The Airport Security Name Game

Tue May 3, 2005 3:48 PM EDT

Following 9/11, airports were on security lockdown. An era of arriving many hours before takeoff, in order to go through secondary and tertiary inspections, each with their own mind-boggling line, making the gate where your flight departed seem a veritable promised land. Since 9/11, I've noticed an evolution in airport security. Initially, the criteria for a secondary inspection ("stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, and your arms outstretched, please") seemed to be based largely on individual security officers' discretion. Hence my recollection of being asked to head to the line for a third security inspection after being told by the security officer that she "couldn't handle my name." (Still better than my brother's experience of being pulled over by a police officer and asked, before anything else, if he was Arab.) When I asked what the criteria was for selecting passengers for further inspection, she told me there were "a lot of reasons," and made it clear that if I kept up with this line of questioning, I may not get on my flight.

More impartial methods have since evolved. Now, your boarding ticket may be printed with an "s" indicating you have been selected for a random, more in-depth, security search. But it could be the case that airplane security has jumped from the absurdly subjective to the absurdly objective. Omar Khan, founder of an international business consultancy, today writes of his experience of being on the "master list" of those to be intensively inspected at airports. Khan writes that his highly common name ("In parts of the world, Omar Khan is as common a name as John Smith.") keeps every Omar Khan in security checks for 2 to 3 hours. Khan notes that this kind of search is a waste of resources. U.S. immigration officials told Khan that they had to process the same people time and again because they were not allowed to use their own judgment, and there is no process to avoid the check by obtaining any paperwork in advance. Even pilots and immigration supervisors are repeatedly subject to these checks despite clearing the security checks each time they travel.

There is certainly something to be said for thoroughness when our security is at stake. But it is clearly inefficient, and indeed, dangerous, to allocate limited resources to redundant checks. Khan lays out a strategy that he discussed with immigration officials on how to avoid unnecessarily wasting their time (as well as the many Omar Khans' time) while ensuring safety. It's worth a read. With funding for airport security currently in jeopardy, it's all the more crucial to find the necessary balance between redundant security objectivity, and the sometimes subjective judgment of well-trained security officials—especially since the "no fly" database of names has proven to be quite flawed due to infrequent updating. A process to enable those on the "no fly" list to obtain documentation that would enable them to be quickly cleared by security officials is just common sense, and would result in a system to better "handle" those with non-Anglo names.