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Airport Insecurity Frying in the unfriendly skies
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Zepp's Commentaries
July 22, 2004

The 9/11 commission report came out today, briefly knocking aside the great Sandy Berger non-story that the Republicans were hoping to turn into a major scandal, at least as soon as they could figure out what Berger did wrong besides violate handling of secret materials regulations.

Complete with the report came a separate news story, of video stills released by the prosecuting attorneys in a civil suit filed against American Airlines which showed four of the hijackers being checked out and passed through airport security that fateful morning.

Three of the hijackers even set off the metal detectors and were subsequently wanded. You've all seen the wands. Bored security guards wave them around, the wands make a continuous stream of squeals and moans, and basically tell the security guard that he is, in fact, wearing a wrist watch on his own left wrist.

The photos will shock people who have never spent much time around airline security. For folks in the airline industry who ARE familiar with security, the images will doubtlessly spark rounds of stories in the employee lounge about how Uncle Fred got eighteen pounds of plutonium through American on a trip to Hawaii, or the one about the guy who carried an Uzi through in plain sight and none of the guards recognized that it was a weapon. If one of the security guards swings through and shares a fatty with the mechanics, the topic might turn to the incredible things the guards DO find in luggage, and tell the tale about how a woman's vibrator shut down LAX for an hour and a half.

This was back in the eighties, and airport security, then as now, was at best ineffective and at worst a bad joke. In fact, it may be worse now. I'll get to that.

In 1982, airlines contracted with private firms to provide the warm bodies, and maintained the scanning equipment themselves. They would pay the security firms something like eleven dollars per man hour, and in return would get somebody in a blue pseudo-cop uniform who was making $4.25 an hour.

I had friends on the Airport Patrol, none of whom were real hesitant about sharing their disdain and concern regarding airport security (AP only interacted with actual airline security when there was a bellicose passenger accosting one of the unarmed security guards (not so much as a nail file. The macho boys were always disgusted that they couldn't wear their PR24s and just whack the hell out of some asshole liberal who really had it coming).

I got a pretty hair-raising look at what airport security consisted of.

For minimum wage, the quality of employee you get is something of a crap shoot. You might get someone who is sober, reasonably intelligent, conscientious and reliable, but that's generally not the way to bet. As a rule, we would get the dregs.

Guards showing up drunk usually wasn't a ongoing problem. Those type would show up three hours late, barf on the shoes of a pilot, get hauled away, and we would never see them again. The dealers usually didn't self-destruct as quickly, and as often as not, a dealer guard might leave the job at the age of 25 in order to retire to Hawaii, after six months at minimum wage. The drug war hadn't yet turned into the draconian exercise in prohibition that we see today, and nobody much cared if the guard made a couple of bucks getting the skycap ripped. If Joe Friday got caught selling acid to one of the airline mechanics, there would be hell to pay, of course, but they rarely got caught. Usually guards used more than they sold, with the result that you would see a guard watching vaguely menacing shadows scroll right to left across his xray screen with the same big fascinated grin that someone watching his team take a two point lead in the third quarter of the Superbowl might wear. If the guard was seeing weapons, he thought they were hilarious.

A combination of minimum wage and fake authority brought some interesting pathologies. You would get guys who spent every minute of every waking hour realizing that under all those clothes, all women are naked. Gawd alone knows what finding a vibrator in a suitcase did to their general state of mind.

One guy decided he felt the need for a little job security, and took up calling in bomb threats every week or so.

Even the guards who weren't dealers, dopers or psychotic could present special problems. We had a girl from Belize who was pleasant, intelligent, reliable and sober. Her name was unpronounceable, so we all just called her Gertie. The only trouble is that she was technologically illiterate, and had no understanding of why she was sending suitcases through that conveyer belt tunnel affair.

My girlfriend was watching the screen with a Superbowl smile when the contents of one of the shapes MOVED. She watched, incredulous, as a cat skeleton stretched and then proceeded to start licking about a half inch from the vertebrae in its tail. Gertie had sent someone's pet cat in a carrier through.

This flight included lots of mothers taking newborn babies to visit doting grandparents. Everyone decided to start keeping a closer eye on Gertie.

What did her in, however, was sending through something that was quite appropriate: a package containing canned milk. The guy, father of a baby, hit the roof, screaming that Gertie had irradiated his child's milk, and raising such a fuss that the airline sent Gertie home on the spot. Security back then took a distant second to customer relations.

It still does. Post 9/11, it was agreed that airline security should be a federal agency. Good pay, benefits, job security meant permanent, motivated, well trained guards. It was a good idea that would have addressed the glaring problems of airline security.

So Putsch dug in his heels and demanded a federal agency that had guards at low pay, few bennies, little training, and no job security. Ideology, you see; he didn't want guards that were part of any evil union. Much better that the lives of millions be put at risk.

It was a system designed to fail, and fail it has. Guards are ill-equipped to prevent a 9/11. They are still at the mercy of nervous airline PR guys, subject to abuse from passengers who are fed up with having to wait three hours to board a plane, and still unrespected and unloved by the airlines, by police, and by the public. To add insult to injury, they are resented because it's supposed that as federal employees, they have good pay, good training, good benefits and job security. In fact they have none of those things because Putsch's libertarian buddies keep telling him that the free market could prevent 9/11 from happening again.

Just like they did the last time.

When you look at the still vid shots of the terrorists going through airport security, don't look at the terrorists - they're just nutjobs who died a few hours later.

Instead, watch the guards. Nothing has changed since then.

And consider taking the train for your next vacation.

Posted: July 23, 2004


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