April 2014 - Airplane! Three: Another Sequel

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

For some reason, the Traffic Safety Administration has decided I do not have bombs in my shoes.

They’re right, of course. Hell, it’s been so long, I can’t even remember the last time I had bombs in my shoes.

And I’m pleased to be able to reward their trust in me on this occasion. I am, at heart, a flag-waver, and I feel good when my government gets one right. It’s not a feeling I’ve enjoyed much of late.

So I regard the screeners who have made this call very much as I would regard a poker player who has successfully called my bluff: grudging respect. “Yeah, never had that fifth diamond. But I made you sweat a little, didn’t I?”

I don’t know how they’ve come to the conclusion my shoes are unarmed. They’re pretty big shoes—cowboy boots actually. They’re a lot more likely to conceal a bomb than the size sixes of the woman stepping out of her Christian Louboutins a few feet from me.

But the TSA has somehow intuited that my feet are not wrapped in cordite and C4 and therefore need not be inspected.

I know this because they have put me on their pre-screened list for this flight. I’m pulled out of line and re-directed to another—shorter—line. In that line, I am not required to remove my shoes.

And—strangely—that seems to be the only difference between me and the people in the longer lines. I’m required to empty my pockets, remove my belt, display my laptop, and verbally prepare them for the metal clip in my brain, the wire in my breastbone, and the titanium hip joint attached to my right femur—all of which combine to set off metal detectors if I so much as drive by an airport.

I am, in short, required to do everything I would be required to do if I were not one of the chosen people.1

This seems like an awfully small perq for all the effort I imagine going into the decision. Surely all the man-hours2 involved in analyzing the threat-level of my metatarsals could have been spent more productively if all it accomplishes is keeping my boots on my feet. Hell, I’m old, but I can keep my shoes attached to my legs without government assistance.

But, then again, I really don’t know what all went into the decision. How do you decide that a person is or is not likely to have explosives where his orthotics ought to be? What is it about me that convinced someone who had never met me, knew nothing of my politics, my emotional state, or my predilection for Dan Post Wides, that the 129 other people on this flight would be safe even if no representative of the United States government had actually eyeballed my socks?

Are there algorithms for such things?

It seems such a specialized choice that I can’t imagine it was made randomly. If you send up a pinch-hitter, you consider your circumstances. Do you need a hit, a long fly ball, or a reliable bunt? Would a double-play kill you or merely disappoint? Who on your bench has hit this pitcher well in the past? These and a dozen other considerations go through the mind of a Little League manager in a completely meaningless kids’ game. Surely my government factored in at least as much into deciding which dice to roll with hundreds of lives on the line.

Was it my occupation? Surely if that was the key consideration, they could have gone out on a limb and let me leave my belt on.

And occupation would seem to be a really bad criterion. I personally would not get on an airplane with Tom Goethals or Robert Fitzgerald unless I was assured bodily cavity searches had been performed on them. And I don’t even want to contemplate what goes on in Bob Jamison’s boots. So it can’t just be a matter of trusting judges.

Do they exempt members of the bar? Nope. My wife was traveling with me and she was not pre-approved.3

Was it my lack of a felony record? My fine score on my last driving test? My sterling record as a member of the hallway safety patrol at my elementary school?

I don’t know. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about this—not as much as I spend putting together my fantasy baseball lineup or deciding which Merle Haggard song to use as a ringtone this month, but a lot—and I have no satisfactory answer. Those of you who have appeared before me have witnessed this process before: the wheels are spinning but there is no sign the gears have engaged.

I have concluded there is just no accounting for the thought processes of my government when it comes to airline safety. They seem to be as random as raindrops.

While I was sitting in my seat,4 going through my iPod repertoire to figure out what to listen to, three very solicitous young women began explaining to all 130 of us how to fasten our seat belts. Really?

Seat belts have been mandatory in automobiles in this country since the sixties. Manufacturers have been putting them into cars in other countries even longer. There can’t be a half-dozen three-year-olds in America who do not understand seat belts. And yet no airplane is allowed to take off until we have all been instructed on their proper deployment.5

Collectively, we have more experience with seat belts than we do with microwaves or garbage disposals, but nobody from the government seems to think I need a lecture before I make dinner.6

Seriously, what is the deal with the seat belt lecture? They just required all of us to remove and replace the belts we’re wearing—some of which appear to require considerably more dexterity than anything we’re going to encounter on a 747—as a condition to boarding the plane. We managed to do that without serious injury or damage to property.

Do they really think the rudimentary buckles on our seats are going to leave us bewildered and unattached? Do they think someone is going to stand up some day and shout, “Omigod, is that how those things work??!!”

I don’t know. I try not to throw rocks at the other branches of government.7 And the executive branch does have a lot of difficult and varied responsibilities. I would not know the first thing about how to inspect meat or eradicate emerald ash borers or decide how many holograms a five dollar bill requires. I respect their broad and important expertise, and I am grateful to them for taking on these tasks.8

But I would greatly appreciate it if someone in the executive branch—or even someone in the legislative branch, although there seem to be a distressing number of congressmen who have trouble keeping their belts buckled—would take another look at airplane safety measures. I’d feel better if there were some sign Leslie Nielsen is no longer in charge.

(1) Different choice; TSA is not as discriminating and does not impose dietary restrictions.
(2) Person hours? Help me out, here. What is the acceptable term? Kelly says “hours” but I think that fails to convey the business-like computation “man-hours” suggests.
(3) Although, strangely enough, she was pre-screened on our next flight and I was not. Apparently TSA reconsidered. I can just hear someone at their underground headquarters in a bunker deep beneath Omaha previously occupied by mucky-mucks in the Strategic Air Command, screaming, “Bedsworth?! You let Bedsworth through?!”
(4) Which, because of the lack of knee room, is becoming more and more like standing in my seat.
(5) And the flight attendants on our plane were insistent on our attention. If my constitutional law teacher had been as determined that I pay attention, you might have won your last case.
(6) If you’ve eaten dinner at my house, you may wonder about that. I suggest you contact the TSA.
(7) I make an exception for Congress. Them I would happily throw hand grenades at.
(8) Please don’t tell the Republican governor who appointed me I said something that could be interpreted as favoring government regulation.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.