It is of pointless excercises that I speak…

Recently returned from a lovely honeymoon in the Bahamas I’ve got plenty of overwhelmingly pleasant thoughts on my mind, so you’d think I’d share one of those with my gentle readers. Nah!

This was my first airline voyage since the latest nonsense that passes for [tag]airport security[/tag] was instituted. I honestly didn’t miss my wee bottle of overpriced drinking water. I was a bit annoyed to have to pack my hair gel in my checked bag though – what with how the pressure in the baggage hold of an airplane changes many times in the course of a flight causing the contents on one unsealed bottle of hair gel to excrete themselves all over one corner of the interior of my bag. I was wise enough to leave the bottle at the hotel before packing for the return flight.

What struck me most though was how very non-secure our airports still are. The automatons who check your ID against the name on your boarding pass are still filled by the witless ranks of the elderly who all seem to be related to one another that they were prior to [tag]9/11/01[/tag]. I’m convinced that most of these people cannot even read my passport let alone discern whether or not the name in that document matches the name on my boarding pass.

And then there is the casual observation of people holding supposedly secure doors open for one another, a few instances where the people operating the screening equipment didn’t seem to know how it worked (or, more importantly, how to interpret what they were seeing on their screens) and the oft noted by others problem of the relative lack of attention to the job at hand exhibited by the folks who are, at least in theory, supposed to be keeping us safe and secure.

I’ve written about it before and I might as well say it again – I’m not fooled by any of this. None of the steps taken to try to make flying safer in the wake of 9/11/01 have actually accomplished that goal. You do not see news stories about screeners and [tag]TSA[/tag] agents stopping people at the check-points with guns, explosives, nasty chemicals or even toenail clippers. You do pretty regularly hear reports of whole airports being cleared because someone got one of the above items past a check-point. Then there’s the whole issue of the guy with the bomb in his shoes who only failed to set it off because he couldn’t get his lighter to work. All of this hoo-ha is about perception, not reality. It’s there to convince the average middle-class American traveler that flying, contrary to logic, reason and sanity, is safe, when it is not, and quite frankly never has been.

The TSA doesn’t exist to protect you and me, gentle reader. It’s there to protect the pocket-books of the shareholders of [tag]United[/tag], [tag]American[/tag], [tag]Delta[/tag], [tag]Continental[/tag], [tag]Northwest[/tag], [tag]Southwest[/tag] and maybe even [tag]JetBlue[/tag]. Because if we stopped feeling safe on their planes, particularly in the case of business travel, which is the bread and butter of all the major airlines, then we’d probably stop flying. And if we do that, they’re out of business in a hurry.

The thing that continues to boggle my mind though is that we are no five years hence from the events of 9/11/06 and the traveling public have pretty much accepted the big and little indignities that continued fear of Islamic wingnuts who want to blow up planes brings with it, but the airlines really haven’t. You can tell this just by looking at the airports themselves, in particular the check-in counters and security screening areas. I’ll pick on [tag]Miami International Airport[/tag] in Florida for a second. At the check-in counter for American Airlines you get your boarding pass, the service person at the counter prints out your baggage claim tags and affixes them to your bags and then you have to walk your bags around through to a makeshift holding area in front of the big machine that screens your bags for nasty contraband. The holding area is constructed of those tensabarrier stancions with retractable “ropes” on them.

Now I’m a facilities manager by trade. That means I’m in the business of modifying and maintaining business facilities. As a matter of fact I took an exam a little over a year ago to establish that I am something of an expert in the field. One thing about us facilities geeks – we pay a lot of attention to airports. Airports are if not the most difficult to maintain and renovate they’re in the top 5. They’re open every day for typically something approaching 20 hours a day of business and they’ve got astronomical amounts of customers moving in and out of them. If you’re a facilities geek you’re bowled over by what airport facilities managers deal with on a daily basis from a maintenance perspective and just wowed by the mere act of renovating or replacing a major system in such a facility. To put it mildly, if you’ve ever been in an airport and been impressed with how clean it is, that’s the mark of a brilliant facilities manager and his/her staff.

