Monday, August 10, 2009

Keeping the Nation Safe from Toothpaste

Here is some recommended summer reading, travel division:

Check out the Room for Debate blog on the the New York Times site, An Aug. 1 discussion excerpts a few of some 600 reader suggestions on how to improve domestic U.S. air travel, and it makes for reading that is by turns funny, infuriating, all-too-familar and occasionally thought-provoking.

The posting that resonated the most with me came from a reader who complained about the treatment from Transportation Security Administration airport screeners over toothpaste:

"On a recent flight from Phoenix airport, a security agent confiscated my toothpaste, because it was labeled 4 ounces and the limit was only three. This in spite of the fact that the squeezed-up tube showed that I had obviously already used up more than half of the contents. I realize that we have to take precautions to protect ourselves from the fanatics and nutcases of the world, but surely there is room for a little common sense.''

One would think so, dear reader and fellow-traveler, And yet, there seems to be something about toothpaste that makes American security agents all the more rigid and suspicious at airport screening stations.

Recently, my wife was stopped at San Francisco International Airport by a screener who rifled through her neatly packed carry-on suitcase, declining to say what he was looking for, while taking his sweet time while doing it. Finally, he pulled out an offending item: My wife's toothpaste, a 9-ouncer, which he confiscated. Too big, he said. It ran counter to the 3-ounce-maximum rule for liquids and gels, he said. When my wife pointed out that her toothpaste was a clearly labeled paste, not a gel, he said nothing. There was no relenting on an arbitrary decision and no apology for the wild goose chase and her now-riotously disorganized suitcase.

Look, we all realize that overworked and lightly paid airport screeners have an important job to do. But all too often, they're not doing it. Reporters and undercover Feds routinely sneak forbidden items through porous security in tests, and the frequent lack of courtesy at many U.S. airports offends foreign visitors unnecessarily and rankles Americans, themselves. The Times reader had it right: A little common sense, not to mention civility, would go a long way.

Oh, one more thing in that exchange that's worth noting: It includes a rare defense of (sensitive) profiling at airports:

"Get rid of the silly, non-effective so-called security measures,'' another readers writes. "My 71-year-old mother, with health problems, should not need to remove her shoes and be treated like a 23-year-old man. Exclusionary profiling makes sense at airports.''

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