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Revenge of the Tweezer People

Call it the revenge of the tweezer people. The backlash against senseless -- and useless -- airport security rules is building up into something nasty.

How nasty? Enough that some people are leading airport revolts against dumb security delays, while a popular Web site catering to frequent flyers is distributing "Impeach Norman Mineta" bumperstickers.

The anger that travelers feel toward airline security measures -- like the confiscation of G.I. Joe nailclippers and tweezers, or "random" searches that seem to target mostly white-haired old women or whoever's the first person in line -- is real. It could blossom into a political force. 

In 1976, Malcolm Wallop used similar public anger brewing against OSHA bureaucrats to defeat hapless incumbent Sen. Gale McGee. Wallop ran television commercials that featured a cowboy with a port-a-john strapped to his horse. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the sort of commercial that could be made in response to today’s airport security idiocy. 

But Mineta’s biggest risk probably doesn’t come from the millions of irritated travelers who would like to take home his scalp. It comes from the millions of irritated travelers who have decided that they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more.

They're not going to take the plane, that is, because all the hassles involved in searching passengers for tweezers have not only made flying unpleasant -- they’ve increased delays. 

That’s changed people’s calculations. Trips that were feasible when you could arrive at the airport a half-hour before your flight just aren’t feasible if you have to be there two hours early. I know that I’ve passed up some trips that I would have taken in the old days, because I could have flown to another city, given a speech or had a meeting, and returned home the same night to sleep in my own bed. That’s almost never possible any more.

Even for trips of several hundred miles, the delays and hassles are such that many flyers are choosing to drive instead of fly. As USA Today reports:

Many business travelers have raised their driving-time thresholds. "I have established my cutoff at five to six hours," says consultant Bill Teater of Mount Vernon, Ohio. "I can not only avoid the (airport) security charade protecting me, but I can get to my destination sooner."

Three out of four corporate travel managers say they are seeing some employees substitute driving for flying. About 15 percent say the crossover has been substantial, the Business Travel Coalition found in a survey last spring.

This phenomenon had something to do with U.S. Air’s recent bankruptcy. The same story quotes a U.S. Air official as saying that they’ve had problems because they’re a short-haul airline, and "customers still perceive the airport experience as a hassle." A hassle? Imagine that.

These problems aren’t going away. Once people and businesses get in the habit of canceling trips, or substituting automobiles or teleconferencing for air travel, that business is going to be very hard to get back. Flying hasn’t really been fun for 20 years. People travel for business as often as they do out of habit as much as out of need. Now airline security has made that habit unpleasant enough that they’re looking at alternatives. Once those alternatives become habits, they’re likely to remain in place.

All of this might be simply an unavoidable cost of the war on terrorism if it actually did any good. But, as the quote from consultant Bill Teater above makes clear, it’s just a "charade," and flyers are well aware of it. As one Israeli security expert said, America doesn’t have a system for air security, it has a system for bothering people. Given the recently disclosed problems with the supposedly elite Air Marshal program, that sounds about right.

The post-Sept. 11 air security system has been all about appearances. It’s the bureaucrats’ effort to fool the American public into feeling safe via cosmetic measures that create enough inconvenience to fool the gullible into thinking that all that hassle must be making them safer.  That’s what has people angry. It’s not that the air security program is ineffective, and it’s not that it’s a big pain. It’s that it’s both at the same time. That the powers-that-be seem happy with that state of affairs is what really rankles. Apparently, the powers-that-be overestimated the number of gullible air travelers.

P.T. Barnum supposedly remarked that no one ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public. The airlines -- with a lot of help from Norm Mineta -- may be about to prove Barnum wrong.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).

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