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Oh Really, O’Reilley?

Tuesday evening Bill O’Reilley, famous for afflicting the comfortable, came down four square for the conventional wisdom on airline security. I don’t doubt his sincerity or concern but his pugnacious insistence on attacking airline and airport security personnel for following the rules or their instinct makes causes me to question his commitment to defending "the folks".

He weaved together two disparate stories; the denial of boarding to an armed US Secret Service Agent and the near strip search of Congressman John Dingell. According to O’Reilley both of these events cast serious doubt on the intelligence, ability and procedures of people responsible for airline security. He is convinced that there were simpler solutions which could have prevented these incidents from becoming front page news.

O’Reilley claims that a simple phone call could have established the identity of the Secret Service Agent. Going off half cocked is usually not an O’Reilley fault. His presentation of a story normally displays excellent research, but in this case he was just plain wrong. Anyone with 10 minutes to spare and access to the internet could have learned that the story, as reported in the press was a mite more complicated than we were led to believe. American Airlines has provided on their web site the accounts from the pilot, a supervisor in operations in Dallas who was contacted, gate personnel and the comments of a BWI airport policeman who was present for part of the incident.

Custom, tradition and logic dating back hundreds of years to the days of sail, have given the captain of any vessel wide latitude in the handling of his duties. Being charged with the safe transport and delivery of hundreds of lives (or millions in cargo) is an awesome responsibility. Handling any craft requires skill, foresight and experience. A pilot, or captain, is charged with determining whether his aircraft is air worthy. He alone makes the determination that weather conditions are safe or unsafe. The pilot must acknowledge by signing the aircraft log that necessary repairs are both complete and adequate.

Since 9-11 an airline captain can no longer assume that the passengers he has boarded are adequately screened. He is in that respect the last line of defense in airplane security. O’Reilley’s claim that this could have been cleared up with one phone call sounds simple but belies the new tendency we all have to be skeptical that things are not necessarily as advertised. An armed man with Secret Service credentials who can’t fill out paperwork properly becomes suspicious. Add in the fact that this man violated security regulations by trying to go back into the plane when he was told not to do so, couple this with his belligerence and one can easily see why the captain was nervous in the service.

There is no doubt this could have been handled better on both sides. But considering the fear factor one is forced to ask, "What was this agent thinking?". A man who is trained to protect the President of the United States from harm should now better than to challenge the procedures of the airline in a time of war. How would he react if he was conducting an investigation of a potential threat to the President and the subject was bellicose and uncooperative? O’Reilley’s defense of an immature man with an exaggerated sense of his importance is laughable.

In attempting to put some meat on the bones of his argument, O’Reilley then drags in the alleged "poor treatment" of Congressman John Dingell. The Congressman, equipped with a knee brace, an artificial hip and pins in his ankle was pulled from a security check point because he set off the metal detector. When the inspectors could not determine the source of the alarm they asked him to go into an office and remove his pants. At least to his credit Congressman Dingell did not pull rank and demand special treatment but he was offended and uncooperative when asked to remove his pants. O’Reilley misses the main point here. If this had happened on 9-10 the checkers would undoubtedly have made the reasonable judgment that a 75 year old man who set off the detector and claimed to have pins in his ankles would not be much of a security risk.

But that all changed on 9-11. The checkers are now caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. A quick profile of Dingell would have given them the answer that this man is not much of a threat. He is older, his story is credible and he does not appear to be hiding any weapons. Proceed through. But woe betide the checker who exercises that sort of judgment today. Who is to say that there would not be some FAA Inspector determined to follow procedure who would have jacked up the checkers for failing to conduct a full search. Given the priority we now assign to rigor in security checks at airports, that is not the sort of decision I would want to force any employee into. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Clearly reason has fled the scene in both cases. The disappointment is that men like Bill O’Reilley should peel back the layers and ask the tough questions rather than going for the cheap shot. There is much work needed to secure our airways and criticizing people who don’t want to take risks in an environment where thousands were killed by airplanes is not a positive contribution to improving things.

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