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February 5, 2002

Logan security: It looks better but is it?

The burning question: " Is Logan Airport safe? " has become a political issue in the gubernatorial race, as well as a leading topic of conversation. Based on three trips I took — one in October, one in December and one in January — the answer to the burning question appears to be, " It looks safer, but isn’t really much safer. "

The first change one notices is the uniformed military police. At Logan, they carry pistols and nightsticks, but at Dallas and Washington they carry rifles. The young soldiers wear standard jungle-patterned camouflage, which doesn’t camouflage them very well at all against the marble and mirrors of the Logan terminals. The reason for camouflage in battle is to avoid being seen; but here the purpose is to be seen — and they succeed at having an ubiquitous presence. Their official function is to check identifications, but their real purpose is to provide reassurance.

Regular security personnel still perform the bag-checking duties. Although the number of security staff hasn’t increased much, their level of activity has. My identification was checked at least four times before boarding on every trip. Laptop computers are now routinely X-rayed separately, and you’ve got a good chance of an individual bag inspection. This is the main source of longer check-in times — there are more individual inspections. This activity, while also largely symbolic, does prevent ostensibly dangerous objects from being brought on board.

The list of dangerous objects varies widely. On my January trip, a woman had her metal nail file confiscated after she confessed its presence. On my October trip, I observed a bin full of scissors and small knives and other sharp objects located by X-ray. I never saw any nail clippers confiscated, and I brought one along undetected on my December trip, so I’d say the widespread story of nail clipper confiscations are an urban legend.

Once past the security gate, Logan allows knives at the restaurants — as does Tampa airport, but Dallas and New Orleans airports do not. This made dinner in a barbecue restaurant difficult — the server had to pre-cut all of the meat into small pieces. And I wondered if the server himself, wielding a large blade in his daily duties beyond the security gate, required some sort of special security status. While this is the most direct response to the Sept. 11 methods, banning plastic cutlery seems more inconvenient than safety-minded.

My December trip was just a few days after the " shoe bomber " incident, and my shoes were X-rayed on that trip — all passengers walked through the metal detector unshod. By my January trip, X-raying shoes had been replaced by a manual inspection — a fellow wearing latex gloves stuck his hand into each shoe to ensure that they had no false toes, or who-knows-what. Certainly this will prevent shoe bomber copycats — but preventing the previous attack isn’t as useful as predicting the next attack.

On six flights, I got individually scanned for metal three times. The sensors are set much more sensitively nowadays — they find every bit of aluminum foil on leftover gum wrappers in every pocket I’ve got. My belt buckles are now regularly inspected, rotated, handled and only then cleared for boarding. This is a time-consuming process, and is the basis of complaints of " profiling " — my girlfriend’s belt buckles escape such scrutiny.

My girlfriend was required, however, to drink a sample of her juice while passing through security — evidently the security guard suspected a possibility of poisoning the pilot, or something. Or maybe it was just the dark green spirulina color that aroused suspicion — the rule seems to be that they’ll inspect anything that the rest of the passengers might worry about, if it went through uninspected.

The most inscrutable new security activity was, when approaching for landing at Logan on one flight, that passengers were required to open our window shades. I asked for details, and the flight attendant explained that the tower could thereby more readily see any fire aboard the plane, and that this was a regulation prior to Sept. 11, but never enforced. I’m still scratching my head on that one.

Some other recent changes:

· Electronic ticketing was banned in October, but has since returned.

· Parking at Terminal B was banned through December, but is now again available, with a visual inspection of the trunk of your car.

· A two-hour check-in time was required in October but is now falling back toward 30 minutes — I caught an earlier flight than ticketed in both directions in January.

· The Ted Williams Tunnel is now sometimes open to passenger cars, and is a great shortcut.

· The " CT " bus now runs from Andrew Station (one stop south of South Station on the Red Line) directly to the airport, and is an even better shortcut.

I conclude that most new security procedures do more to assuage public fear of air travel than actually make air travel more secure against terrorists. But I also conclude that that’s not a bad idea. The purpose of my last flight, to Washington, was to discuss a newly forming national water infrastructure security system. One of the topics we discussed was " psychological attack " — that terrorists could shut down a water system by simply getting food color into tapwater. Red-colored water wouldn’t poison anyone, but it would destroy people’s confidence in the public water supply, which can shut down a water system as effectively as if people were actually poisoned.

Our air transportation infrastructure suffered a similar loss of confidence. People need the reassurance that camouflaged soldiers at check-in provide. It doesn’t matter if their rifles are unloaded — which my visual inspection always indicated was the case — because they’re not there to stop terrorists, but to rebuild public confidence.

We’ve spent many millions of dollars providing ourselves with reassurance, and air travel is returning to normal. Now it’s time to shift resources from rebuilding confidence to improving safety.

— Jesse Gordon has frequent flyer miles with most U.S.-based airlines as well as a few with Singapore Air. He is currently deciding what to do with a $300 voucher from being " bumped " on his December flight.

Watch MetroWest Daily News managing editor Joe Dwinell's live report on WB-56 every Thursday and Friday at 7:45 a.m.

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