The arrivals board at LAX quickly announced the new reality of commercial flying as 2009 started to morph into 2010: Many flights to Los Angeles from Canada and Mexico would be late or not coming at all. European and Asian flights would soon follow the new pattern.
A Christmas Day alleged attempt to blow up a Delta-Northwest (the two airlines have merged) jet from Amsterdam to Detroit resulted in a hasty regrouping by security officials who quickly, perhaps too quickly?, tightened security procedures both on the ground and in the air.
But do these latest measures make any sense? I think not!
Let's take the changes on the ground first. The reason for the delays in Canada and Mexico were that security personnel were going through carrying-on items more carefully, as well as patting down more passengers searching for contraband.
However, the alleged would-be Nigerian terrorist involved in this latest scare did not apparently bring his explosive powder and liquid combo on board tucked inside a carry-on, but reportedly had it strapped or sewn into his underwear!
Besides, he had apparently gone though airport screening not once but twice, according to some security officials -- once in Nigeria before boarding a KLM flight to Europe, then, again, in Amsterdam before getting on the Delta-Northwest Airbus A330 that would take him on to Detroit.
Would an even more careful search of the alleged terrorist's belongings and person have prevented him from getting on the planes? Perhaps? But perhaps not! Slowing down the screening process to the point of just about strangulating the entire air transport system doesn't make practical or economic sense.
And then, there is my favorite new and maybe dumbest security measure just implemented on international flights: Passengers must remain in their seats with nothing on their laps for the entire final one hour of their flight. It is not clear at this point whether domestic flights will soon be subject to the same nonsense.
And, nonsense it is! The notion appears to be that since the Nigerian passenger involved in the Christmas Day incident opted to ignite his explosive device as the jet was landing in Detroit--and thus over a populated, urban area--this would be the best time to keep passengers from moving about. (He apparently had gotten up first to go to the bathroom where, presumably, he readied his contraption for ignition.)
Give me a break! On international flights into LAX, it is the last hour when many passengers need to get their things together, make one last run for the bathroom, or, if traveling with an infant, use the time for one, last diaper change.
[Update: Late today, the Associated Press reported that "airline officials say in-flight security rules have been eased." According to the A.P., passengers on international flights will once again be allowed to get up during the last hour of flight "at the captain's discretion." So, it will be interesting to see how this actually will work on a practical basis.]
Making them sit glued to their seats is not only unworkable, but potentially cruel.
Now let me be clear. No one is arguing that there shouldn't be prudent steps taken to make commercial flying as safe as possible. But the operative word here is "prudent." I strongly think that these latest measures cross an unacceptable line and that financially stressed airlines and stressed out passengers alike need to say to the government, enough is enough! There is risk in everything we do. It is part of being alive. It has always been and always will be a part of flying. Yes, we can, and should, manage and reduce that risk as best we can, but not to the point where if given a choice between getting on a plane and having root canal, most people will opt for a trip to the dentist!
Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, "No Time To Think-The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle." He has covered police and politics in Los Angeles since 1995. He is also a licensed pilot who has covered many aviation and terrorism related stories. He is a regular contributor of investigative reporting to KNX 1070