Sunday, September 11, 2011

Is Flying The Friendly Skies Safer Post 9/11?

On this, the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, we will, as a nation, mourn the loss of thousands of souls who perished on that fateful day. There will be memorials and remembrances and celebrations and lots and lots of tears shed. Today is all about the lives lost and the families affected.

 But in the days and weeks following the anniversary, the conversations will turn from emotional to political, from how we’ve healed as a nation to are we prepared for another attack?

The answer to that question is yes. But…

Of course there’s a but.

While flying the friendly skies may be safer than ever, it has come at a cost: safety procedures that test passenger patience and push the boundaries of personal privacy.

Say what you will about the occasionally stupid stuff that the TSA has done (pat downs for babies, anyone?), the federal organization has played a huge part in making airport security better. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve got a short memory.

Pre-9/11, airport security was bad. Abysmally so. Airport security was left up to private contractors, some with less-than-stellar stats. Convicted felons were hired as security screeners. Checked luggage was hardly if ever screened for explosives. People with outstanding arrest warrants were entrusted with keeping airports safe. Lax screeners allowed 20% of dangerous objects to pass through checkpoints. Performance was low and so were salaries; in 2001, agents were paid less than the starting salaries at airport fast-food restaurants. Naturally, turnover was high.

Then the TSA came in and put a few changes in place. Federalizing airport security lowered worker turnover from 125% per year to 6.4%. Professionalizing airport security meant better employees with higher salaries and enhanced screening that resulted in increased passenger safety. Gone were the “rent-a-goons” employed by private contractors that ran amok unscrutinized at our nation’s airports. Here to stay is a professional (albeit impersonal) federally-mandated organization that is not immune to public pressure. It’s an organization that continues to evolve as new threats come in.

That’s the good news.

Now, the bad.

A lot of people would argue that the introduction of the TSA has come at a huge cost—the surrender of personal comfort and privacy. Patdowns, luggage searches, shoe-removals, liquid bans. The rules continue to change and passengers struggle to keep up.

But are ever-evolving “nude-o-scans” and shoe-removal policies really that much worse than the incompetent and corrupt airport security companies that were in place before the TSA came along?

A little more than fifty percent of Americans say yes, I’ve sacrificed too much in order to achieve an increased sense of security. But 81% of Americans feel more safe at airports overall. What does that mean? Well, I guess it means that most Americans simply deal with the inconveniences that make airline travel safer (which says nothing of accepting the inconveniences), and the rest of Americans either don’t travel or don’t give enough of a shit to weigh in.

But if a shoe bomber had succeeded in the aftermath of the original shoe bomber Richard Reed’s failure because we hadn’t instituted the removal of shoes at security? What then? Well, there most certainly would have been public outcry that the TSA hadn’t done its job. “Why didn’t the TSA make the bomber take off his shoes?” national headlines would say. “Why isn’t there a shoe-removal policy at our country’s airports to prevent such tragedies?”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

But keep this in mind: we haven’t had another successful terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.

So I ask you: Is impersonal customer-service and a sense of dehumanization worth it if it means saving your life?  Or can we strike a balance between safety and comfort?

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