Stepped-up airport security is more sizzle than steak

So not even the most basic automated weapon in the security arsenal works as well as the airlines and airport authorities would have us believe.

And remember, this is the airport that has trouble keeping jetliners out of each other's way and clear of such things as baggage carts, tanker trucks and people. A recent Federal Aviation Administration report showed that runway errors at Lambert, the nation's 10th-busiest airport, increased last year from six to nine, whereas the nationwide figure dropped.

Although it's true that the bulk of these violations were technical fouls rather than near-catastrophes, they sure don't detract from the notion that Lambert is the airport that can't fly straight -- or safe, when you throw in the artful checkpoint dodger.

As that Iron Age linebacker Chuck "Concrete Charlie" Bednarik once said: "Bee-yew-tee-ful, Clarence. Just bee-yew-tee-ful."

Now then, listen to the straight-faced words of the FAA's Rebecca Trexler: "We have the strongest security measures we've ever had in place."

And airport jefe, Col. Leonard Griggs: "I'm satisfied that security at Lambert is as good as any in the nation."

Two crucial issues are illustrated by the mystery man's broken corridor run -- the absolute illusion of airtight airport security and the public's rising frustration over bearing the brunt of the measures imposed since the September attacks.

After an extended period of patriotic stoicism, passengers are tumbling to the idea that the double ID check, the random gateside searches, the obsessive hunt for hangnail scissors and Zippos and the prowling of guardsmen in combat cammies is so much picayune donkey dung.

It's busywork, pure and simple, designed to create the façade of safer air travel. And it punishes the law-abiding, line-weary traveler more than it catches the professional terrorist or occasional nutcase. Events such as the Lambert Field follies reveal the foolishness of the current security regime, causing the public's frustration to rise and its patience to drop another notch.

Security mavens such as Brian Jenkins of the Rand Corp. will tell you that absolute, airtight security is an impossibility. A determined professional can eventually get around any system you put in place, even the ultratight cordons squeezing the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics.

But these pros are also quick to damn the shoddy, bargain-basement security in place at American airports for years, thanks to airlines interested in making air travel as easy as grabbing a cab and eager to defer for as long as possible the cost of expensive scanning and detection equipment and top-flight security personnel trained to profile terrorists and criminals.

In essence, the airlines, aided and abetted by that aviation pompom girl, the FAA, deferred the cost of top-drawer airport security for decades, pushing that unpaid bill onto every air traveler in the form of heightened risk. Now that the September attacks have exposed this travesty for all to see, the federal government has taken over airport security, taking responsibility for a new herd of baggage screeners, buying more sophisticated equipment and jerking supervision of this function away from the FAA.

It's a corporate bailout disguised as a wartime security measure. And it follows an earlier feeding at the public trough, when the airlines, recession-racked and terrorist-shocked, shoved their snouts in deep and slurped long.

Big Earl and his homicidal Zippo don't like any of it. No sir, not one little bit.

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