The Brancatelli File



February 21, 2002 -- First, the news: The federal government began exerting some hands-on control of airport security last Sunday and one of the Transportation Security Administration’s first acts was to abolish special security lines for elite frequent flyers and premium-class travelers. Although the phaseout has just begun, elite security lines have already disappeared at airports in Los Angeles, Seattle-Tacoma, Cincinnati and Salt Lake City.

Second, the scold: Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Back on December 6, the lead item of the Tactical Traveler column quoted Transportation Department officials as saying the elite lines could not be continued once the federal government controlled security. I am sorry not a single one of my colleagues in the mainstream media chose to write about this fact. And I am disgusted that several otherwise reliable journalists actually let airline spinmeisters convince them to report that the government wouldn’t shut down the special lines. But if you come to this Website, you can’t do a Claude Rains and claim you are shocked--shocked!--to learn that the government won’t be operating special security lines that cater to your frequent-flyer status.

Next, an advisory: Don’t listen to the airlines when they moan about the government’s decision. The airlines lobbied for decades to get out of the security part of commercial air transportation, so they have no right to criticize the government as it assumes control of airport security. Moreover, the airlines ran airport security checkpoints for 30 years and they never bothered to create special security lines for frequent flyers until after September 11. Their claim that they are concerned about giving good service to their best customers is laughable on its face.

Finally, a point of personal disclosure: I am an elite-level member of several frequent-flyer programs and, thankfully, am often able to fly in a premium class. I have used and benefited from these special lines many times since the airlines began creating them late last year.

All that said, here is what I believe: Good riddance to bad security policy. The Transportation Security Administration is right to eliminate special lines for elite frequent-flyer program members and travelers who fly in the premium classes.

This, my friends, is still America, no matter how much it has been redefined since September 11. The government, which now runs airport security, must not discriminate on the grounds of race, religion, sex, ethnic origin--or your personal business relationship with a privately owned airline.

Why should our tax dollars--and our newly minted $10 security fees--be spent in Atlanta to create special lines just for Delta’s most frequent flyers? Why should United or American elite-level travelers in Chicago get preferential government treatment? Why should Newark flyers get expedited service from government-operated and government-funded security because they are elite-level members of Continental’s frequent-flyer program?

We are all citizens before we are frequent flyers. And, as citizens, we’d be appalled if the government opened special airport security lines that catered only to white men. We’d be justifiably enraged if Protestants got a special security line. So why the hell should frequent flyers get preferential government treatment just because they spend a lot of money with a private business such as Northwest Airlines or Alaska Airlines?

What would be next? Special security lines for big campaign contributors? Special security lines for government bureaucrats? Elite bypass lines for disgraced Enron executives?

Admit it, fellow travelers, in your heart you know that the Transportation Security Administration’s decision, inconvenient as it may be, is the right thing to do. It is right on the law and right on the ethics. We’ve abandoned enough of our civil rights in the name of homeland security since September 11. Let’s not give up the fundamental assumption that all flyers, all people, are created equal.

Yet the demise of the airlines’ jury-rigged elite security lines does raise a practical issue that has haunted air travel since September 11. All travelers may be created equal, but most flyers are less of a security risk than the very small minority of lunatics who might want to blow up or hijack an airplane. How do we practically, fairly and reliably separate the harmless, low-risk wheat from the potentially murderous chaff?

Many pundits have suggested a “trusted flyer” program. I’ve yet to hear how a trusted-flyer plan would work, how travelers could apply, and how they could be qualified and approved. Yet this supposed magic bullet has acquired a cutting-edge buzz among the small clique of talking heads who claim to know better than the rest of us.

If you could flesh out the many prickly details, I suppose a trusted-flyer program could work--and the government even has a vague, albeit it long-ignored, template. Over the years, a trickle of frequent overseas travelers has enrolled in INSPASS, an Immigration and Naturalization Service plan that speeds immigration clearance for authorized travelers. Sadly, the INSPASS program is an operational failure, plagued by low visibility, government neglect and frequent mechanical failure.

We’re just five months removed from September 11. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. And the next several months are sure to be truly ugly for us frequent travelers who have been receiving comparatively special treatment at airport security checkpoints.

But, in the larger scheme of things, I can live with that. Our and our government’s journey down the path of airline security shouldn’t start with the airlines arbitrarily anointing some passengers as more fundamentally equal than others.

The airlines don’t have that kind of moral authority--and we should never, ever allow them to think that they do.

This column originally appeared at

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