Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Future Of Airline Screening

How many times have you attempted to take a flight only to be reminded that this is a post 9/11 world? Some, if not most of us can remember an earlier time with easier check-ins.

How many times have we families, especially mothers alone, been stopped at airports, especially with babies, and watched young men just whisked through, without having to undergo the same rigorous suitcase and full-body screening and occasional confiscations of potentially lethal beauty products?

The trouble with all the new screening is that it is impossible to quantify how many disasters they have averted with any degree of success. Impossible!

Remember just after 9/11 when the draconian new rules were put into place, and anthrax became another scary new menace? Everyone wanted the world the way it used to be. Nobody preferred to submit to these humiliating but necessary procedures. We all wished a better way could be found, besides going for private jets.

William H. Press

Now, as usual, it will be mathematicians, my heroes, who've put this vexing problem to the test. Finally, a mathematician who could be pressed, aptly named William H. Press, has stepped up to the challenge. There is an article in today's Science Times section of The New York Times that details the mathematics involved in screening at airports. His article appears here in the Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Alas, all that screening is here to stay with more on the way, if this article is any indication. We can only dream about what it used to be like, and congratulate ourselves on all the tragedies that have been averted as we patiently wait our turns through those long lines. Maybe security could hand out rewards to all of us for being so patient?

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