Airports need better infotech

If an innocent housewife gets this kind of attention, I wonder how much is left over for terrorists.

As lightning brightened the sky and thunder boomed overhead, I sat waiting up my for my wife to return from a trip to Washington D.C. Hours passed. I called the airlines; her flight was on time. I called 911; no accident reports. Finally she came in the door, drenched from rain and weeping from the travel nightmare. The ordeal had more to do with inept airport security than foul weather. When she was through describing her travails to me, I was furious–I felt as though my wife had been victimized by overzealous control freaks who have no clue who the real terrorists might be.

The ordeal began at Dulles International Airport. She got to the airport with two hours to spare and barely made her flight. First, there was a line an hour long for the security screener. Second, the guy in charge of the screening station pulled her aside and insisted on a strip search and complete search of her belongings. She endured the indignity–including removal of Band-Aids on her toes to check for explosives–only to be told to go back to the end of the line again. When she protested that she might miss her flight, the arrogant security guard who ordered the strip search walked away midsentence with a shrug. Finally she got the attention of someone who would acknowledge that she had been all too thoroughly screened and let her make her way to the gate.

As soon as her boarding pass was scanned at the gate, the machine started beeping, security guards swooped down on her, and another strip search was ordered. When, again, nothing was found, she was allowed to board as two security guards escorted her to her seat. This whole process held up her flight, forcing Beth and everyone else on the flight to sweat out the trip to Atlanta, where she would need to catch a connecting flight. At the gate in Atlanta, as her boarding pass was scanned, again the machine started beeping and again another search was ordered. Again she was escorted to her seat for the flight to Minneapolis, while the rest of the passengers glared at her wondering why all the attention for this Arab-looking person.

Once in Minneapolis, she made her way to the baggage claim. When she presented her claim check, another search was ordered, this time of all her bags but none of her toes or body cavities. In the melee, she left her car keys on the counter as she hurried to collect all the items strewn on around the security station. She hailed a cab and returned to her car only to discover that her car keys were wither in the cab or back at the security station. More cab wild-goose chases later and she was finally able to drive home from the airport in tears.

As my anger has simmered down, I have been puzzling about why she would receive four searches when one ought to do the trick. Obviously, there is no way to enter into the system that a passenger has been thoroughly checked out and no longer needs to be strip-searched. Why her boarding pass triggered the SS is a mystery, but it is clear that the FAA needs to improve information sharing between security stations within and among airports. Rather than using face recognition and other flawed information systems, why don’t they concentrate on improved networking, a mature technology that would clearly have prevented a lot of needless hassle, not only to my wife but to the security guards downstream from the initial station? Imagine if all the attention paid to her had acted as a diversion for a terrorist. Congressional inquiries would certainly find a lack of information sharing among antiterror personnel. Sound familiar?

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and ComputerUser.com

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