Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Why don't we just hire a bunch of Japanese baggage screeners?


A uniformed pilot waits impatiently at a checkpoint for 10 minutes while two screeners from the Transportation Security Administration scrutinize every item in his carry-on bag.

After he was allowed to go on his way, he explained why it took so long.

"They told me they had to make sure I wasn't carrying anything that would allow me to take over an airplane," [he said]...

In Congress, partly as a consequence of audits that showed heavy spending by the agency on frills like parties and fancy offices, there are calls to scale back the agency's scope and perhaps replace its screeners with employees from private companies.

Bureaucratic rigidity aside, frequent fliers have plenty of other complaints about the agency. For example, they protest that rules keep changing, with haphazard, inconsistent and sometimes rude enforcement at checkpoints. Personal searches such as poking infants in swaddling clothes or forcing octogenarians to wobble from their wheelchairs often appear to be unnecessary, they say, and are sometimes downright intrusive. Remember the outcry last year from female travelers subjected to invasive body pat-downs after reports that two female Chechen terrorists might have blown up a pair of Russian airliners?

Travelers also worry about theft from checked bags - more than two dozen of the agency's screeners have been arrested on theft charges in the last two years - and they react with a mixture of bewilderment and resentment to the agency's Catch-22 policy on taking off your shoes. You do not have to remove them, the policy says, but if you do not, you will be ordered off to the secondary inspection area, where you do have to take them off.

Japan does this right: their screeners are professional, exceedingly polite, and not in any way high-handed.

Of course, privatizing the TSA would only make matters worse: there has been a slight increase in professionalism since the rent-a-cop security services were canned in airports.

Seriously, they should send a bunch of TSA folks over to Japan, to learn what they do, and they should have the TSA screeners in the US do exactly what the Japanese do.

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