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MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING AT SECURITY
By Chris Barnett
December 1, 2010 -- It was a dark and stormy early morning in San Francisco three days before Thanksgiving. I was hurtling toward San Francisco International at 5:30 a.m., visions of a full-body screening and an intrusive pat-down dancing in my head. If I was "lucky," I could sample the Transportation Security Agency's newest brainstorm and get a first-hand look at what the considerable media ruckus was all about.

The media hype shifted my imagination into overdrive. I had images of confused or cantankerous travelers standing single file to go into a private pat-down room, holding their clothes and protecting their "junk." I imagined battalions of TSA soldiers, ah, agents, in glossy new uniforms and knee-high boots, walking up and down the lines, listening for dissenters mumbling and grumbling underneath their breath.

But things were going too well. I navigated a tricky ramp to an off-airport parking lot--$12 a day with an AAA card plus gratis newspapers, coffee, fruit and artery-clogging donuts. Inside SFO, Southwest Airlines' check-in lines were long, but moving quickly. Janelle, a personable Southwest agent, tagged my garment bag through to Milwaukee, scoured her computer for my Rapid Rewards number and updated my account. To my $400 roundtrip on the SFO-Phoenix-Milwaukee run, I added a $20 roundtrip fee for an "A" boarding card. Elapsed time: seven minutes.

With my garment bag checked at no extra charge, I headed for security. I saw long lines extending all the way back to the terminal entrance. It looked like chaos up ahead. Was this a Thanksgiving week phenomenon or the fallout of the TSA's tighter security polices?

But the lines moved surprisingly quickly, suggesting some degree of order up front near the metal detectors. As I moved closer to the front, I was expecting an indignant scream from a passenger in mid-pat-down--or at least a loud complaint. No dice. All was quiet.

Rats. Here are the Feds clamping down on airport security, igniting a firestorm of publicity, and I may actually sail through the screening. There goes my column.

My carry-on survived the magnetometers and this SFO terminal didn't have the new full-body image scanners. I walked through the old-style metal detectors. In fact, not only did I pass the government's newest anti-terrorist muster, I didn't see another passenger subjected to the tougher pat-down policies. I watched for six or seven minutes until a screener motioned me out of the way and pointed toward a bench where I could put on my shoes.

For a fleeting moment, I thought about kicking up a fuss to see if that might earn me a clash with the TSA's "heightened security measures." But why chance something worse? As readers of this column may recall, I once stupidly agreed to carry a small, locked suitcase for a fellow traveler. The security agents in Brussels came down on me when I couldn't tell them what was inside nor could I produce a key. For a year hence, every time I flew, I was singled out for special searches and questioning.

The first leg of my journey was uneventful and I arrived on-time at Phoenix Sky Harbor International. I had 90 minutes between flights and had arranged to meet a friend for coffee. That required me to leave the sterile area. To get to my Phoenix-Milwaukee flight, I was required to go through the TSA gauntlet again. But, amazingly, at high noon, there were no lines, no full-body imagers and maybe 25 screeners. I breezed through the security checkpoint.

Indeed, a TSA agent, a former military officer who did not want to reveal his name, claimed that Sky Harbor didn't have any of the full-body imagers yet. "The high-volume, major city airports--LAX, JFK, Atlanta and probably Washington/Dulles--got the first shipments," he concluded. (According to the TSA Web site, Phoenix now has some full-body machines.)

Sky Harbor does have a private pat-down room that looks like a small shed. It's adjacent to a cluster of desks manned by TSA supervisors, but I didn't see anyone, passenger or screener, going in or out.

Just for this column, I tried to engage a security agent about the TSA's random-selection policy for pat-downs. Was it profile-, numerical- or database-driven? Is there a special algorithm? My curiosity immediately iced our conversation. I learned nothing.

While I never did "sample" the TSA's new hands-on pat-down, I did finally experience the full-body scanner on my return trip that began at Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport. The full-body devices had replaced all of the old metal detectors at the checkpoint I used. The process is fairly simple: You step into a glass tube and put your shoes on the footprints on the floor, The tube turns 45 degrees and, bingo, you're in Uncle Sam's electronic scrapbook, perhaps forever.

I didn't time the process, although some travelers insist the new scanners take longer than the old metal detectors. And it didn't occur to me until days later that I had lost visual contact with my carry-on bags while I was in the full-body imager. Still, from what I can tell, the new TSA scanners are a minor inconvenience compared with the search-and-seizure tactics of the U.S. Customs Department.

(As any smuggler or drug mule will attest, Customs searches are far more intrusive and invasive than TSA searches.) And while I haven't seen the images produced by the new full-body scanners, they pale in comparison to photos displayed by Customs agents, which show drugs and other contraband taped to--or inserted in--naked bodies.)

In fact, to me, all the press and cable-TV talking-head rabble-rousing about the TSA clampdown is much ado about nothing. The chances of you getting hauled to the windowless room for a pat-down are pretty slim--unless you wise-off to the men and women in blue or you are exceptionally modest and would rather not risk a rubdown in public.

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ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Creators Syndicate.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

This column is Copyright © 2010 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.