Wherever I go as The Post's Central Europe correspondent, I carry a bulky laptop computer in an oddly shaped case filled with all kinds of tools, cables and mysterious-looking battery packs. Combined with miniature shortwave radio and various other electronic paraphernalia, my standard travel kit should be enough to alert even the thickest of security guards. And in some cities, they usually do stop me and have me turn on each device to make sure it is not a bomb trigger.
But, to my momentary pleasure and to the traveling public's disadvantage, I scoot unhindered through a good many security checks. The only airport at which I am stopped every time for a complete check is West Berlin's Tegel, a security-conscious anomaly at which every passenger is checked by both police and hired security personnel, even on domestic flights.
Vienna is a close second in the stringency of its checks. Indeed, the Vienna airport is a frightening place to spend a couple of hours waiting around. Police walk about in groups of three or four, their fingers fixed on the triggers of their machine guns. To heighten the tension, the officers stroll about with attack dogs.
On the less secure end of the spectrum, the biggest surprise is that the Frankfurt airport -- the main gateway from the United States to Germany and much of western and central Europe -- remains a premier example of unpredictable and spotty security. Frankfurt, West Germany's largest and by far most important air hub, has more reason to be careful than nearly any other European airport.
Thanks to the legacy of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, security here is tighter than it once was for the 68,000 passengers who pass through each day carrying an average total of 35,000 pieces of baggage. Police even conduct spot checks of cars approaching the terminal.
Nonetheless, Frankfurt security can still be shockingly lax. On several occasions, I have boarded planes loaded down with my strange-looking equipment, none of which received even a cursory glance.
Contrast that with this maddeningly slow but certainly careful security routine I have had to go through twice in West Berlin: When the number of passengers fails to match the number of pieces of luggage registered on a particular flight, Tegel airport officials require everyone on board to get off, walk around the jet and identify each of their own bags. It is a cumbersome process that inevitably enrages lots of folks and usually ends up with some staff member admitting to a counting error. But it is nice to know that someone is being extremely careful.
Even in affluent Western Europe, airport security people seem to be hired primarily for their lack of familiarity with any modern technology. They are routinely mystified by and suspicious of computers, telephone cables and especially batteries of all kinds. I have been asked to make music come out of a clock. I have had to argue with guards and supervisors who insist that a sealed battery pack must be opened. I have been passed through without inspection when a guard pronounced my computer to be a manual typewriter.
The West Germans have a particular fondness for doing by hand what others prefer to automate. Guards conduct sometimes aggressive body-searches at places such as Munich and Duesseldorf, though, once again, Frankfurt is an exception -- I've rarely found hand-searching there.
Very few European airports bother with the litany of questions that many U.S. airlines ask customers at check-in ("Did you pack your own luggage? Did anyone give you anything to carry?")
Eastern Europe remains virtually ignorant of modern security routines. In Prague, for example, there is only the most cursory walk through a metal detector. No questions, no special attention to suspicious items. In East Berlin, you could probably smuggle a Cruise missile on board most planes.