Travelers headed to the airport in recent months have faced a security procedure that left many of them grumbling. At some airports, all passengers were asked to remove their shoes before walking through metal detectors, regardless of whether they wore a menacing steel-toed boot or a thin rubber flip-flop.
"The other night, they had everybody taking off their shoes - grandmothers surrendering their wooden clogs and teen-agers taking off their Chuck Taylors," said Tom Farmer, an Internet consultant in Seattle, describing a recent flight out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Although Farmer travels frequently for work and has become accustomed to security agents' "mystery obsession with shoes," he said it seemed particularly stressful "for occasional fliers or for older fliers who don't know what's going on."
Until recently, the Transportation Security administration has been tight-lipped about its apparent shoe fetish, but on July 10, the agency finally clarified its policy: Although screeners will no longer require passengers to remove their shoes, travelers who choose not to send their footwear through the X-ray machines may be subjected to secondary screening, even if they do not set off the metal detector's alarm.
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the TSA, said it clarified the rule "to ensure that the experience you have in one airport is similar to the experience you have in another airport coast to coast."
Shoes became a concern after a terrorist, Richard C. Reid, tried to detonate explosive material in his shoe on a December 2001 flight. Based on intelligence, the TSA has said, footwear remains a concern for airport security officials.
But inconsistent procedures in the past several months were frustrating passengers, who had no idea what to expect at the airport. For frequent travelers in particular, the seemingly arbitrary shoe directive added another level of frustration to their travel experience.
"Even within the same airport, it's not really consistent," said Susan Knell, an information technology consultant from Atlanta who travels frequently for work. When she flew from Atlanta to Minneapolis recently wearing a pair of Nine West loafers precisely because they do not trigger the metal detectors, she was told to remove her shoes despite her assurances that they would not set off the alarm.
"My husband went through the same screening area as I did and he had to as well," Knell noted, but she added that a colleague who passed through a different security lane that morning was allowed to keep his shoes on.
Before the recent increase in shoe searches, many frequent fliers had settled on certain traveling shoes after figuring out through trial and error which pairs could be worn through metal detectors without triggering the alarm. Indeed, the issue even sparked a lively discussion at an online forum for frequent fliers, flyertalk.com, where travelers traded tips about which styles of shoes were "security friendly" and which were not.
Joe Johnston, an engineer from Albany, N.Y., posted a message touting a pair of Bass dress shoes, noting he once bet a security screener at Logan airport in Boston $5 that his shoes would not trigger the alarm.
"I'd been wearing those shoes for a while through security," Johnston said in a telephone interview. "This guy wanted to make a bet if they would set off the alarm or not. He said I came close but didn't set it off." (Johnston said he told the screener to keep the money.)
At issue is the metal shank found in many styles designed for comfort. The shank stretches from the heel to the forefoot of the sole, providing support, but also triggering airport metal detectors. While frequent travelers favor the comfortable shoes, they have reluctantly relegated those that set off the detectors to the back of the closet.
Worried about losing some of their best customers, shoe manufacturers had already begun responding to the problem, replacing the metal shanks in their footwear with plastic alternatives.
"The way that it surfaced with us is we have a very high instance of airline personnel - pilots and co-pilots - that wear our shoes," said John Deem, vice president for global product development for the Rockport Co., of Canton, Mass. Rockport recently announced that beginning this fall, all of its new styles will feature a plastic shank made of a glass-filled nylon material specifically so that the shoes will not trigger airport security alarms.
On Rockport's Dressport 3.0 collection, which is available in stores now, Deem said, "We're even putting a sticker on the box that says 'security friendly.' " The plastic shank will be incorporated into the company's current shoe styles over the next 18 months.
The Timberland Co., a Stratham, N.H., competitor for the weary feet of travelers, has already made similar adjustments. Chris Heffernan, product manager for the company's men's casual footwear business, said the decision to switch to a nylon shank in 2001 was originally a matter of comfort but evolved into an imperative because of airport security concerns.
"Over 90 percent of my line does not have metal shanks," Heffernan said. "And that's only growing as each season continues."