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.
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
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.
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
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
What They Do to
- 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
- How long before departure the ticket was purchased
(last-minute tickets highly suspect).
- Past travels.
- Whether a rental car is waiting.
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
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.
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
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