Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Let it snow.

Across Europe and the United Kingdom this week, travel has been disrupted, delayed, complicated and – in some cases – utterly stymied by an event that no one could ever have predicted, and for which no one could ever have prepared: It snowed in the wintertime.

One simply cannot expect airports to function in extreme weather conditions, and in London they faced snowfalls of as much as 8 cm! Given this massive snowfall, officials – er – wait a second. Let’s see here. Google search: “online metric conversion.” Click on “length.” Select centimeters-to-inches. Input “8.” That comes to  . . . wait for it . . .  3.15 inches. That can’t be right. Let’s check our work. Try inches-to-centimeters. . . .  Well I’ll be.

Now, I love to heckle the English as much as the next guy – so long as the next guy is, say, Gerry Adams  or William Wallace. But fair is fair. I’m compelled to say that, while it’s cold comfort to stranded travelers trying to survive off of gift-shop Toblerones and macadamia nuts, the Heathrow delays are, in a sense, just as they should be. The simple fact is that Heathrow wasn’t ready, shouldn’t be ready, for a large snowfall for a very good reason: it almost never snows in there.*

Chicago’s O’Hare Airport has vast battalions of de-icing and snow removal equipment (it starts at 1:30 in the video) and well it should. The folks in charge there know that the skies are likely to dump great thumping piles of snow ten months out of the year. (Alright, that’s not fair, either. Chicago's June and September snowfalls are seldom more than a dusting.)  In any case, O’Hare probably would have handled the three puny inches of snow that paralyzed London by asking the baggage handlers to carry brooms and tidy up as they went about their other duties.

This differing level of snow-handling capacity is the product of a little thing called risk assessment, and it’s not peculiar to London or Chicago. Examine airports around the world and a pattern will soon emerge: Cleveland, Reykjavik and Moscow, lots of snow gear; Cairo, Bangkok and Mexico City, not so much. The clever, efficient, profit-minded folks who run, fund and plan airport operations know not to treat every airport alike, as if every location presented an equal threat of snow delays. Because that would be silly. And ineffective. And waste finite resources.

Which makes it all the sadder that these airport officials and their government overseers are willing to treat every person – including every infant, soldier, and grandma – as if each presented an equal threat of terrorist attack. That’s simple stupidity, dressed up as egalitarianism.

The International Air Transport Association, the industry group that represents airline interests worldwide, recently made an announcement  that may be cause for a flicker of hope. (Hope because, while our government shows no inclination to listen to ordinary citizens on this issue, lobbyists for enormous industries can usually get someone’s ear.) The IATA is calling on governments, including ours, to begin to change the focus of air travel security away from “dangerous” things, such as nail clippers and water bottles, and on to dangerous people. IATA would like to see a three-tiered system that recognizes that some folks are more likely to pose a threat than others, then subjects those more likely to pose a threat to a greater level of scrutiny.** The IATA proposal is nothing new.  The basic idea has been well developed for a long time and the Israelis famously and effectively classify and assess travelers beginning with the same kind of process.

At bottom, it comes down to recognizing a distinction between, on the one hand, a 60-year-old US citizen making his fifth round trip of the year between Akron (where he owns a shop called “Cool Indian Stuff”) and Flagstaff  (where he buys cool Indian stuff to sell in the shop), and, on the other hand, a 21-year-old Yemeni student with no prior travel history in the U.S. and a one-way ticket from New York to Kansas City. Then, having recognized a difference, allocating resources accordingly.

It’s not that no 60-year-old citizen shop owner has ever been a threat. And it’s not that all Yemeni students with indeterminate travel plans are always a threat.

It’s just that it hardly ever snows at Heathrow, whereas it more or less always snows at O’Hare.

* I admit that, fooled perhaps by those Dickensian images we all love, I was surprised by how rare even an inch of snow is at Heathrow. If you like, you can access monthly weather records for airport going back to 1948 to see for yourself.

** We are not talking about racial or ethnic profiling – that’s pointless. This kind of profiling is based on markers, behavior and habits particular to a person. Does he travel often? Does he travel here often? Did he go to school at The U, or a madrassa? Did he buy his ticket on his Gold AMEX, or with a funds transfer from his uncle in Gaza City?


  1. Remember, European Airports were not expecting snow since they were assured that Global Warming all but eliminated the white stuff and they were busy counting Carbon Credits.

  2. The day we begin focusing more on people and less on things, we'll be safer.

    The day we begin focusing on people with some level of discernment and intelligence, we'll be a lot safer, and a lot less abused of our Fourth Amendment rights.

  3. Robert, NPR's Intelligence Squared had a very good debate on the topic of behavioral profiling vs. ethnic/religious profiling. The lineup of debaters, and the sides they espoused, was enlightening. See it here:

  4. Miguel, thanks. I downloaded the full debate and I will find time to listen to that over the break.

    I find it fascinating that Michael Chertoff is on the panel in opposition to profiling (and therefore, presumably, in favor of the objects-based current approach).

    Does he or anyone else point out his thoroughgoing conflict of interest, given his financial stake in RapiScan, the company that makes the back-scatter scanners? If so, I'll at least give him points for full disclosure -- while still discounting his views. If not, then he's even more of scoundrel than I thought.

    (He had another interesting NPR moment during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, denying to an NPR reporter who was ON THE SCENE that there were any refugees in trouble at the Convention Center.)