Inquirer Currents Columnist
The summer travel season is about to commence. For most of us, that means arriving two hours before departure; checking baggage; having boarding passes and picture IDs out and ready for inspection; inserting liquids in a plastic bag; taking off shoes; placing laptops in separate bins; and walking one at a time through metal detectors, to mention but a few indignities.
But none of that was the case when my wife and I recently flew down south.
Some close friends had invited us to join them on a private flight. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But afterward, what left me unsettled was a potential area of vulnerability in a post-9/11 world.
We arrived at Atlantic Aviation, a terminal north of International Airport not far from the old overseas terminal. We parked in front for free. Suitcases in hand, we walked through the terminal - showing no photo ID or plane ticket - and got on board.
No luggage inspection. No ID check. No boarding passes. We kept our liquids, didn't open our laptops, never walked through a metal detector. Then we flew for about two hours on a Cessna Citation V - a seven-seat airplane with two pilots.
This was living.
I later asked my host what information he had supplied about who would be aboard the plane.
His answer? "Your names."
Could a checkbook be all that separates al-Qaeda from chartering a private flight and loading a bomb aboard? I had no idea that nearly seven years removed from 9/11, people are hopping on airplanes without so much as flashing a driver's license.
I've since gone back to the 9/11 Commission report to search for concern over private travel. I found only this: "Major vulnerabilities still exist in cargo and general aviation security. These, together with inadequate screening and access controls, continue to present aviation security challenges."
John Butterworth, local general manager of Atlantic Aviation, explained by e-mail that private charter companies are required to check passengers against Federal Aviation Administration no-fly lists. Presumably that happened in my case. But given the status of those passengers - often public figures or repeat customers - those requirements are often relaxed.
He also explained that in this world of private travel, the work done by airline screeners at Philadelphia International is done by pilots and crews.
"Our ramp area is a secured area, whereby all customers are monitored by my line personnel and must be associated with a flight crew and aircraft. The doors are controlled by my counter personnel. As a passenger, you are under the recognizance of the flight crew.
"I would say 60 percent of my customers are corporate travelers, and 30 percent charter operations, and 10 percent private owners. So should these travelers take off shoes, give up shampoos, hand over laptops, and go through metal detectors? At some point common sense needs to prevail."
Butterworth's views were echoed by Florida Rep. John Mica, ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, tasked with rebuilding the aviation industry in the wake of 9/11.
Mica was at the forefront of the legislative effort to create the Transportation Security Administration. He placed the risks associated with private air travel in the context of an entire spectrum of risk. In other words, he reminded me, the United States has more urgent vulnerabilities than spring flights aboard Cessnas.
"We're concerned," Mica told me, "but you can't protect yourself against every single small aircraft or every vehicle. So you look at the biggest risk, the terrorist plot that can do the most damage. They're not interested in taking out a few folks, as we've seen. They're interested in taking out thousands and doing a lot of psychological damage, which also affects our economic stability. Again, you just can't protect yourself against every eventuality."
Maybe he's right. No doubt someone could argue that explosives packed inside a truck pose more risk than whatever evil could spring from a small private plane, and yet we don't make people walk through a metal detector before renting a U-Haul.
But there's an obvious class issue here. Avoiding invasive airport screening is a benefit available only to the wealthy, almost as if there exists a presumption that as net worth grows, security risks decline.
Not bad, if you're a high roller.