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Freedom from fear

Airport security, then and now

Issue: "Pro-baby," Jan. 30, 2010

The airport of my youth was named after polar explorer and aviator Richard Byrd (and now goes by the less exotic Richmond International Airport). Charles Lindbergh was on hand when it was dedicated in 1927, but those men, if you asked me, were mere mortals alongside my dad when it came time to fly.

My dad took business trips nearly every week out of Byrd Airport to faraway places like Boston, Cincinnati, and Rochester, N.Y., and we planned meal times and shopping trips around his arrivals and departures. They were events. For me, they marked rare forays not only into the adult world but into the world out there.

My dad was willing, eager actually, to have us come along, and a big moment for me was being handed his leather briefcase while he checked in. On the ticker board were more names I knew only in my imagination: Philadelphia, Chicago, Baton Rouge. Then we mounted stairs to watch the planes out on the runway before a gigantic picture window. When it was his turn to board, I or my brother sometimes was lucky enough to walk with him out to the plane. If it was a new plane, like when the prop-jets he usually flew gave way to DC-8s, he sidled me up the narrow stairway, introduced me to a stewardess, and asked if we could take a look in the cockpit. Somehow he was on a first-name basis with the pilots, as I recall, and they were happy to explain their pre-flight routine as I eyed their consoles in wonder.

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When I recently retraced this story for my children, they stared back in disbelief. They all have traveled but know nothing of airports with picture windows for the public, of waiting for a flight that doesn't involve standing in a security line, of children who can walk all the way to the aircraft's door to hug their dad goodbye. As hijackings have given way to terrorist attacks, the gateway to adventure and a wider world that air travel represented in the 20th century has been reduced to a windowless cavalcade involving shoe untying, bag unzipping, fluid checks, pat-downs, and general loss of personhood. The changes are obvious to anyone living in 2010 but somehow recounting the details of where we've come from and how fast seems significant and worth repeating.

We cannot go back to those halcyon days I knew in the '60s while men from Yemen and elsewhere want to destroy passenger airliners. But as the metal detectors move over for body scanners, we have to ask, what are we moving toward? Is adventure safe only alone before a laptop? Is long-distance travel only for those who can get by on 3-ounce fluid bottles and episodic losses of dignity?

Here I have good news and bad news. Having myself been subjected to indignities and delays (Syria and Iraq, two countries on the new U.S. "countries of interest" list requiring beefed-up searches, have visa stamps that appear regularly in my passport), I am surprised to learn the good news: The annoyance of post-9/11 travel is mostly in my head. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 88.59 percent of domestic flights are on time. Of delays, .01 percent are caused by security (that's in November 2009). Most are caused by aircraft and air carrier problems, but still amount to just a little over 3 percent of flights each. And air travel itself is safer than ever before.

Now the bad: Jihadists remain fixated on the global air transport system and are on the lookout for ever more sophisticated weaponry. While we've always known it, the attempted Christmas Day bombing reminds us that al-Qaeda was and will be an ideologically, not geographically, driven menace. We are right to attack its base in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, regions but it will not die there.

"The purpose of terrorism in its purest form is to create a sense of insecurity among a public. It succeeds when fear moves a system to the point where it can no longer function," writes Stratfor president George Friedman. Here is tension I can live with and officials can be guided by as our air transport system undergoes deserved scrutiny: on one side freedom from fear, thanks to skilled professionals and alert passengers who keep it functional, and on the other longing for a time when we could wave off a loved from the tarmac.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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