Dear Airport Screeners: It’s the Season to Be Gentle

By Joe Sharkey
December 8, 2009

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THE man looked old enough to have gone ashore on D-Day, and that thought haunted me. He was ordered to stand behind a security partition while a security screener worked over a frail woman bent in a wheelchair.

“Your wife?” I asked.

He nodded but did not take his eyes off her. As the screener ran the wand up her legs, the elderly woman glanced anxiously at her husband, and you thought how many years — 50 or more? — they had spent looking after each other. Transportation Security Administration agents stood around idly in their crisp blue shirts at security gates at the airport in Newark, but the screener worked energetically, poking and prodding and patting every inch of the body of the woman in the wheelchair, as if she were a suspect just dragged out of a cave in Afghanistan.

The screener roughly turned the woman’s palm upward and swabbed it with a chemical to check for explosives. Beside me the man stiffened. “I suppose they have to be careful,” he said. Finally, his wife was wheeled out to join him.

As yet another busy travel season approaches, how many times will we all witness sad scenes like this, which make you question the common sense of many security procedures. Watching screeners confiscate Christmas snow globes, bags of frozen tomato sauce, nearly spent toothpaste tubes, how many of us will have this thought: Are they making this stuff up as they go along? Once they X-rayed and intimately patted that woman in the wheelchair, what was the point of swabbing her for explosives?

Readers often write about perceived security absurdities. One women said her pumpkin pie was confiscated, on the ground that pumpkin pie contained gel-like material. Caitlin Chaffee, concerned about “inconsistencies,” wrote that at one security checkpoint, “I even had an orange confiscated, because they said it was a liquid of more than three ounces.”

The Homeland Security Department recently reminded travelers that liquids and gels could be carried on only in “three-ounce containers” that all fit in a quart-size zipper bag. But even that was slightly incorrect. For some time now, the maximum container size has actually been 3.4 ounces, in a nod to the European Union’s insistence that the standard should conform to the metric system (3.4 ounces equals 100 milliliters).

The T.S.A. says the limits on liquids and gels are based on chemistry, because such small volumes make it virtually impossible to assemble explosives on a plane. On the other hand, a separate T.S.A. regulation says that “travelers with disabilities and medical conditions” are “not limited in the amount of volume” of liquids or gels they may carry, including “items used to augment the body for medical or cosmetic reasons,” including “bras or shells containing gels, saline solution or other liquids.”

This is not to say that people with medical needs should have to fly without vital liquids or gels, but rather to underscore the inconsistencies, sometimes understandable, often infuriating, that we all face at the airport. A better effort is needed — and perhaps we should start here, with readers’ suggestions — to require airlines and security personnel to get the rules straight and to use more common sense in their application.

That includes some strange rules enforced in flight in the name of “safety.” As I have mentioned in several columns, some airlines had been instructing passengers that, based on Federal Aviation Administration safety rules, nothing could be placed in seat pockets — not even eyeglasses. In the commotion that ensued, the F.A.A. issued a notice on Nov. 12 to “clarify” that, saying small items not exceeding three pounds could be placed in the pockets.

SkyWest Airlines, which had been enforcing a total ban, immediately changed its policy to comply. But on Southwest Airlines, where the ban was sometimes enforced and sometimes not, evidently not all flight attendants got the word.

“I had two flights on Southwest this week,” Stephen Meltzer wrote the other day, and the flight attendants “on both flights making the safety announcements were very stern in telling us that nothing could be placed in the pockets.”

Southwest has now also clarified that. The F.A.A. “asks the airlines to take a common sense approach to items in the seat-back pocket,” said Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman for Southwest. “Personal items are allowed in the seat-back pocket, but the heaviest items must be secured.”

Let’s hear it for common sense.