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Stepped-up airport security is more sizzle than steak

He was just another fine American on a business trip in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, wary about airport security that's always been a standing joke among veteran travelers and braced for longer lines at the ticket counter and the checkpoint with the metal detectors.

Call him Big Earl.

A burly man with a beard and a summer straw cowboy hat, he thought he was well versed in the more stringent do's and don'ts of verboten personal items: No handguns. No fertilizer-and-fuel-oil foot powder. No knives -- not even his dead daddy's staghorn folder. No Sterno or other flammable fluids. No scissors or knitting needles. No CD players, laptops, pagers or cell phones -- these weren't banned; Big Earl just considered them hand tools of the devil himself and refused to risk salvation by owning them.

He was also squared up on the authoritative request to get to the airport two hours before his flight from Baltimore to St. Louis was scheduled to leave. As he moved toward the metal detector, piling his watch, money clip, change and all other things metallic onto a small plastic tray, Big Earl began to relax, comforted by the knowledge that he had done everything his government had asked of a traveling man to help harden the nation's airports from another terrorist infiltration.

Until the skinny young security guard with the squeaky voice tapped him on the shoulder, holding Big Earl's favorite Zippo lighter in the air.

"You can't take this on an airplane, sir."

"But it's my lucky lighter."

"You can't take it with you, sir. You can either check it or leave it here."

"Check a Zippo?"

"Yes."

"So all lighters are banned?"

"Oh no, sir -- just these reusable ones."

"You mean I could carry one of those cheap-ass Bic lighters on board but I can't carry my $30 Zippo? Lookit this thing. It's pretty, it's silver and it's got a Mexican salamander on it. It's like a piece of jewelry. Why can't I carry it with me?"

"Those are the FAA rules."

Big Earl went back to the ticket counter. He checked his Zippo. The clerk sighed as he rummaged around for a small empty box, taped the lighter inside and stapled a claim check to Big Earl's ticket jacket.

Big Earl returned to the end of a long, long checkpoint line. He was pissed.

He passed through the metal detector, then walked up to the skinny guard, who was now standing next to two fuzz-cheeked National Guardsmen -- boys, almost, cradling manly M-16s. Hardly soldiers, certainly not cops.

He stuck a finger in the skinny guard's face.

"I checked that damn Zippo just like you made me do. Now, I know this is a frightening thought, but I tell you what -- I'd strip buck naked right here, right now, if I thought it would help you guys make the airplane I'm about to fly safer. But me not being able to carry my Zippo lighter on board because you think I might use it to blow up the plane is just horseshit, and you know it. Just thumb-up-my-ass bullshit."

The Guardsmen edged away.

A day or so after this exchange, Big Earl was home reading his newspaper. A short item caused him to snort in anger and disgust. Seems a 68-year-old Southwest Airlines passenger flying from New Orleans to Phoenix carried a loaded handgun in his briefcase through the security checkpoint. He discovered his felony miscue when he boarded the plane, pulled out some paperwork and saw his pistol inside.

An honest man, he raised his hand and confessed his mistake.

Only the uncorporate cool of Southwest Airlines can explain what happened next -- the man was not arrested, he was not strip-searched, his flight wasn't canceled. His gun was confiscated and, after FBI agents in Phoenix determined that this was an honest mistake by a senior citizen, he was sent on his way. Had the carrier been United or USAir, this honorable American might still be in the lockup, facing serious federal time for 'fessing up to his serious stupidity.

Big Earl and his killer Zippo spring to mind because of the evening follies at Lambert Field on Jan. 24. Seems an enterprising young man decided to bypass the logjammed checkpoint line by sprinting through the exit corridor for arriving passengers. Seems the National Guardsman assigned to stop such foolishness was over at the metal detectors, helping one of the screeners with something. Seems the man got lost in the crowd and made his escape when airport police sealed off Concourse C and evacuated everybody.

And last week folks found out, courtesy of that Pulitzer pulpwood product, that security cameras at Lambert failed to capture the man's face. Seems this isn't unusual -- security cameras across the nation aren't foolproof and sporadically fail to get a clear image of a suspect's face. This is a shocking development for those of us worried about the Big Brother proliferation of vid-cams in places public and private -- equally so to those repeatedly exposed to the clear shot of Sept. 11 terrorist leader Mohammed Atta smoothly passing through the checkpoint at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.

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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