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Sensible screening


COMMON SENSE seems to be creeping back into procedures for screening airline passengers, and it's most welcome.

Officials at the Transportation Security Administration are rethinking rules put hurriedly in place in reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with the goal of eliminating costly and time-consuming measures that do little to enhance security.

The likely result is that sewing scissors and pocketknives can once again be brought on board in carry-ons, and that sandal-clad travelers won't be reduced to walking through the metal detectors in their bare feet.

We're not enthusiastic, though, about a proposal to hustle a broad category of passengers through screening in the fast lane. Both as a matter of security and as a matter of shared pain, VIPs shouldn't be able to zip through with barely a second glance.

Many of the airline security procedures adopted in the wake of the terrorist attacks have a fighting-the-last-war quality to them.

Hijackers gained control of planes on Sept. 11, 2001, using box-cutters as weapons. Thus box-cutters, which have small but exceedingly sharp blades, were banned from carry-ons, as well as everything else with a sort of sharp point - no matter how ineffective a weapon it might make. For months, TSA screeners were breaking the little files out of nail clippers found in cosmetic bags. What a waste of time and effort!

After airline passenger Richard Reid was foiled in his December 2001 attempt to set fire to explosives hidden in his shoes, all footwear suddenly became suspect.

Technically, passengers were never automatically required to remove their shoes for screening, but screeners typically asked them to anyway, or warned that if metal in their shoes set off an alarm, they could be subject to a much more extensive search.

Thanks to more efficient screening technology, shoe removal is likely to become the exception rather the rule.

Detecting hidden explosives on would-be suicide bombers remains the biggest challenge, and the key reason no passengers should be allowed to board without minimal screening. Even a high-powered list of lawmakers, Cabinet officials, governors, judges, military honchos and people with top-secret clearances could be infiltrated.

Lumping VIPs in with the hoi polloi has resulted in some absurd situations. For example, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, one of the most recognizable men in the world, was repeatedly kept off planes because someone on the do-not-fly list has a similar name. This nonsensical precaution has also been applied to infants with suspicious names, as though a terrorist had either matured quite earlier or come up with a truly masterful disguise. But it was Mr. Kennedy's complaints that drew attention to a problem less famous folks simply had to endure.

So, more practical rules might be great, but they must be applied equally - if only so lawmakers can sound the alarm when procedures go awry.

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