air travel

The Body-Scan Brouhaha


I am sympathetic to those who detest the thought — and intrusiveness — of body scans and pat-downs.

One solution — which has the ring of rationality — is to allow airlines to offer flights with varying degrees of preflight screening, and to price the flights accordingly. But that solution is unworkable; there just aren’t enough flights going to the same place at about the same time to afford the traveler a real choice for any particular trip.

It is evident that travelers are paying the price for political correctness, and that the price is getting too high for a lot of them. In a case like this, I take vociferous opposition by some travelers, together with the outraged outpourings of columnists and editorialists, as evidence that the silent majority is fed up. (See, for example, this, this, and this.) Now, the question is whether there will be enough outrage among members of Congress to put a stop to the foolishness and follow the lead of the Israelis.

On this issue, I blame Geogre W. Bush, who wanted to seem so even-handed toward Muslims that he wouldn’t overrule then-sectrary of transportation Norman Mineta’s anti-profiling policy. Once TSA’s screening policy headed in that direction, a Democrat administration certainly wasn’t about to reverse it.

The answer, it seems to me, is to adopt El Al’s way of doing things:

Passengers are asked to report three hours before departure. All El Al terminals around the world are closely monitored for security. There are plain-clothes agents and fully armed police or military personnel who patrol the premises for explosives, suspicious behavior, and other threats. Inside the terminal, passengers and their baggage are checked by a trained team. El Al security procedures require that all passengers be interviewed individually prior to boarding, allowing El Al staff to identify possible security threats. Passengers will be asked questions about where they are coming from, the reason for their trip, their job or occupation, and whether they have packed their bags themselves. The likelihood of potential terrorists remaining calm under such questioning is believed to be low (see microexpression).[38]

At the check-in counter, passengers’ passports and tickets are closely examined. A ticket without a sticker from the security checkers will not be accepted. At passport control passengers’ names are checked against information from the FBI, Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Scotland Yard, Shin Bet, and Interpol databases. Luggage is screened and sometimes hand searched. In addition, bags are put through a decompression chamber simulating pressures during flight that could trigger explosives.[39] El Al is the only airline in the world that passes all luggage through such a chamber.[40] Even at overseas airports, El Al security agents conduct all luggage searches personally, even if they are supervised by government or private security firms.[41]


Critics of El Al note that its security checks on passengers include racial profiling[51] and have argued that such profiling is unfair, irrational, and degrading to those subject to such screening. Supporters of El Al argue that there is nothing inherently racist about passenger profiling and that special scrutiny of Muslims may often be necessary for security purposes.

The alternative — which, I gather, libertarian purists would prefer — is to drop screening altogether because, after all, how much risk is there, really? Well, libertarian purists are the kind of people who would have us disarm because, after all, no one is threatening to invade the country, right?

When I get on an airplane, everyone else on that plan (except my wife) is a potential threat to me. I am willing to put up with security measures of the right kind. I am not willing to put up with unnecessarily intrusive measures, which are inflicted on me and most of my fellow travelers simply because “our” government refuses to focus on the source of the threat.