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Airport Insecurities ? Travel Notes for Those Who Have Not Flown Since 9-11

If you are about to take your first flight since 9-11, here's my best advice. Be patient, calm and clear-headed, and don't pack anything or do anything you wouldn't want your grandma to see on the evening news.

If you are a person of color, expect the profiling you are accustomed to, only more of it. If you are not, welcome to our world.

I've flown a fair amount since 9-11 and my luck has been phenomenal. I've been selected for nearly all the random checks at Washington National and Dulles, New York LaGuardia, Chicago O'Hare and the airports in Atlanta, Bloomington and Omaha.

At this rate of extraordinary fortune, I will be the next Powerball winner or anthrax victim. (Ahem. Let me withdraw the latter reference. Here in Washington, not many blocks away in the Hart Senate office building, deadly spores are being irradiated with lethal chlorine gas, so the potential for being caught in a poison vortex is not that much of a long shot.)

But this is not a tirade about profiling, not solely. This also is about incompetence and the insecurity it breeds.

Before taking off on airport security, I want to profess my allegiance to secured airports and airplanes and to the people who make them safe.

I am forever grateful to the passengers and crew on UA#93 who crashed their plane into a Pennsylvania field rather than my Capitol Hill neighborhood. I honor their example and am prepared to do my bit to foil future attackers with my purse and fine-point pen. I also hope I never need to test that resolve.

I have no problem with long lines and two-hour waits for flights, so long as they accompany high level safety measures. I respect the people who are paid (in most cases woefully underpaid) to protect us from terrorists and other crazies. I do not carry flammable liquids, fireworks, hazardous materials or chemicals that can cause toxic fumes or corrosion. And I never, ever joke about such things in airports or on airplanes.

What I do have a problem with is incompetent security, especially the kind that isn't going to save us from anyone who wants to take over an airplane.

The best information I have to offer you is my recent flying experience.

I flew out of Washington National shortly after it reopened. It was a ghost airport ? very few passengers for very few flights, with no well-wishers past the screening machines. Checkers wearing latex gloves removed all items from my carry-on bags and displayed them on tables: i.d. and credit cards, money, jewelry, moccasins, newspapers, files, stamps, cards, sesame sticks, yogurt, water and other such non-threatening items.

Did I mention i.d. cards? Good. I had them and would have been happy, happy, happy to show them, each or any of the three times my belongings were inspected. How many times was I asked to show any identification? Zero. With each inspection, I was asked for my ticket, but no one matched it with a photo i.d.

For the profiling record, I did not see anyone being inspected that morning who looked like the 9-11 terrorists or Timothy McVeigh. Only women of color and black men had been randomly selected.

On the return trip from Chicago, I showed my i.d. when claiming a United e-ticket, but was not searched or asked for anything after that. There seemed to be no security checking of anyone that afternoon. I learned from television that a man traveling around the same time made it past several checkpoints carrying seven knives. Incredibly, other knives and a stun-gun in his checked luggage set off no alarms whatsoever.

Congress acted quickly and the airline's security company, already in trouble for employing felons, was fired.

About a month later, I connected through Chicago again and watched United's new security routine for about an hour. Uniformed security agents checked everyone, even babies, with wands. Carry-ons were emptied on tables and scrutinized meticulously. MPs with sidearms moved into position and stood watch over the inspections.

Another passenger in my gate area, a middle-aged white male who probably never experienced special security treatment, was railing to anyone who would listen about the waste of energy and resources in checking everyone. I disagreed with him, silently, and thought the airline was being prudent and fair in checking out everyone.

As for wasted resources, I think most passengers would gladly forego the in-flight food service to pay for thoroughness and evenhandedness. If the goal is safety, as it should be, those attendants who are the most immediately responsible for it should be relieved of their wait-staff duties anyway. (Let's also dispense with the drink service, shall we? People can supply their own water, juice and pop, and in-flight alcohol consumption and behavior can be eliminated altogether.)

The main thing that has changed in airports since 9-11 is a huge leap in serious eye contact and smiles -- not those big, fakey "Good Morning, America" smiles, but those little half-smiles and courteous head nods that try to say, "I'm not dangerous." In the past three months, I have looked more people in the eye and smiled at more strangers than I ever considered to be polite.

Most airline checkers and attendants were pleasant enough before and are even nicer these days. Some used to be officious and are now at the control freak level, but gone is the day when any passenger, no matter how much in the right, can ever snap back or call one down for snarkiness without being taken into custody.

On three flights ? one of them on American the hour after their flight went down in Rockaway, Queens ? pilots stood in cockpit doorways, personally greeting passengers and looking each in the eye, judging for themselves who may have the potential for causing injury.

I've found the TransAir security checkers to be the most polite and careful of all. At the Bloomington airport, a friendly desk attendant explained that the computer selected me -- no surprise there -- and searched my luggage with bare hands before checking it and before giving me a boarding pass. At the gate, my carry-ons were examined by a checker with gloved hands ? "Do you have a rat-tail comb? That's what usually sets this off." I didn't. She also searched me with a wand and asked, "Do I have your permission to feel around your ankles and in the small of your back?"

At New York LaGuardia, things almost seemed normal. I was over two hours early for my scheduled Delta shuttle. The desk attendant asked if I wanted to catch the next flight, which was leaving in ten minutes. "You'll have to run," she said, giving me a ticket as if handing off a baton in a relay race, just like in the day. Then she remembered: "No, don't run, but it's still ok to walk fast."

It was after my most recent flight that things returned to the familiar. One checked bag made it back from Omaha; one was missing. I made the appropriate calls and was told that the bag went to Chicago, Newark and Dulles and then disappeared. After some 24 hours, a driver delivered the bag, which sported a large sticker: "INSPECTED, United."

I was delighted that my bag was not really lost and reassured by the necessary, if flawed, security measure. The major change that still needs to take place in airport security is for all loaded luggage to be fully screened and matched with passengers who are aboard the same airplane. This will not be standard procedure for a year.

In the meantime, I hope that your new normal is pretty much like your old normal and that your most dramatic travel tale only involves an inspection sticker.