So, airport facilities people know how to get things done. It is therefor beyond bizarre that in nearly every major airport in the US of A hardly any permanent facilities modifications have been undertaken to accommodate the security requirements imposed post 9/11/01. The big, no huge, baggage screening machine sitting in the middle of the floor in front of the American Airlines check-in counter in Miami is a glaring example of this. This is an ugly and noisy machine. That’s plenty good reason to stick it behind the counter or in a back room somewhere, nevermind the ludicrousness of having passengers haul their bags to a little roped off waiting area in front of it where they’re guarded by one extremely bored and disinterested airline (not TSA – note) security staffer.

Then we have the areas in nearly every US airport where you line up to be screened before you go to your gate. At [tag]Oakland Airport[/tag] the half-assed system that was thrown together the week after 9/11/01 is still there. Likewise at [tag]SFO[/tag], [tag]Chicago O’Hare[/tag] and every other airport I’ve been in since.

You might ask why this is? The answer is simple – the airlines are either unwilling or unable to accept that the current situation, the one we’ve been living with for the past five years, is permanent. You see every dollar spent on facilities at US airports is paid for by the airlines who pay rent for their gates, baggage handling areas, hangers and check-in counters to the local governmental agencies that own the airports themselves. If the airlines don’t want to pay for it, it doesn’t get done. Oakland International is building a new terminal. That is happily being paid for by United, Southwest and the other major carriers who use Oakland airport, but a major modification to the security screening area to make it more comfortable or efficient for passengers? No way, dude.

The airlines just don’t care. They’re barely functional right now as businesses. Sure, Southwest, JetBlue and a few other budget carriers are doing well, but the big guys, United, American, Delta, etc. – they’re screwed. They only maintain their profitability by squeezing concessions out of their mechanics, pilots and flight attendants. Think about that a minute – the airlines are keeping themselves afloat by making the act of working for them less profitable for the people on whom not only the safety of your flight (I don’t know about you, but a disgruntled mechanic working on the hydrolics of a plane I’m flying on doesn’t exactly make me feel cosy) but the pleasantness of the flight depends. Obviously they’ve got very little motivation to expend money on supporting a situation that has done nothing good for their bottom lines. I’d be surprised, in fact, if the airlines weren’t pretty much continuously lobbying [tag]Congress[/tag] and the [tag]White House[/tag] to undo all of the safety measures that have been imposed since 9/11/01.

I leave you, my dear reader with this, from my dear friend Jenny, relating a recent airline experience of her own that makes it very clear that our current security set-up for air travel is a very big, and not very funny, joke:

As we flew out to California, Robert had the joy of listening to my endless, ranting diatribes about how shamefully ridiculous I feel our airport “security” measures to be… In short, the whole thing is an insulting disgrace, and the idea that surrendering our lighters and putting our shoes through a metal detector is somehow making our country SAFER just about sends me through the roof. The sight of tidy lines of people mutely, sheepishly taking off their shoes and outer garments as they approach metal detectors just infuriates me, and I rage internally about the whole thing. [Please note that I of course rage internally – because even *I* have accepted the fact that if I mutter one comment out-loud, I’ll be whisked underground and find a latexed fist up my ass before I can say “God bless our troops…”]

Robert agrees (at least in theory) with MOST of my ranting, but counters that maybe we really DON’T want sharp things and lighters on planes these days… Well, guess how many times our nation’s stalwart Heroes o’ Security (HO’S) have neglected to find the various sharp things and lighters that I’ve absently left in my carry-on luggage over the years? (Many times, that’s how many.)

And what about LIQUIDS? I now can’t carry a bottle of water onto a plane, so that I can keep from getting crispy skin and fried sinuses – I have to wait for some over-worked flight attendant to give me a tiny, plastic cup of water? To be clear, I – like most “patriots” with two brain cells -do not necessarily want flammable liquids carried onto planes, but my point is just that if someone really wanted to do so, my guess is they quite obviously could.

So… As we are heading towards security for our flight to Oakland, Robert realizes that he’s left his precious Zippo in his pocket. “Put it in the computer bag,” I mutter out one side of my mouth, and he does, and of course they don’t find it. Same with the return flight. Hey, good thing Robert wasn’t a terrorist EITHER of those times, huh??

Cut to the punch-line: A few days ago, I am at the bank, digging in my bottomless purse to try and find my wallet. My fingers close around something large, square, and wrapped in some velvety material… I pull it out, and yes: it’s the “lost” flask that you gave me, which I (apparently) dropped into the depths my purse shortly after you gave it to me. A big metal container, filled with flammable liquid. Nice work, everybody! Thumbs up! Feelin’ safe!

Safe indeed.

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