The Impossible Dream of Keeping Your Shoes on at the Airport


Remember when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano promised that new technology would soon allow travelers to keep their shoes on at the airport? Well, forget about that:

After spending millions of dollars testing four different scanning devices that would allow airline passengers to keep their shoes on at security checkpoints, the United States government has decided for now that travelers must continue to remove their footwear, by far the leading source of frustration and delays at the airport.

The Transportation Security Administration said it had rejected all four devices because they failed to adequately detect explosives and metal weapons during tests at various airports. One of the scanners is now used in airports in 18 countries.

You might conclude that the U.S. government simply has higher standards, if it weren't for the fact that its full-body scanners cannot reliably detect the sort of explosives they supposedly are designed to detect, the fact that its edicts about what may or may not be carried into the cabin are ludicrously arbitrary, the fact that there is little rhyme or reason to its policies regarding electronic devices, and the fact that the humans it hires to screen passengers routinely miss knives, guns, and bombs during clandestine tests, possibly because they are so busy making sure everyone takes off his shoes, removes his tiny toiletry bottles, and discards his beverages, not to mention breaking bladder cancer survivors' urostomy bags, forcing incontinent old ladies in wheelchairs to remove their diapers, and making little girls cry. In fact, the rationale for rejecting the shoe scanners becomes more mysterious the more The New York Times explains it:

"The machines we tested didn't detect all the materials we were looking for," [TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein] said….

In 2007, the agency tested a General Electric shoe scanner at Orlando International Airport. The next year, it tested two scanning machines made by L3 Communications at Los Angeles International Airport. But none of them passed agency muster.

It also tested a device called Magshoe, which is intended to detect metal and is made by IDO Security, an Israeli firm, that deploys the scanner in hundreds of airports and cruise ships around the world, including in China, Italy and Israel.

Michael Goldberg, the company's president, said the machine can detect explosives containing metal, but not plastic explosives.

Mr. Goldberg said the machine performed flawlessly in tests with the T.S.A. But the agency did not think so.

He said no current technology can detect all of the various chemical compounds used as explosives. Current X-ray machines used to scan shoes can detect metal but are not much help in finding liquids or gels that can be used as explosives.

So the shoe scanners detect metal but not explosive liquids or gels, and the same is true of the X-ray machines the TSA currently uses to scan the shoes removed by passengers. But the shoe scanners let people keep their footwear, removal of which, according to the U.S. Travel Association, ranks as the most annoying aspect of airport screening. Nope, no advantage there.

My priorities are somewhat different from those of the passengers surveyed by the U.S. Travel Association. Although I hate taking off my shoes, especially since the U.S. seems to be the only country on Earth that imposes this requirement, removing my laptop from my carry-on bag and sticking it in a separate plastic bin for a ride through the X-ray machine takes considerably more effort and is therefore more irksome. And when I go through a full-body scanner and hold up my arms in surrender (which I prefer to being groped by a stranger), I hear Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) asking, "Is this the posture of a free man?" Taking your shoes off may be undignified and annoying, but it is not quite as humiliating.

According to the Times, the government claims that "the growing use of full-body scanners…allows travelers to go through security lines faster." How can that possibly be the case when it means you have to take off your belt as well as your shoes and pause inside the scanner for several seconds before a TSA agent allows you to proceed, as opposed to simply walking through the metal detector? In any case, I would prefer to wait a little longer if it meant I could avoid exposing my naked body to an agent of the state. But maybe I'm just old-fashioned.