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Do I Look Like A Terrorist?

(February 28, 2002)

"Congratulations, you're an "S" passenger," jokes the airline agent as he hands me my boarding pass. What does an "S" mean for the passenger? It's air travel's new scarlet letter designating someone who will be searched…thoroughly. It's part of the new wave of security screening procedures designed to ferret out potential terrorists. Although it seems like a good idea in theory, it's inconvenient for passengers, and worse, the resulting searches are not performed consistently.

You've Got CAPPS

With the "S" system, airlines will already know that you are flagged as a "suspicious passenger" when you arrive at the ticket counter. Here's how it works: The software that runs on the airline's reservation system, called Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS), selects passengers whose carry-on and checked bags will require additional security screening. CAPPS also selects passengers at random, which helps to ensure passengers' civil liberties by guaranteeing that no individual or group of individuals is automatically targeted from the selection process.

The CAPPS selection criteria has been reviewed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to ensure that the methods of passenger selection are non-discriminatory and do not constitute impermissible profiling of passengers on the basis of their race, color, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.

Red Flags

Why did I get an "S" on my ticket? It wasn't because I was a random pick. It was because certain information about my travel itinerary and me signaled to the CAPPS system that I should be selected.

CAPPS assigns positive and negative values to personal information and then totals the scores. Passengers who score below the FAA-prescribed cutoff are selected. In my case, the US Airways agent stated that I was selected because my one-way ticket to Aruba, and the fact that I bought it within the past month, constituted a red flag. Never mind that I was just a cruise passenger who was leaving from Aruba and ending up in Costa Rica.

So, what are all the red flag factors? The airlines, DOJ, and FAA, which jointly developed terrorism profiles, remain mum and state that confidentially is a must in order for the system to work. However, some profiling clues were released during a 1998 House Transportation subcommittee hearing. The hearing suggested that terrorist profiles are built using the following as red flag factors:

  • Passenger's last name.
  • Type of traveling companions.
  • Original point of departure and itinerary.
  • One-way tickets.
  • Method of payment (tickets paid in cash are highly suspect).
  • How long before departure the ticket was purchased (last-minute tickets highly suspect).
  • Past travels.
  • Whether a rental car is waiting.
What They Do to Selected Individuals

Gloved agents search carry-on items and the person using a hand-held metal detector in conjunction with conducting a pat-down search. The search may become more intrusive if the initial search indicates that a prohibited item may be concealed.

What they search and the intensity of the search also varies by airport. During check-in at Pittsburgh's airport, my checked luggage went through the powerful CTX scanner before being sent to the airplane. At the gate, the security agents went through my carry-on and took a thorough look at my laptop, digital camera, and PDA. Then the agents looked through my clothes and unzipped my toiletries case. I was also subjected to the wand search.

My return from Costa Rica was a different story, where I was subjected to the wand search but had my luggage torn apart…almost literally. The agents unzipped every compartment in my luggage and opened nearly every container in my toiletry kit. They found my small container of baby powder and then shook some powder out and smelled it. Next, an agent held up my three-ounce container of hairspray saying, "Senora, no go on aeroplano." Never mind that it was almost empty and that the FAA's rule states that "personal care items containing hazardous materials (e.g., flammable perfume, aerosols, etc.) totaling no more than 70 ounces may be carried on board," and that "contents of each container may not exceed 16 fluid ounces."

No amount of security is completely foolproof, but increased vigilance has already bolstered air travel safety. Nevertheless, my own personal experience is one of a system that is unbalanced, with inconsistent searches, and filled with frustration for air travelers.

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