Four years after the tragic events of 9/11, the Transportation Security Administration is finally getting it right. The agency announced last week that it was changing its rules and procedures for security at U.S. airports. It will now focus more on bombers and less on scissors and small tools.
It's about time. Of course, after a disaster like 9/11 it takes time to get the wrinkles out of a new, nationwide policy. But what an annoying four years we've endured at the security gate: everything from confiscated nail clippers to humiliating pat-down searches.
Sure, there was some reason for concern. Everyone remembers Richard Colvin Reid, the notorious Shoe Bomber. Then there were the two Chechen women who are thought to have carried nonmetallic explosives aboard two Russian airliners last year; the two planes exploded midair, killing 90 people. But these events occurred on risky overseas and international flights. For the most part, U.S. domestic flights have gone off without a hitch.
I am happy to see the new changes. They should prevent unfortunate delays like the one my friend's 77-year-old grandmother endured last week: two-and-a-half hours to clear security at Orange County's John Wayne Airport. They should keep me from having to remove my tennis shoes after I've already cleared the metal detector. (Yes, that happened, too. The TSA agent demanded that I take off my shoes or she would make me go through a full screening.)
So what do the changes mean?
For the most part, better security. Yes, better security -- despite the outcries from liberal politicians like Rep. Edward Markey (D., Mass.), who stated that he would introduce legislation to reverse the TSA action, arguing that what's needed is more screening, not less.
Apparently, Markey still thinks that a 4-inch scissor can bring a plane down. The reality is that no one is getting through the cockpit door. Pilots and airline executives may not agree on much, but every pilot and airline executive I have spoken with agrees that the new reinforced cockpit doors and onboard security procedures have secured the cockpit against all intrusions.
It is true that a belligerent passenger could cause some harm to other passengers using scissors or other items lifted from the ban. But with today's ever-vigilant passengers -- and air marshals on many flights -- the risk of harm from these items is low.
I think that TSA chief Kip Hawley had it exactly right when he said, "The system must be less predictable so terrorists don't know what they will encounter when they arrive at an airport on any given day." By looking at those who might do tangible harm and by making the screening process less predicable, the TSA hopes to put more effort toward developing an efficient risk profile based on behavior rather than on ubiquitous items carried in a purse.
After all, the Israelis have taken this approach to airline security for years, and they are arguably the best in the world at protecting planes and passengers.
What to expect
* Expect the screening process to be different from the one your encountered the last time you flew. It will be different the next time, too. The new process is fluid by design -- to keep the bad guys guessing.
* Don't expect the changeover to be smooth. The new rules take effect December 22, but it will probably be January before most agents become familiar with the new rules and procedures. In the meantime, don't be surprised if you see screeners using measuring tapes to determine whether your embroidery scissors can go on board. The Christmas travel season is bound to add to the confusion, so patience is still important.
* Expect to see more bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling the airports.
* Know that you may be singled out at random to go through a second screening, which may include taking off your shoes, submitting to a pat-down, and having your carry-on bags tested for explosives.
Overall, you should encounter a more efficient process that is quicker to navigate and more focused on explosives than on small items. You should also come across TSA agents (now called "Transportation Security Officers" -- TSOs) who are more empowered to use their knowledge and training to detect and defeat terrorists by focusing on genuine security threats.
I applaud the TSA for taking these progressive steps toward better security. I hope that the intended outcomes of safer skies and quicker security also result in travel that is more enjoyable for everyone.

Joel Widzer