By Joe Brancatelli
January 21, 2010 -- I was going to write about fares this week. Or credit cards. Or any of a dozen things that you've been asking me about in the last few weeks.

But here we are talking about airline and airport security once again. Why? Because right now it is chewing up absurd amounts of our time and it is mired in ugly politics and bumptious bureaucratic tail chasing. Security is important, literally a life-or-death issue. But, somehow, all of that is getting lost. Witness what we've seen in the last few days.

Leaderless since President Obama took office a year ago this week, the Transportation Security Administration will continue stumbling in the dark and rifling through underwear for the foreseeable future. Erroll Southers, Obama's pick for the TSA's top job, withdrew his name from consideration on Tuesday. He issued the formulaic "I don't want to be a distraction anymore" statement. It was followed by ritualistic wringing of hands by the Administration and linguistic victory dances by Republicans.

Whatever his qualifications (Southers was a top cop at Los Angeles airport and a recognized security expert) and his drawbacks (two decades ago he used his law-enforcement connections to conduct icky, inappropriate personal research and then initially misled the Senate about it), Southers is a political, not operational, casualty.

Jim DeMint, a Republican Senator from South Carolina, put a personal hold on Southers' confirmation after his nomination sailed through the appropriate Senate committees. DeMint's beef: Southers was insufficiently strident in his opposition to allowing TSA personnel to unionize. DeMint is best-known as the Senator who advocates the defeat of any kind of health reform because that would "break" the Obama presidency.

Despite tongue-tied attempts to cloak obstructionism as principled opposition immediately following the Underwear Bomber's unsuccessful Christmas Day attack, DeMint was single-minded: Southers had to go because he didn't align with DeMint's personal code of anti-union evangelism. No matter that there was no actual evidence that Southers would allow the unionization of the TSA. No matter that unionizing the TSA isn't illegal or anything. DeMint used the Senate's arcane rules of personal privilege to stand in the metaphoric schoolhouse door.

In recent weeks, several other Republican Senators rallied to DeMint's cause. But they did so only after the public disclosure of Southers' 20-year-old contretemps. And they conveniently ignored the fact that Southers corrected the record after his Senate testimony, a ploy used so frequently and so successfully by so many Bush and Clinton Administration nominees.

There's plenty of blame to parcel out to Democrats, too. President Obama was unconscionably late in nominating a TSA Administrator: Southers wasn't chosen until September. They were inept in pushing back against DeMint in the months after Southers cleared committee. They were unable to force DeMint to relent even after the Underwear Bomber put airline security back on the nation's collective radar and made DeMint look like the hack he is. And Harry Reid, the increasingly wimpy and whiny Senate Majority Leader, never even attempted to use his formidable parliamentary bag of tricks to force a vote on Southers' nomination.

Would Southers have made a good TSA boss? Would he have cleaned house at the TSA, which is populated by Bush holdovers who have a seven-year record of guilty-until-proven-innocent nitpicking at airport checkpoints? Would he have restored a measure of sanity and purpose to an agency that has been adrift almost since its creation in November, 2001?

Who the hell knows? Now we still have no leader at the TSA. We still don't know whether Obama's approach to airport and airline security is better or worse than Bush's tactics. We must wait for a new nominee and for the inevitable Republican obstructionism for the sake of political advantage. A pox on both of their houses.

At Munich Airport yesterday, German authorities emptied one of the terminals after a man rushed through security when screeners decided his laptop tested positive for explosives. Oh, scary, you say. True enough, but the story apparently isn't what it seems.

After the frightening initial reports, it turns out the laptop in question simply failed the very preliminary test for explosives. You know, the one that has recently misidentified honey as a lethal weapon. And the laptop's owner was no wild-eyed, potential radical. He is an average-looking 50ish man with glasses. (I promise, it wasn't me…)

"It was evidently a businessman who wanted to catch his plane," a police spokesman at Munich Airport said. "The man probably didn't even realize that he was being requested to stay for another laptop examination."

Since no planes have exploded in the 24 hours since the passenger dubbed Mister X by the German media "escaped" with his laptop, we can assume he wasn't a threat and didn't have explosives.

Leaving aside the insanely obvious and dangerous--How is a passenger able to retrieve a "suspect" laptop from security screeners, move past the checkpoint and disappear, all unchallenged?--there's this: Maybe the guy decided not to waste another second on the security kabuki. (What's German for kabuki?) Maybe he just said "Screw it!" (That would be "Schraube es!") Maybe he just ignored it all and took his flight.

Maybe we should all be more like Mister X.

The intersection between security and commerce is sometimes hard to discern unless you're a stone-cold pragmatist. And it's hard sometimes to see it work in your own country. But, thankfully, we can watch Canada, a wonderful nation that has to deal with the fact that it has a sometimes wild-eyed 800-pound gorilla on its border.

Immediately after the Underwear Bomber struck, the United States demanded more security kabuki on incoming flights from foreign destinations, including our friends to the north. The always-compliant Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) acted and that promptly overwhelmed its system for processing transborder flights. Flights were going out hours late or not at all. So the Canadian government decided to relieve the pressure on Air Canada, WestJet and the U.S. carriers serving Canada by instituting a draconian no-carry-on-bag rule.

The rule essentially got the planes running on-time again, but was insanely burdensome on passengers. Flyers were being forced to show up three or even four hours early to navigate the new system. And it created a new level of security kabuki: Passengers were eventually allowed to carry on laptops and then laptop bags to protect their laptops. But if you showed up at security with a laptop bag that didn't have a laptop in it, you were turned away. If it wasn't so unbelievable, we'd have a great McKenzie Brothers sketch for The Great White North.

But just as CATSA imposed the no-bag rule to mollify airlines, a new commercial consideration looms: the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which open in just 22 days. And despite the official whispers that the no-bag rule wouldn't be lifted to accommodate the increased transborder traffic before, during and after the Olympics, the obvious commercial imperatives always win out. CATSA yesterday lifted the no-carry-on bag rule. The regulations are still marginally more restrictive than they were (examine them here), but they show that security and commerce are inextricably bound.

On January 11, a gun dealer boarded a Midwest Airlines flight with shotgun shells that TSA screeners didn't pick up in their supposedly more thorough, post-Underwear Bomber checks of carry-on bags. When the dealer realized he had the shells in his carry-on bag, he voluntarily alerted a flight attendant. The plane, which had pushed back for take-off, returned to the gate. The gun dealer turned the ammo over to the TSA, which then interviewed the passenger and decided he posed no threat.

So what did the TSA do next? It re-screened the gun dealer at the security checkpoint before allowing him to reboard his flight. Because, you know, he might have had other contraband that he'd forgotten about and the TSA would have missed again.

ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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