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Keith Alexander

Toeing the Line At the Airport Shoe Check

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, December 7, 2004; Page E01

"Travelers are not required to remove their shoes at security checkpoints."

So said Yolanda Clark, an official of the Transportation Security Administration, describing the agency's policy. In case BizClass didn't quite catch it the first time, she repeated herself: "Travelers are not required to remove their shoes at security checkpoints." By the end of our conversation, she had uttered those exact words a few more times for good measure.

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If that weren't enough, she noted the policy stated on the TSA Web site, www.tsa.gov: "You are NOT REQUIRED to remove your shoes before you enter the walk-through metal detector."

So why, many frequent fliers wonder, are so many travelers unlacing at the checkpoints?

Washington-based computer consultant Tonya Fuller wears the same pair of black casual flats on every business trip because they don't set off the metal detector. But she still is ordered at certain airports to remove them. "[Chicago] O'Hare and Atlanta seem to be the toughest," Fuller said.

Frequent fliers insist the shoe policy varies by airport, but the TSA's Clark stresses another point of the policy: All airports follow the same guidelines. "The notion that this system is random is incorrect. It's a standard procedure we implement across all airports," she said.

But the TSA makes plain that it does reserve the right to inspect passengers' shoes. Setting off the metal detector is a fairly certain way of getting stripped of your shoes. Even travelers who pass through the detector without a peep sometimes find themselves sidelined for a shoe inspection. That's because -- like passengers who buy one-way tickets or pay in cash -- some shoes fit a certain profile. Suspect footwear includes boots, platform shoes and those with thick soles or heels, according to the TSA Web site. Thin-soled beach flip-flops and sandals are among the exempt.

The TSA received 104 complaints and comments about its shoe policy in September and 280 in October. The agency could not say what percentage of the total comments were complaints. Clark did say that about 1.8 million passengers go through security checkpoints each day.

The aggressive shoe policy was instituted after British drifter and Muslim fundamentalist Richard Reid concealed explosives in his shoes on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami just months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

James Plummer, a policy analyst at Consumer Alert, recently told Post airline security reporter Sara Kehaulani Goo that the rules governing when you must step out of your shoes are inconsistent and devoid of logic. "This one-size-fits-all screening seems to get more and more draconian, and there's no flexibility for travelers," Plummer said.

The TSA's Clark points out that asking travelers to remove their shoes would hinder customer service. "We try to maintain a balance of customer service and security," she said.

The TSA is currently reviewing its policy on pat-downs at the checkpoint, but Clark said the shoe policy works fine and there are no immediate plans to make any changes.

TSA policy requires passengers to remove their coats and sports jackets at the checkpoints. But shoes? To avoid any confusion, Clark reiterated: "Travelers are not required to remove their shoes at security checkpoints."

Fewer Free Rides on US Airways: US Airways will no longer allow its former executives and board members to fly free in first class. The decision, aimed at saving money and making more seats available to paying customers, affects about 200 former executives, including former chief executives David N. Siegel, Rakesh Gangwal and Stephen M. Wolf. The executives are still able to fly free in coach, space permitting. Current executives and board members are not affected by the change.

Although US Airways is operating under bankruptcy court protection for the second time in two years, this is the first time the Arlington-based airline has cut the executive travel perk.

United Airlines, which has been operating in bankruptcy for two years, has not eliminated its free first-class perk for its former executives. But United spokeswoman Jean Medina said the airline was "reviewing" the policy.

Question of the Week: What are your thoughts on airport security? Has it improved over the past year or has it gotten worse? Send your comments and any specific examples to alexanderk@washpost.com. Please include your name and a daytime telephone number.

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