Avoiding the airline hassle

The present controversy over the new heightened security at our nation’s airports highlights what happens when technology, privacy, austerity, fear and inconvenience all come together in a vital activity.

Many of us over a certain age remember when flying was an adventure, often a fairly luxurious adventure. I remember taking a flight from New York City to Miami in the 1950s. There were no searches, only agreeable airline employees who wanted to make the flight smoother for passengers. I don’t recall long waits to board the plane and when you got on the plane the seats were actually wide enough for the average person to sit on.

There was a bit of fear since these were the days when some planes were hijacked to Cuba, but the odds of taking that extra trip were very low and, anyway, the Cuban authorities generally behaved decently to victims of hijacking and sent them home quickly.

Everything is different today. Today, nobody gets onto an airplane without wondering whether there’s a terrorist in the next row. We’ve had shoe bombers, underwear bombers and, now, bombs in toner packs. We’ve all gotten used to having our luggage X-rayed, our nailfiles and pocket knives confiscated, and being ordered to walk through those metal doorways without our shoes.

It’s annoying and time-consuming. But still the terrorists seem to find new ways to smuggle bombs onto planes. People continue to be scared, and the federal government, in the role of “Daddy Protector” is constantly trying to improve security and defeat terrorist acts.

Unfortunately, the technology that private companies have developed at the government’s call now seems to be just a little too good. Now we are asked to go through new screening devices that leave little to the imagination. Instead of worrying that terrorists might be smuggling in bombs, we’re worried that TSA inspectors are sniggling at pictures of our private parts. Now, suddenly, our privacy rights are being invaded.

There is, of course, an alternative. We can choose not to go through the new scanners, either from fear of exposing ourselves to strangers or from fear that these machines may not be as benign as we’re told and might actually harm us. So passengers can now opt for an intrusive “pat down,” the sort of technique previously reserved for dangerous criminal and drug dealers. Not surprisingly, a whole lot of folks don’t like these either. So what do we do as citizens?

Well, there are several solutions. One solution is simply to stop being so frightened of terror attacks on planes and accept a certain level of risk. A second solution is to stay scared, tuck in our bellies, and go through the heightened screening procedures. One idea which has been floating about is to permit people to undergo prior investigations by the government so that they can get “trusted passenger” status and not have to be screened every time. This prior screening, of course, will be expensive, and nobody knows how effective it will be.

As for myself, I’ve already adopted a coping strategy. I bought myself a very comfortable new car. It gets good mileage, has plenty of room for luggage and no extra charges, and the odds of a terrorist smuggling a bomb into it are, thankfully, quite small. As other folks wait in line to be irritated at airports, I’ll be on the road in that most American of all forms of transport: my car.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.