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Everyone Gets Checked at the Airport


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Washington, D.C. Jan. 10, 2002 (AP by Nancy Benac)–There’s no express line at the airport, even for Very Important Passengers.

In an age of increased security, notables and no-names alike are getting the once-over and then some at airports around the country. Members of Congress and their kids, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta _ all have gotten the full treatment from screeners.

The latest: Rep. John Dingell, who at age 75 and after 46 years in Congress was asked to drop his trousers at Washington’s Reagan National Airport over the weekend.

“They felt me up and down like a prize steer,” the Michigan Democrat later recounted. “I was very nice, but I probably showed I was displeased.”

When word of Dingell’s experience reached Mineta, the secretary called the congressman to commiserate.

“I’m afraid a lot of travelers could probably identify with that experience, including the secretary,” said Mineta spokesman Chet Lunner.

In Mineta’s case, “he had to stand there for what seemed like 10 minutes while they wanded him and re-wanded him, had him remove his belt, empty his pockets, take off his jacket,” said Lunner, who himself had breezed through security for the same flight from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. “Eventually they discovered a stray Altoid mint” whose aluminum wrapper had triggered the alarms.

For Dingell it was his steel hip joint, knee brace and surgically implanted ankle pins that ultimately led guards to ask him to remove his pants in a back room.

Quayle, who had the metal file on his toenail clippers confiscated on a flight out of Washington after guards poked through every item in his carryon suitcase, joked Tuesday, “I guess I looked like a security threat.”

Syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry wasn’t sure what it was that prompted guards to turn his screening at Denver’s airport into what he jokingly called a “near-proctological” experience.

“I cannot imagine terrorists getting anything done if they were traveling with a baby,” said Barry, who was flying with his wife and 20-month-old daughter.

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said ordinary passengers should find all this evidence of “equal inspection under the law” reassuring.

“Everyone gets the same kind of scrutiny, and that’s good for airline passengers,” he said.

For all the recent evidence of security lapses, a number of notables can testify to tight screening.

John Podesta, who served as White House chief of staff to former President Clinton, figures it’s his olive skin tone and casual dress now that he’s a college professor that have gotten him singled out for extra screening on at least eight flights in recent months.

On one shuttle flight to Washington from New York, he said, “All the guys in business suits” strolled onboard, while he was detained for extra searches along with a black teen-ager and three South Asian men.

“Our stuff was all over the floor,” Podesta recalls. “I turned to the kid and said, ‘Next time, we have to wear ties.”’ Podesta nonetheless said he doesn’t mind the tight scrutiny, saying it’s the price of safe travel.

Members of Congress, who frequently fly between home and Washington, have had their own share of firsthand experiences with tight security.

Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., was denied access to a flight when he arrived without picture ID. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and his family were already belted into their seats in Detroit when his 14-year-old daughter, Meg, was pulled off the plane for a thorough search of her bags. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., was required to leave his mustache scissors at a security checkpoint a day or two after the 9-11 attacks.

Legislators are quick to say they don’t want special treatment, but some question how evenly security has been administered since Sept. 11.

Rep. DDarrell Issa, R-Calif., was denied a seat on an Air France flight out of Washington’s Dulles International Airport for a flight to Saudi Arabia via Paris in October, even after identifying himself as a member of Congress departing on an official trip to the Mideast. Issa, grandson of Lebanese immigrants, later said he believed he was subject to improper racial profiling, something that Air France denied.

Similar complaints have been raised by an Arab-American Secret Service agent who was removed from a flight on Christmas Day as he was headed for Texas to join the detail protecting President Bush. American Airlines has defended the pilot’s decision to remove the armed agent, saying he was hostile.

“They’re making it very difficult to fly,” said Quayle, who says he was cooperative during his own screening. “They’ve got to come to grips with this. You see young children and elderly women being searched. … They need to be a little more definitive on who they really ought to be doing this to.”

Lunner promises a “much higher standard” of consistent, thorough screening that nonetheless preserves passengers’ dignity once federalized security workers take over in coming months.

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press