Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 December 2009

An Immodest Proposal, or Flying 2015


Unbeknownst to him, the Nigerian would-be “undies bomber” has done us a favor. Without killing anyone, and injuring only himself, he showed how utterly ineffective is our airline anti-terror system. And he did so in a very dramatic way. Maybe he should get the Medal of Freedom, just like George Tenet.

Maureen Dowd nailed it with absolute clarity Wednesday, when she asked:
“If we can’t catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn’t check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in Al Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who [sic] can we catch?”
If you thought you were safe before this incident, think again. Privacy, political sensitivity and airline profits still trump common sense. They will keep doing so until we lose a planeload or two of innocent travelers. On the reasonable assumption that that will happen in the next five years, I predict a total overhaul of airline security before 2015.

To help shape that overhaul, I’d like to put my own little plan in the suggestion box. It would take no expensive, high-tech equipment, no screening or profiling, no long lines, few intrusive personal searches, and no watch lists. Everyone could fly, even Islamic extremists, without danger. It would absolutely prevent any act of terrorism by air passengers.

Here’s how Flying 2015 might work:

As you approach the airline terminal, you feel lighter than air. You have no baggage at all: no purse, no wallet, and little or nothing in your pockets. All the belongings you want to take on your trip already have been picked up by van. They travel separately from you, by truck and bomb-hardened cargo plane, whose small crews have parachutes, just in case.

If you’ve traveled on Japan’s bullet trains with lots of baggage, you know the drill. A special van takes your luggage from origin to destination, leaving you footloose and fancy-free.

So as you walk toward the gates, your spirits are high and your back unbowed. Instead of long, tense security lines, you walk into cavernous dressing rooms, one for males or one for females. (Kids five or under go with their moms or dads regardless of gender.)

As you enter, you grab three transparent plastic bags from a dispenser, two big ones and a little one. You put your shoes in one big bag and your few clothes in the other and staple them with stubs from your boarding pass for ID. Then you put the bags in slots that get them on the plane, but not in the passenger compartment.

In the third bag—about the size of a wallet—you put your boarding pass, ID, and any paper money, credit cards and medicines you want to take on board. Then you undress completely, down to the buff. If you wish, you can now freshen up, using convenient shower stalls with liquid soap and fresh towels.

Utterly naked, clean and unencumbered, you join a short line leading back into the terminal. As you pass by, bored TSA officers behind one-way glass look you over to make sure you are completely nude. You pirouette, bend over, open your mouth, and put your little bag up to the glass, so they can tell you’re not carrying anything. If they see anything suspicious, you pass the bag in through a security window for screening. In a worst case, you step into a private room for a closer search. In most cases this whole process takes seconds.

Next you pass a rack with fluffy terrycloth robes and matching slippers and put them on. You feel as if you are going to the swimming pool or sauna in a first-class hotel. The only thing you have on you—besides your borrowed robe and slippers—is your boarding pass, which sits in a special pocket in the robe, plus the items in your little bag.

Thus attired, you walk to your waiting area. You’ve no cares at all. You’ve nothing to leave behind and nothing to worry about. And you needn’t fret about how you look. Everyone on your flight will be wearing exactly the same thing you are. If you want to stand out, you’ll have to use good nature and charm.

Because there is no such thing as carry-on baggage, airlines have plenty of overhead room for fresh blankets, towels, extra robes, and thick, warm socks. You can have them for the asking. You fly to your destination snug and warm. Freshly laundered soft cotton surrounds you, smelling like clean towels from a good hotel. You can barely sense the stale smoke in the hair of the chain smoker sitting in front of you. You even have your own personal fluffy towel to take to the washroom. No more scratchy paper towels, no more empty dispensers, and no more dead trees.

When you get to your destination, you reverse the process. The plane’s crew puts your bags of clothes and shoes in a waiting area. You pick them up as you exit, proceed to an exit dressing room, and dress. On the way out you throw the airline-supplied robes and slippers in a laundry bin, just as you would your towel at a gym.

If no one is picking you up, you jump on transit to your destination, which has been prearranged and prepaid. If you’ve paid for special service, your baggage is already there or will arrive within the hour. If you want to save money, your baggage can arrive up to four days later, and you pay less. You or your airline handles all these details well in advance of the flight, over the Internet.

As you fly in the warmth of your terrycloth robe, admiring the shapely leg in the aisle two rows ahead, you read about the bad old days closer to the turn of the century. You wonder how passengers coped with short-tempered flight attendants, who were constantly worried about what was in all those carryon bags and whether any of the many laptops chugging away had been rigged to explode. If you flew during that bad time, you remember how you often had to fight for overhead space. You recall your frustration on boarding and leaving aircraft as the people ahead of you took their sweet time to store and retrieve their stuff.

For the airlines, flying baggage separately reduces ground turnaround times and raises profit dramatically. Think how fast you can load and clear a plane when no one has any hand-carried baggage! Different pricing for different baggage arrival times gives airlines a new and legitimate reason to charge business travelers more and leisure travelers less.

But the biggest boon is in aircraft configuration. With all but small clothing-and-shoe compartments gone from passenger aircraft, airlines add extra seats for extra revenue. Some provide business-class cabins with seats that fold all the way down for real sleep. Others install real galleys with chefs on board, so travelers can have real food, with prices to match. Some daring lines even have small flying wine cellars.

For government workers, the boon is enormous. They have only very few expensive, high-tech machines (to screen the little bags), no stress, and little need to deal with frightened, irritated travelers. Many get placid jobs handling all that terrycloth laundry, or X-raying fliers’ clothing and shoes before their flights. Clothes and shoes don’t act stupid and don’t talk back.

Passengers are much, much freer from stress. They know they are as safe as can be from the dark dreams of their fellow passengers. Those who want to can save money by placing clothes and personal-care items strategically at their destinations (or having friends or relatives do so) and letting their baggage arrive late at lower rates. Business hotels also provide this service, at a charge of course.

Some airlines offer even greater benefits. For premium fares they provide private rooms “below” for flying families or business groups. Dead flight time with everyone clothed in comfortable and identical terrycloth is good for corporate retreats. Racier airlines even have “dalliance rooms,” which fliers can rent on board with a pre-arranged account and PIN number.

Even the grimmest passenger gets a boon: freedom from fear and mistreatment by harried workers. Flight attendants go from having one of the hardest jobs in the world to having the most fun, they way they used to do. They are no longer forced to be scolds warning people to turn off their electronic gear and not to use the washrooms.

Are you nostalgic about carryon baggage and better privacy? Get over it. Which is more convenient: having all your baggage whisked to your final destination without your attention, or having to lug it, stow it, retrieve it, fight with other passengers and flight attendants for space, and make sure you didn’t forget anything?

As for complete privacy, think about it. Well over eight years after 9/11 (not to mention four decades after the first airline hijacking), we have no reliable system to keep terrorists off airplanes. We probably never will. So the only solution is to be sure that all passengers carry nothing dangerous. Other passengers can overwhelm terrorists lacking weapons, and men (most terrorists are men) are more tractable when their scrotal sacs are within easy reach.

Anyway, which is more intrusive, having anonymous, bored officials of the same gender glance over your stunning, nude body from a distance, or being sprayed with unknown radiation, sniffed by trained dogs, and taking the risk of a pat down and having a metal detector stuck in your crotch? You can have privacy or security, but you can’t have both. Take your pick.

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