Holiday Travel: Smooth, But Security Measures Still Lack Common Sense

Last Updated Nov 30, 2010 11:40 AM EST

It was the busiest travel weekend of the year, and it coincided with a threatened "opt-out" protest against the new TSA scanning machines.

So, were there long lines, stressful delays, and fistfights at checkpoints as harried holiday travelers missed their flights?

The answer: no.

There's one compelling reason for that. In the end, we all really wanted to just get home to grandma's house so we could eat, and then indulge in another American tradition: shopping.

Security Measures: An Issue that Won't Go Away

Many travelers this year got smart and started their Thanksgiving holiday on the Friday before the busiest Wednesday. And in reality, the number of passengers flying on Tuesday, November 23 actually exceeded Wednesday. Many more came back on Saturday rather than being challenged by Sunday travel.

So far, so good.

But the issue is still with us. The last 10 days taught us a lot about government regulation without explanation, and in some cases, without common sense.

First, airline pilots opposed the scanning machines and made a logical argument about security. The TSA backed down and now allow pilots to bypass the scanning machines by showing two pieces of ID.

Next up, the flight attendants made the same argument about security. Since pilots and flight attendants already have access to cockpits, where's the trust, and what can a scanning machine actually prevent? Again, the TSA backed down and now allow the flight attendants to have a free pass on the machines.

Then came the pat-down issues. They're still very much with us, but the TSA has even moderated its position on pat-downs on children. There will now be a "less invasive" pat-down procedure for kids, whatever that means.

A Program for "Trusted" Fliers Returns

Last, and definitely not least, what about frequent business fliers, who are still the main economic support of the airlines? What is the TSA doing for us?

Answer: Not much.

Remember the original trusted traveler program? Travelers would agree to a background check and then be given a special card, and that card enabled them to go through a separate -- and presumably streamlined -- security line. Great concept, but it never really worked for a number of reasons. It was only available at a limited number of airports (and many of the airports were not heavily traveled business airports...like Orlando). And the TSA never really got behind the concept.

The first attempts failed, and the company ceased doing business.

Now, the concept may be coming back, but without a better design of the system and TSA support, it is doomed to failure again. Show me a trusted traveler program that really saves me time and stress and anxiety at airports like LaGuardia, O'Hare and Atlanta, and I'd gladly pay twice the original rate of $100 for an annual card.

We really do need that kind of system in place for business travelers. We also need better training for TSA front-line agents -- to be able to use discretionary street thinking and intuition. It's not profiling; it's just basic awareness.

Agent Training Needed, Not Scanners

Let's not forget that the underwear bomber traveled on Christmas Day from Africa, heading to Detroit with no checked bags, and wasn't even wearing a winter coat. Any smart security agent ALLOWED to be smart would have at least questioned him. That never happened.

Even today, I'd be willing to bet you that I could go to a U.S. airport on a hot August day, dressed in a winter overcoat, two sweaters, a muffler and wearing three hats, and if my driver's license photo matched the name on my boarding pass, I'd be allowed through. How absurd is that?

If the TSA spent their scanning machine budget on better human behavioral training for their agents, we wouldn't need scanning machines. And if someone was chosen for a pat down, it would be the guy wearing the sweater and winter overcoat in August. Or just the T-shirt in December. I'm all for that.

For the moment, let's also remember that there are only just 400 of these scanning machines operating at just 70 U.S. airports (there are another 380 airports yet to install them). So we have a ways to go.

Let's hope more common sense prevails with TSA training. Because no amount of technology can ever take the place of basic intelligence and human intuition.

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