FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — It's never been more dangerous for an American to travel. I'm not talking about fear of terrorists or faltering jet engines.
It's the folks who work in airports you have to watch out for.
A recent experience with an American Airlines supervisor conducting an identification check points up the peril faced by would-be air travelers who aren't extremely careful about what they say inside an airport.
My story revolves around an inadvertent use of the "T" word and how it brought me within a syllable of being tossed into jail.
It began early Monday when I drove my wife and son to the Fort Lauderdale airport for a flight to New York City.
When we arrive at the ticket counter, my wife is informed that she can't use her ticket because the name on the ticket does not match the name on her driver's license. My wife - like many women today - has retained her maiden name as her legal name. The tickets were booked by her brother in New York, and he apparently used the wrong name.
When we explain this to the supervisor, she says we must present our marriage license and some other form of government-issued photo ID. Short of that, she says, we could pay an additional $75 to have my wife's ticket reissued.
It seems American Airlines understands that an honest mistake has been made, but they are going to make us pay for it. I tell the supervisor that it doesn't seem fair.
Fairness has nothing to do with it, she replies. The company is merely following the strict regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA requires airlines to ask passengers for ID when they check their bags. It is an effort, in part, to prevent delivery of a bomb-packed suitcase by an unsuspecting traveler who may have been given a free ticket (purchased under a false name) in exchange for carrying an extra bag.
I suggest that the $75 fee undermines the central purpose of the FAA security regulations.
And right here is where I get into trouble. I say: "The reason for this [ID] policy is to protect airline security. But this $75 fee doesn't make sense. If we were terrorists we would just pay the fee and defeat your security system."
The supervisor looks me in the eye, picks up the phone receiver, and calls for the police. I am about to be placed under arrest for using the "T" word.
During this entire encounter my nine-year-old son has been at my side. There is nothing said by anyone that could not be repeated in front of young children.
Nonetheless, I had uttered the "T" word and I am about to pay by losing my liberty. If convicted, I could face up to five years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine.
I hadn't seen the actual law yet, but it seems to me that the American Airlines supervisor is either exercising extremely poor judgment or abusing her authority by using deputy sheriffs
and the threat of arrest to scare customers who raise questions about security procedures.
By the time the deputy sheriffs arrive, the supervisor has apparently changed her mind and doesn't want to press charges.
One of the deputies takes the opportunity to give me some advice that I now pass on to you. "Whatever you do, don't use the 'B' word or the 'G' word," he whispers.
"The 'G' word," I whisper back. "What's the 'G' word?''
The deputy sees the light of recognition in my face as I figure out what the "G" word is. I raise a finger and open my mouth.
"Don't say it," the deputy warns.
I close my mouth and nod.
Everyone knows it is stupid, dangerous, and unlawful to make jokes in an airport about bombs and guns or to falsely suggest that you might have a bomb or gun. Such "jokes" can divert the attention of security personnel who have an important job to do. Recent events in Africa underscore the seriousness of their work.
But according to federal law, there is nothing illegal about using the "B", the "G", or even the "T" word in a responsible conversation in an airport or anywhere else.
When I check with the FAA in Washington, I discover that FAA regulations do not require presentation of photo ID to travel by plane. The stricter photo ID requirement is imposed by the airlines themselves.
The FAA permits airlines to carry passengers who don't have any identification, provided the airline applies alternative security measures. That means that someone who doesn't have a photo ID should be asked to submit to a luggage search instead and face similar security checks.
American Airlines never requested such a search. Instead my wife simply paid $75 to change the name on her ticket. In an apparent violation of FAA security regulations, her bags were loaded into the plane with everyone else's.
Had we been the kind of people who seek to destroy innocent lives for a political purpose (I'm trying to avoid using the "T" word here), that plane may never had made it to New York City.
No one at American Airlines wants to talk about that. And the last thing in the world I want to do is return to a ticket counter to try to make my point again.