YES, WE NEED SECURITY, BUT ALSO SPEED

It was still dark outside as I stepped into the cab. When we reached the airport, the curbside area was deserted. As I paid the driver, I swear I heard crickets.

It was 5 a.m., and my short flight was not until 6:15. My ticket was in hand. I had no bags to check. As a frequent traveler who knows the routine, I normally would have gotten there at 5:40. Believe me, that’s normally plenty of time.

But this was a not-normal trip. In fact, when I stumbled up the escalator, I realized I was not early enough. Before me stood a line of passengers that stretched the entire concourse, at least 200 people.

This was at the Philadelphia International Airport, where a few days earlier, a man had deliberately gone through security several times with box cutters in his bag. He then alerted the authorities to show them that despite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America’s airlines, security was still not up to par.

Their response was to arrest him.

A rush-hour traffic jam

I took my place in line. It moved like mud. There was only one metal detector. There were six security workers, yelling and seemingly overwhelmed. The pilots and flight attendants were melded into the same line as the rest of us, slowing it down even more. People glared at their watches. They shook their heads.

“Take laptops out of your bags!” one security person yelled.

“Have ID ready!” yelled another.

Down the hallway, a janitor began mopping the floor. The newsstands were just lifting their metal grates. It was like two worlds, side by side, one just waking up, the other already a nightmarish, rush-hour traffic jam.

Now, we all must be patient in these difficult times. But there is no way airports can function like this in the long haul.

A few months from now? At holiday time? Will people be arriving for morning flights at 2 a.m.? Will Americans tolerate a 2-hour line for a 1-hour plane ride? How long before tempers flare?

The airline business was already one of the most tense and customer-miserable places. People were packed like cattle. Manners were in short supply. It was so bad Congress demanded a passenger bill of rights.

Now, after the attacks, President Bush has beefed up security. He has National Guardsman on duty — although many seem there for moral support. Bush wants the government to oversee security, but would farm the work to private companies.

That’s what the airlines did. And look where it got us.

No way to do business

Now, it’s true, not every airport is as backed up as Philadelphia’s was that morning. On the other hand, we’re nowhere near our normal capacity for flying. To reach that again, two things are mandatory:

1) A higher-tech, higher-quality-of-inspector system for checking bags and passengers.

2) Speed.

You may think the latter is indulgent. I promise you it is not.

At these current paces, with such long-line aggravations, people — and especially business people — will simply stop flying. And that is precisely what this country does not want.

You stop flying, you stop staying in hotels, stop attending conferences, stop needing cabs. . . . You see how this ripples the economy.

And let’s be honest. In a global business world of fast computers, fast phones and fast decision-making, salespeople and executives stuck tapping their feet in a queue for two hours isn’t going to, well, fly.

We should take lessons from El Al, which avoids hijackings, gets people through securely, yet, on domestic flights, doesn’t take half a day to do so. Increased security also should mean increased metal detectors to allow better flow, and workers who don’t stand around waiting for someone to unclog the X-ray machine.

The saddest part of that whole Philadelphia experience is that when I finally reached security, all they did was check ID and pass me through. No bag check. Nothing special.

If this is supposed to make us feel secure, it isn’t working.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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