think someone actually had a live chicken in a carry-on coop (slight exaggeration there).
Now, Reagan National at 5 AM. The line was blessedly short, but that’s not what impressed me. Rather, waiting for my turn, I heard the TSOs joking like a regular comedy duo. The two characters at the head of my line delivered every punchline with a deadpan expression, which only made their jokes more amusing.
“Ladies and gentleman,” one of them said. “Be sure to take your shoes off before you put them on the conveyer belt.” I’m not sure anyone heard him, because when he received no laughter, he followed it with, “anyone, anyone? Oh well.”
The other TSO started in on the early morning travelers.
“It’s only 5 AM, aren’t you glad to see me? I got up just to see you.” And then he started singing, “I’m sorry Miss Jackson, I am for real. Never meant to make your daughter cry.” He stopped and grinned as a ticketed passenger made for the metal detector. “Hey lady, you know that guy behind you? Hello sir, how are you? Well, it’s nearly birthday time. Happy Birthday.”
And on and on. Now, don’t think for a second that these guys lacked a seriousness of purpose. The officer who received my boarding pass and driver’s license looked closely at my photo and then closely at my face, flashed his UV flashlight to check the security markings on my ID, all the while cracking jokes and keeping the line moving quickly. It was impressive and deserves recognition.
Clearly TSA has worked to improve its procedures. While there will likely always be at least one TSO who just must, absolutely must, for the safety of everyone, hoist a little old lady from her wheelchair and hurl her headlong through the baggage scanner, it seems TSA’s service training is resulting in cordiality and an appreciation that checkpoints are no fun for anyone. A gotcha, traffic cop-attitude doesn’t achieve anything beyond disgruntled fliers.
So, well done, TSA. Thanks for keeping my morning journey as painless (and as safe) as possible.