Don't get mad, get airborne

I am telling you this embarrassing story because I don't want what happened to me to happen to you.

Sitting in the Seattle airport waiting for my plane recently, I decided to run out to the bookstore. My husband had our boarding passes in his pocket.

When I came back through security, the screener asked to see my boarding pass. I showed her my ticket but told her my husband had our boarding passes. She told me to go back to the airline to get a boarding pass. I did.

The line was so long I feared I would miss my plane. "You're an idiot to have made me go through that," I said to the screener as I handed her the new boarding pass.

I was wrong. I was rude.

The screener blew her whistle. A uniformed guard took me away. "Do I look like a terrorist?" I asked him.

That question pressed his hot button. "Are you telling me we should be doing racial profiling?"

He handed me over to the security supervisor.

"I have a mind to prevent you from getting on a plane," the guy said to me. "You can get home anyway you can."

Alaska Airlines is the only carrier that flies from Seattle to Fairbanks. The drive up the Alaska Highway is 2,313 miles.

The security supervisor told me he could bar me from flying for life. He said he had just barred from flying home a man who had called him a "jerk." When I didn't say anything, he gave me permission to speak to him without fear of repercussions. We had a human moment. He let me on my plane.

"The screeners will expect me to ground you," he explained. "They are going to be mad at me."

Airport security, I realized, is just another bureaucracy. Its purpose, protecting passengers, is sometimes displaced by the internal goal of protecting the bureaucrats.

The situation is going to get worse. The new Transportation Security Administration has started to take over security and is increasing the confusion, airport managers tell me. New laws have been enacted that aren't posted in any airport I've been in. Let me warn you:

"Section 1540.109 is a new requirement prohibiting any person from interfering with, assaulting, threatening or intimidating screening personnel in the performance of their duties." (Federal Register, Feb. 22, 2002)

"Raising your voice to a screener," said the Seattle security agent I called the next day, is "intimidation."

It's a judgment call.

This is not to excuse rudeness. Some passengers curse out screeners, even assault them. The point is that these new security procedures were rushed in without much thought. Now we are experiencing the problems, the confusions. We need a national commission to examine airline security.

Many people are distressed because they are subjected to intimate body searches and irritating delays while they see glaring holes in security.

A passenger in the Birmingham International Airport told a friend in line that "security was so lousy he would be able to get through with a bomb in his pants," according to an April 10 story in USA Today.

A screener overheard him and called the police. Both were arrested for disorderly conduct.

A national commission could examine ways to make flying less stressful and improve security in the process. A relaxed, friendly style can actually serve a useful security purpose.

I just returned from a trip to New Orleans, changing planes in Seattle. I was struck by the difference in airport cultures. In Seattle, none of the screeners talked to you or smiled. Every two minutes (I timed it), the loudspeaker broadcast an irritating announcement, such as "unattended baggage presents a security risk and could be confiscated or destroyed."

In New Orleans, the security check was actually a lot more thorough (maybe because they are still embarrassed about missing a loaded gun last October). But the screeners talked to people.

Talking is a security strategy the Israeli airline, El Al, uses; many European airports have adopted the idea. The human eye and brain catch oddities that metal detectors do not.

In New Orleans, I was chosen for the wand. I had to spread my arms and legs and discuss the fasteners on my brassiere. But jazz flowed through the airport speakers, putting us all in a mellow mood. The screeners gave the same warnings they gave up north, but with southern charm.

"Now you take real good care of your bags, hear? Don't let anybody give you anything."

Who could get mad?

• Judith Kleinfeld is professor of psychology at the University of Alaska and the author of books and articles on the cultures of schools.

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