Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Airport security in land of the underpants bomber

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As a conscientious traveller, I prepared carefully for a recent trip to the United States -- everything packed in a checked bag, no gels, no liquids, no carry-on luggage except for a small computer.

I was feeling pretty proud of myself, standing in line to board a plane in Chicago after being allowed into the U.S. without a hitch.

I pulled out my passport to show the airline agent at the gate.

Then I put it away -- because the agent only wanted to see my ticket and was not requiring photo identification.

It struck me as odd that a basic security measure used for years by Canadian airlines -- showing photo ID before boarding -- was not being used in the land of the underpants bomber, a nation on ultra-high alert for terrorist threats.

Then I looked around. Pretty much every other person was carrying a large bag, the sort that became popular once airlines started charging extra for checked luggage.

You see, carry-on baggage is allowed on U.S. domestic flights. You cannot go from Canada to the U.S. in the air with one, but it's no problem once you're in the United States.

And so it went for the whole trip.

It quickly became clear that security measures we have learned to live with in Canada are not being used in the same way in the U.S.

In Winnipeg, I had to put my hands in my pockets and then have them swabbed to check for traces of explosives.

In Philadelphia, I went through a routine screening that involved nothing more intrusive than taking off my shoes.

There is clearly a need for airline security and the United States is clearly a target in the age of modern terrorism.

It's also clear that Canada has to protect its access to the U.S., so it's understandable that authorities here are doing everything they can to screen passengers and reassure the Department of Homeland Security.

But a casual traveller to the U.S. is left wondering why measures used here aren't being applied there.

It's as if no terrorist would ever board a U.S. flight within the country. Well, apart from those guys who hijacked planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11.

It strikes me that the biggest threats to the United States will always come from within, given the vast network of airports and the thousands of flights daily that start and end inside the country.

On the last leg of my trip, I had taken only a couple of steps off the airplane onto Canadian soil when I was greeted with a cold nose thrust in the general direction of my crotch.

The nose belonged to a sniffer dog, which was on the loading bridge checking out everyone getting off a flight from Chicago to Winnipeg.

The dog's handler snapped his fingers to direct the animal while another officer urged people to keep moving.

At first, passengers were by turns surprised, confused and even frightened by the big dog in the narrow space.

They were used to seeing drug-sniffing dogs around the baggage carousel, but not at the door of the airplane.

Then it dawned on them -- it's a new age of air travel.

Personally, I wasn't surprised. It's Canada, after all, where caution is the word when it comes to airport security.

 

Bob Cox is the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.

 

bob.cox@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 29, 2010 A13

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

bob.cox@freepress.mb.ca

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