Friday, October 29, 2010

Security, Revisited

As today's discovery of apparently rigged materials sent from Yemen in the cargo holds of commercial aircraft headed to the United States shows, aviation security remains a challenge, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Every person of good will wants travelers and others to remain safe from homicidal fanaticism, religious-inspired or otherwise. The devil, as always, is in the details of how safety can be achieved and maintained.

This latest incident refocuses attention on air cargo, the weak underbelly of civil aviation. Some 90 percent of all cargo travels by sea but the just-in-time inventories of modern business and highly perishable items must travel by air. Thsese shipments need to be checked much more carefully and systematically, and not just in the immediate aftermath of an incident.

On the ground, the U.S.Transportation Security Administration, beginning right about now, is allowing airport security screeners to use the front of their hands on passengers who don't pass through the nearly 400 body-imaging machines now installed in U.S. airports or who are called aside for what agencies insist is random screening. The idea is to find weapons that could be hidden on the persons of travelers or in body cavities. This raises clear and present alarms among civil libertarians, who fear fear that personal privacy will be violated and pat-downs turn out to be feel-ups. TSA officials say not to worry. But the fears are valid. You don't suppose anyone would get a TSA job out of purient interest, do you? Nah, that would be like saying some people become youth coaches or priests and abuse their authority. Couldn't happen.

Come Monday, Nov. 1 a less off-putting policy - namely, TSA's long-pending Secure Flight program - becomes operational at U.S. airports. This is a simple rule requiring air travelers to book their flight reservations under the exact same full name that appears on their government-issued identification such as a passport or driving license, as well as provide their gender and their date of birth. If the documents don't match up, people will be denied boarding and miss their flights. That would be unfortunate, but in the greater scheme of things this is a minor matter.

Terrorists continue to target aviation. Governments continue to move - often clumsily and sometimes thoughtlessly - to counter the threats to aircraft and airports. And travelers continue to suffer frustration, anxiety and humiliation. It's a bad situation, but might as well get used to it. It's going to be with us for years to come, probably decades.

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