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REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Flying United (gulp)
out of Dulles (gulp)

Journalist runs gantlet of Middle-Eastern security checkpoint screeners

WASHINGTON – I’ve been flying all my life and have never been nervous about it, even as a child flying alone – never, that is, until last week.

On Sept. 19, eight days after the hijackings and terrorist attacks, I had to fly out of Washington Dulles International Airport to Palo Alto, Calif., on a business trip planned weeks earlier.

A transcontinental flight … out of Dulles … on United Airlines. Gulp.

But I assured myself that the skies were probably
safer than ever given the high alert, tightened
security, and unlikely chance that Islamic terrorists
would risk pulling such an evil stunt again with
everyone knowing their M.O. Besides, it was a great
opportunity for a journalist to witness first-hand the
security changes at Dulles and, specifically, at
United’s terminals both here and on the West Coast.

At the security checkpoint at Dulles’ main terminal, three Middle Eastern men – all employed by Argenbright Security Inc. – guided me through the metal detector and monitored the x-ray machine as it scanned my brief case and carry-on bag. All three spoke choppy English at best, as federal law enforcement officers looked on. (Argenbright is reportedly under investigation for hiring unauthorized non-citizens as security checkers and for failing to conduct background checks on them.)

Now that terrorists have shown they can turn a box cutter into a weapon of mass destruction, airlines aren’t taking any chances. So they’ve banned otherwise innocuous personal items, such as Swiss Army knives, cosmetic scissors and even nail clippers.

But I was still able to get through security with things a terrorist could use to threaten, if not injure, a flight crew, including a double-blade razor with a metal handle, a long needle, a metal chain and several metal coat hangers.

As I approached my gate, I ran into three more Middle Eastern workers huddled around a box of T-shirts in front of a book store. They were unpacking the hot new merchandise to put on shelves. The white shirts had brightly colored American flags splashed across them and words underneath which I couldn’t make out.

So I asked the three Arab men what the shirts said,
but they didn’t understand me. I asked again without
any luck, before realizing they spoke only Arabic and
not a lick of English. The caption under the flags,
upon closer inspection, read: “These colors don’t
run.”

At the gate, I learned I wasn’t the only passenger nervous about flying on United flight 215.

Just before boarding, the United gate agent announced
that, due to lack of bookings and no-shows, she would
have to reassign seats. With just 16 passengers, the
Airbus A-320 had a weight problem. The aircraft was
too light in the tail and needed more bodies back
there.

About 90 minutes into the flight, dinner was served, whereupon I noticed another security change. The airline had replaced metal knives with plastic ones. But they left the metal forks, with their sharp and sturdy tines.

Arriving at San Francisco Airport, I walked a gantlet of four Border Patrol agents on the look-out for more suspected Middle Eastern terrorists.

Argenbright processed me through security on the return trip home. They have the San Francisco Airport contract as well.

The workers there seemed to be more on the ball than at Dulles. But it was 6:45 a.m., and they may have been more fresh.

After passing through the metal detector, an Argenbright worker, a woman, tickled me head to toe with a wand and then, to my surprise, even frisked me.

All the workers at the security checkpoint were minorities who spoke little English. Only one, an older man, was Middle Eastern.

Then I hit another checkpoint. A man who worked for the airport, not Argenbright, asked to see my ticket. Just after I had walked into the airport and approached the security checkpoint, two airport workers had stopped me and asked to see my ticket and my license. Dulles also had workers posted before the checkpoint, but not after it. Also, S.F. airport announced repeatedly on the loud speaker: “Only ticketed passengers will be allowed past checkpoints and into the boarding area.”

On my way to the United concourse, I also had to walk past several federal law enforcement officers posted at the top of an escalator. I spotted one Border Patrol agent, one U.S. Marshal and two U.S. Customs Service agents.

Finally past security, I stopped at a gift shop and then it dawned on me. Terrorists don’t have to smuggle weapons past security. They can just buy them at the gift shop when they’re home free.

In the gift shop, I found belts with sharp metal buckles, brooches with long pins, stain-glass ornaments shaped like death stars, wine bottles in metal holders and metal toy fighter jets with long nose-cone needles.

Aboard United flight 970 back to Dulles, I noticed the plane was a Boeing 767 – just like the one that crashed into the second World Trade Center tower. From my seat in coach, I could see all the way to the cockpit. The curtains normally separating first class from business class and business from coach had been tied back.

A United flight attendant, Joao Silva, told me that he had tied the curtains back.

“Safety is more important than service now,” he said.

“I want to be able to see what’s going on in the back of the plane and in the front of the plane.”

Back at Dulles’ main terminal, I was greeted by a phalanx of Argenbright security guards. Actually, it was three Middle-Eastern boys in ill-fitting uniforms who all wore sheepish expressions and shuffled their feet, as if they didn’t know what they were supposed to be doing.

This is our capital’s line of defense against kamikaze terrorists.

Previous stories:

Captains to FAA: Focus on cockpits

Pistol-shooting parties at terrorist safe-house

U.S. equipped terror sponsors

Related column:

Please, Mr. Bush, no Basrah this time

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