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Fear of Flying: Crazy Right Can't Get It Right

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Which of the following summer airport stories gives you the most totally uncomfortable feeling?

  • A 24-year-old man with no identification except an old student ID card managed to get onto a flight to Los Angeles with an out-of-date boarding pass that belonged to another person.
  • The Department of Homeland Security says there have been 25,000 breaches of airport security since 9/11.
  • A cleaning crew discovers a stun gun in a seat pocket of a JetBlue plane at Newark Airport.
  • Jet on the runway at JFK halts takeoff to avoid running over a turtle.
  • A 95-year-old woman has adult diaper searched during airport security check.

I don't know about you, but sympathetic as I feel to the plight of that elderly woman, the pat-down crisis is the least of my air travel worries.

The grandmother, as the whole world has now heard, was traveling from Florida to Michigan with her daughter, Jean Weber, when a Transportation Security Administration official said an agent felt something "suspicious" on her leg during a pat-down procedure. They were sent off to a bathroom to remove the diaper so it could be investigated.

Weber said that her mother was "very calm," while she burst into tears. And who could blame her? But I've been inured to most security line complaints after nearly 10 years of reading reports about terrorists who tuck bombs into underwear, shoes, and -- most recently and ghoulishly -- children.

Also, while this grandmother and her clan have my total sympathy, I can't help noticing that a lot of the furor over pat-down policies has come from the crazy right. In Texas, a loony talk show host has been leading marches through the capitol to demand passage of what's come to be known as the "Groping Bill," while supporters wave signs like "TSA Get Out of My Pants." The bill would have made it a crime punishable by up to a year in prison for a TSA official to pat down a traveler's private parts.

"If we can land a man on the moon without being groped then we ought to be able to land my 88-year-old mother in Manchester without being groped," said a Republican supporter, Rep. Debbie Riddle.

The same people will be the first and loudest to denounce the Obama administration for any breach in airport security.

And all this hysteria seems to be empowering overly cranky passengers. A 41-year-old woman was arrested at the Nashville International Airport after refusing to let her daughter go a security check. An airport officer said Andrea Fornella Abbot refused to go through the X-ray machine, telling guards who assured her about the safety: "I still don't want someone to see our bodies naked." Passengers also have the option of a physical search, but Abbott said she didn't want her daughter to have her "crotch grabbed."

People who have artificial hips, knees, or other body parts that set off the scanners go through terrible ordeals at the airports. You can understand why this sort of thing must drive them completely nuts.

But as both an airline passenger and a New Yorker, I lean way over to the security side in these matters. A few weeks back the nation couldn't get enough of the story about the turtles who caused flight delays at J.F.K. when they crossed a runway to get to their nesting grounds. It was sort of touching, the lengths the ground crews went to on the behalf of the diamondback terrapins. Nobody begrudges the turtles a few minutes lost travel time. But if it's ever even a remote choice between the safety of the plane and the safety of the turtles, I know which side I'm on.

It's the same with geese.

I want to believe that the security agents at the airport -- who have one of the worst jobs in the world and deserve endless sympathy -- are ever-vigilant. Okay, 25,000 incidents short of ever-vigilant over the last ten years. But the last thing I want is to encourage them to shoot for 30,000 between now and 2021.

So while the harassed-grandmother stories are troubling, they're not nearly as worrisome as the saga of Olajide Oluwaseun Noibi, who managed to get on Virgin America plane to Los Angeles with a boarding pass for a prior flight that belonged to another passenger.

Noibi was finally fingered when crew inside the plain had to deal with complaints from his fellow passengers about his body odor, and re-checked his credentials. But still, the man got on the plane. And given the evidence the FBI found later, it was apparently far from the first time.

Besides the obvious security implications, this worries me because there are so many departure gates crammed together at places like JFK and LaGuardia that I've always worried I'd accidentally get in the wrong one. Then assured myself that if I did, the person who ran my boarding pass through that little machine at the door would catch the error and set me straight.

Guess not.