Flying the Unfriendly Skies
By John D. Turner
22 Nov 2010

There are fewer experiences I can think of in these United States more unpleasant than the once exciting experience of flying from point A to point B on a commercial airline.

When I was five, I had my first experience flying. My dad had just been stationed in Okinawa, and my mom and I were flying overseas to be with him. The year was 1960. I’m not sure how much of what I remember is from when I was five going over, and how much is actually from when I was seven coming home in 1962. Regardless, it was a fascinating experience.

There were very nice stewardesses, young, beautiful, and polite, obviously in retrospect, hired for those attributes. And why not? They were, after all, the public face of the airline; the interface between the customer and the company. This was an age where the majority of the American public had never flown. It was far too expensive for the common person; we could only afford it because the military was picking up the tab. Airlines were trying to expand their customer base.

When I and my mom boarded; we were given a set of wings to commemorate our flight. We had a very nice hot dinner on the flight. I even got to visit the cockpit and talk to the pilot, see all the instruments, wander around the cabin – it was a great experience for a young kid who had never been on a plane before. I had a similar experience with a different airline in 1967 when my dad was stationed in Germany.

The airline was Pan American World Airways (Pan Am for short), which is not even in business any more. But back then, it was a major airline, flying worldwide. It was so inextricably associated with America that the space shuttle in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was a Pan Am space clipper, paying homage to the Pan Am flying boats, called “clippers” that flew the Far East air routes from 1931 – 1946. It seemed natural that Pan Am would be flying passenger spacecraft someday.

Those days, like Pan Am, are long gone. These days, flying a plane is more akin to riding a bus. The stewardesses (and stewards) are very different from those I remember in the 1960s, and even 70’s and 80s. They seem a lot more harried for one thing; instead of making your flight seem a special experience, they seem more interested in just getting it over with. Those flying have changed as well. Whereas once flying was special (you even wore your best clothes) flying now is so non-special that you regularly encounter people in cut-off shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. It is not uncommon to encounter fellow passengers who are rude, obnoxious, and who haven’t passed under a shower in recent memory. Pretty much anyone can afford to fly, and many do.

And if that were not enough to make this now singularly non-special experience even less special, we have the TSA.

Everyone knows that the events of 9/11 changed the face of American air travel. Gone were the carefree days when all we had to worry about if our plane was hijacked was spending some non-quality time on the tarmac in Cuba while the hijacker negotiated his terms. In a heartbeat, being hijacked changed from being inconvenient to being a life-ending experience. It has taken a few years, but now even the actual experience of boarding the plane has escalated from a minor inconvenience to something that once upon a time, Americans would have never tolerated for an instant.

If, ten years ago, you had told someone that by 2010 Americans would be asked to essentially stand there in the nude or else submit to having their genitals felt up by some random airport employee, what do you think the reaction would have been?

I feel a bit like the proverbial frog in the boiling water. You know the story; drop a frog in a pot of boiling water and he will immediately hop out. Drop the same frog in an unheated pot of water and gradually turn up the heat and he will ultimately perish, not realizing he is in trouble until it is too late.

Remember when the infamous shoe bomber tried to bring down a plane by lighting explosives in his shoes? We all had a good laugh about how inept his attempt was. The attempt still provides comedic moments on TV and in movies. And yet, what happened? Overnight, security screening on airlines included removing your shoes and running them through the scanners to prove that you didn’t have a bomb in the soles. Grandmothers, babies, it didn’t matter. I remember flying in full military uniform and having to remove my combat boots, which, incidentally, was no easy matter. Inconvenient? Yes. But Americans adapted. This is no doubt one of the reasons for the rise of fliers wearing flip-flops and sandals.

I remember remarking to my wife at the time how idiotic this was. We were reacting to what a single person had done and were now forcing everyone to prove that they were not a shoe bomber. Everyone was suspect, because we can’t discriminate you know. “What if instead on putting the explosives in his shoe,” I joked, “he had put the explosives in his underwear instead?”

Well now we know. It took a while, but we finally had an underwear bomber. And once again, luckily for us, he was as inept as the shoe bomber; and so now we have another reactive “security measure.” Fortunately, just as this new method of bomb delivery arrived, so did the latest technological marvel to combat it; full body scanners. Now, if you want to fly the nation’s airways, all you have to do is pass through a scanner whereby some not only nameless, but now faceless TSA employee gets to view your naked body to determine whether or not you are trying to smuggle a bomb in your drawers; or your bra as the case may be.

Yes, there you are in your full glory. The cameras see everything; it is as if you were not wearing anything at all.

Of course, TSA claims that no physical or digital record is kept. Everything is real time. No printers are attached and there is no storage of the image. All TSA employees are professional in their manner and are really not interested in oogling your junk. All they care about is looking for explosives and keeping you safe so that you arrive at your destination, not with a bang, but merely feeling just a bit dirty.

OK, but well, is this what you want when you fly? How much are you willing to put up with in the name of security? And does anyone really believe that there are no copies made, no print outs, and no way that those pictures will ever see the light of day. If you do, I have a very nice bridge you might be interested in.

