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 The Brancatelli File

joe EVERYTHING'S ALRIGHT
AT AIRPORT SECURITY


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

July 11, 2002 -- You can't pay me to travel during holiday periods. I mean, literally. Whenever a client has asked me to fly on the days just before or after a holiday such as Fourth of July, Christmas, Thanksgiving or Labor Day, my answer has always been a resounding "No!"

I'm a business traveler and I don't fly with the amateurs. When the Leisure-Travel Louies and Louises come out to fly, I stay home. Airports are icky enough without the horde of rugrats headed to theme parks, the army of put-upon parents, the brigade of baby carriages or the once-a-year prima donnas demanding free upgrades on their $99 flights to Aspen or Santa Fe or Paris.

I don't begrudge these folks their travel--quite the contrary, I am a fervent admirer of anyone who finds joy in loading up the minivan and heading for the airport--I just don't want to fly with them. My frequent flying is work. Their infrequent flying is ostensibly fun. I labor mightily to ensure that the twain never meet.

But there I was at LaGuardia Airport in New York on July 3, me with my three-pound laptop and one carry-on bag and the rest of America with their prams and golf clubs and three-ton backpacks. Because while you can't pay me to fly during the holidays, there are some things I'll do for love. And when my wife called and begged me to get on a plane to Pittsburgh to help her with a Fourth of July event, I dutifully did what I wouldn't do for money.

I freely admit that I learned something. Flying on July 3, hanging around the airport during a frenzied period of holiday flying and then flying home on a holiday weekend, I learned that America is okay with our current airport security regimen.

The pompous martinets who run the nation's major airlines are whining that our onerous and often imprecise new security-screening procedures are costing them customers. The fatuous fools who run the nation's airports are bitching that they can't handle the new security measures and can't afford the upcoming mandates. Self-aggrandizing hack politicians are suggesting that maybe we should push back our fast-approaching deadlines to federalize security screeners and check all bags for explosives. Frequent flyers like you and I are openly disgruntled with the uneven procedures, the ever-changing rules and the mindless, random gate searches.

But every one of the average Americans I ran into at the airports over the Fourth of July travel period is perfectly fine with security. They'll happily wait on long lines if they think it makes them safer. They may not understand why they can't bring their $4 cups of Starbucks through security, but they accept it. They don't complain when their 8-year-old kid or 80-year-old granny is targeted for a gate search. And they sure as hell don't want to hear that the unholy trinity of airline moguls, airport bureaucrats and political hacks want to curtail security spending and defer security deadlines.

Ten months after September 11 changed their lives, Americans want more airport security, not less. They don't want looser deadlines and self-serving bean counting. They figure they're paying for the extra security with their time and their tax dollars and they want more action, not less.

"The President says we're in a war with terrorism, so waiting in a line doesn't seem like that much of a sacrifice," said Cindy Sterling, who described herself as a "two or three times a year" traveler. "I want to be safe here, to feel safe here, to know that I can fly with my children with confidence."

Sterling was waiting to clear security at LaGuardia when I spoke to her. She was headed to Pittsburgh, too, but was then continuing on to Orlando with her three children and a full load of toys, games, juice boxes and diapers. I helped her with her carry-ons, then handed her my business card and told her to call me if she ever needed me.

My mobile phone rang on July 6--it was Cindy calling from her hotel room in Orlando. She'd just heard about the shootings at the El Al counter at Los Angeles International on July 4 and she was frightened to fly home. "I'm really nervous now," she said. "Should I rent a car and drive home?"

No, I told her, I was sure she'd be fine. Besides, I added, driving on the Interstates is a lot more dangerous than flying.

"Okay," she said, "but I'm sure glad I've seen so many policemen around the airports."

Cindy's worried call drove me to wander out to Pittsburgh International later that day to check out the action. The security lines were long, but moving swiftly enough. And as I worked the lines, interviewing anything that moved, the comments were again unanimous.

Security is okay. Waiting in lines is okay. Anything that makes us feel safe is okay.

"I'm really surprised how pleasant and cooperative even the most harried traveler is," one security screener told me when I caught up with her during a shift change. A 5-year veteran of Huntleigh, the private firm that handles security screening at Pittsburgh, she requested anonymity, but was effusive in her praise for the forbearance of the common, everyday leisure flyer.

"Travelers have been coming up to me and thanking us for double-checking their bag," she said. "They don't mind getting wanded. Most of them aren't happy when we ask to test their shoes or do a more intrusive search, but they all seem to understand."

I don't suggest for a moment that airports have become sugarplum fairylands where happy passengers are blithely complying with Gestapo-like security tactics. You go to the airports. You see what's going on. We are not living the lush life.

But, as far as I can tell, there's no support out in America for less security or less security spending or longer time frames to implement long-overdue additional security measures. If anything, the average American wants to spend more on airport security. And they surely don't want to hear airline executives or airport managers complain about the burdens that extra security puts on the system.

"Tell them to shut up and do their jobs," said Richard Carson, a 75-year-old veteran of World War II who was headed for a flight to Minneapolis to visit his grandchildren. "No one said this was going to be easy. Just tell the politicians and the businessmen to zip their lips and get it done."

And then there was this small moment of enlightenment from Sunday, July 7. An early-morning US Airways flight from Pittsburgh to LaGuardia was being delayed for about 30 minutes because the pilot was, as the gate agent euphemistically explained, "delayed at security."

Not a single traveler in the boarding area went up to the podium to seek clarification. Not a single person uttered an audible complaint. The flight was going to be full and the gate area was overflowing, but there was no bitching, no moaning and no grousing.

"There goes our brunch reservation at Tavern on the Green," said Steve Thomas, half of a young couple waiting for the flight. "I guess that's okay."

"Don't you think it's silly to hold up a flight because the pilot is being screened like any average Joe?" I asked.

"No, I don't," replied LeAnn McDonald, the other half of the couple heading for New York. "I'm sure we can find another place for brunch, so I'm willing to wait. What are you doing that's more important than making sure this flight is safe?"

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.