Apparently, at least in Florida, images were kept. And some of those images were also leaked. As for those “professional” TSA agents with the stiff upper lip who display superhuman ability to look at nude photos every day and remain unmoved – please. TSA employees are human; they are just as crude and susceptible to human foibles as everyone else, as this example of TSA on TSA violence proves.

While testing the equipment, one TSA employee walked through the scanner. Another TSA employee, watching, was apparently amused by the small size of the first agent’s genitalia, whereupon a fight ensued. This story is also out of Florida, specifically Miami. Not picking on Florida or anything; I am sure that problems exist elsewhere as well. (But these are also the folks who seem to have a problem with understanding a voting ballot. Just saying.)

In an attempt to sooth the flying public’s nerves and gain their confidence, the TSA has stated that not only is it TSA policy not to store or print pictures, but that the technology is incapable of doing such. However, other agencies, using the same technology, have admitted to storing images. Indeed, anyone who believes that the technology is incapable of storing images is fooling themselves. Images have to be stored in memory in order to be displayed. That means there is a physical record that can be either printed (if a printer is connected) or stored if there is physical storage media connected. Indeed, the capability to make a record has to be available. If a person were apprehended trying to smuggle a weapon of some sort, there would have to be a record made to be used as evidence in court.

Remember, this is the same government that can’t seem to keep from regularly losing your social security number. If some well-known public figure were to pass through the scanner, do you think that sooner or later the pictures won’t end up on the Internet? Guess what. It’s already happened. Actually, these images were not put on the Internet – they were simply printed out (and reportedly autographed by the celebrity involved).

There are those who don’t care what the scanners show or, presumably, what is done with the images or whether or not the TSA employees are getting their jollies while viewing them. As long as they are “safer” they are fine with that. I say, bully for them. But why should the rest of us who do care be dragged along for the ride? Do we have no rights, no say in the matter? Apparently not.

You do of course have the option to “opt out” of the scanner. Many of us have an aversion to random strangers viewing us in our birthday suit. However, opting out no longer means a simple wanding; opting out now involves a TSA employee physically verifying what the scanners would display. This involves physical contact with the body, including the genital areas. Again, this means everyone; grandmas, small children, babies, etc. Nothing like having your young kids sexually molested by government employees on the way to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving!

Since anyone who would object to someone viewing them naked would undoubtedly be even more upset by someone “feeling them up”, clearly this is an effort to make one choose between two equally unpalatable options.

Keep this in mind. It has been nine years since 9/11. How many planes have been brought down over the US due to terrorist activity since then? Exactly zero. And that, before nude body scanners. Will the use of nude body scanners guarantee our safety from terrorists while flying? No, it will not. Terrorists will find a way around it.

So what level of intrusion are you willing to accept for a level of illusionary safety? It’s funny that people who object strenuously to the government “intruding” on their bedroom activities seem to have no problem with that same government stripping them naked just so they can board an aircraft!

Those of you who argue that the “right to abortion” is about a woman’s right to privacy, where are you on this issue? Does that “right to privacy” concerning your body extend to whom you allow to view that body, or is it in reality just a right to kill an inconvenient child?

What happens if the next terrorist uses a body cavity to hide his or her bomb? Will we next submit to full body cavity searches for everyone before we can board a plane? Think this ridiculous? Would you have thought nude body scanners ridiculous ten years ago? Five years ago? Last year?

There has to be a better way to do this. Israel, probably the country with the biggest problem in the world when it comes to terrorism has managed to find a way to safely process passengers without subjecting them to these indignities. How many Israeli planes have been brought down due to terrorist activity since 9/11? Zero.

Oh yes, I have heard it said “but Israel is a small country, with way fewer passengers traveling by air each day than the US; we can’t do things the same way here.” True, Israel has fewer fliers. But flights originate the same way in the US as they do in Israel – at airports. We can do the same thing here, one airport at a time. It will take more people than in Israel, but it can be done. It should at least be tried.

Considering the inconvenience that first the shoe bomber caused, and the downright intrusion that the underwear bomber precipitated, perhaps we are looking at this all wrong. Perhaps the intent was not to actually bring down the aircraft. Had they succeeded, would we have been able to determine exactly how the plane was brought down? Probably not.

By not succeeding, it can certainly be argued that they have caused even more damage than a successful bombing would have.

Want to really tie this country in knots (and incidentally, vastly increase the size of the TSA)? All we need is an underwear bomber incident on a bus or a train. How about a subway? Can you imagine everyone in New York City having to get naked twice every day in order to go to work?

I wonder how this country will deal with car bombs, should that ever become in vogue here in the United States as it is in other parts of the world?

The question before us is simple. Is flying worth this level of intrusion in our lives? And a parallel question suggests itself; what ultimately will Americans put up with in order to get what they want? If they will put up with what is essentially a strip search in order to fly in an airplane, what else will they put up with? When will people stand up and say “enough is enough?”

Of course, there is a third option to the current dilemma facing airline travelers her in the US. That is simply, don’t fly. That is the option I choose to exercise. If everyone (or a significant fraction) were to exercise this option, how long do you think it would take for the government to find a different approach?