Metropolis

The Airport Safety Rule That Actually Should End Now

One easy thing the Biden administration could do to win hearts and minds.

A woman putting her shoes back on next to a bin on the floor after passing through security at LAX
Have mercy, Mr. President! Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

For Americans who supported the airplane mask mandate struck down by a conservative federal judge on Tuesday, the Transportation Security Administration’s cumbersome security checks have made for an easy point of comparison.

After all, nobody died when Richard Reid tried to light a bomb in his shoe on a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001. But 20 years later, we are all taking off our shoes at the airport. We have, as a nation, removed our shoes several billion times.

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As the U.S. approaches the grim milestone of a million deaths from COVID-19, however, Florida District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle has quashed the Biden administration’s rules for masking on mass transportation, including airplanes. The airlines did not put up a fight, and Amtrak and many transit agencies quickly followed suit in getting rid of their own mask mandates.

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Masks versus shoes is a good comparison, though not because it shows that the mask mandate should endure. Instead, it’s a reminder that while we’re revisiting the air travel rules that keep us safe, we should take the opportunity to let people keep their shoes on at TSA checkpoints as well.

On masks, Joe Biden is in a tight spot of his own making. On Wednesday, the Department of Justice filed an appeal to the judge’s decision, arguing that masks in transit are still a vital public safety measure, even as they have disappeared from every other aspect of public life. Does the administration really think masks on airplanes are what’s holding the line? The president seems reluctant to really defend the policy. The White House may be worried the ruling, from a Trump appointee, will prevent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from establishing enforceable guidance in the future. In either case, the president has missed the opportunity to claim a symbolic “return to normal” step for his administration.

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What Biden can do is change the subject. He can protect our time, our dignity, and our socks by letting Americans board airplanes without taking their shoes off.

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This would be an easy victory for the president, whose Homeland Security secretary administers the TSA. Biden can save billions of minutes for both harried TSA agents and stressed travelers, and restore his credibility with the vital pundit class that tends to treat each airport visit as a national pulse check, despite the fact that the median American does not fly even once in a calendar year. He could make congressional Republicans choose between their new civil liberties kick and their old counterterrorism fixation.

For many years, security at airports has worked as a one-way ratchet, in which travel only gets more difficult and humiliating. No politician has the guts to reject the idea of another turn of the screw, let alone roll things back and be held responsible for an airplane hijacking. But by pushing travelers to drive, which is much more dangerous than flying, these procedures may cost more lives than they save.

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The shoes-off rule was established by the Department of Homeland Security in 2006, in response to a failed attack in 2001, in which no one was hurt or killed. Government officials have been predicting the end of the barefoot march for more than a decade, but it’s still with us. In 2011, for example, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said that technology would soon make shoe checks obsolete.

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At the time, TSA chief John Pistole cited a travel survey showing that travelers ranked removing their shoes the second-worst part of flying, after only ticket prices. But, he maintained, “there have been no shoe bombs because we have people take their shoes off.”

Maybe. How many shoe bombers have since been foiled? If the TSA has caught one, it hasn’t said. What’s more, the shoe rule is unique: Unlike with weapons or liquids, which must be checked in many parts of the world, as they are here, America stands virtually alone in its insistence that travelers remove their shoes. Meanwhile, no shoe bomber has brought down a plane in Israel, say, or France.

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The 3-ounce liquid limit, by the way, was revealed to be more important to airport concessions than to national security in the spring of 2020, when the TSA suspended the limit to permit 12-ounce containers of hand sanitizer. (Why anyone would need 12 ounces of hand sanitizer to board a plane, I can’t imagine.)

As my colleague Dan Kois wrote at the time,

The TSA can declare this rule change because the limit was always arbitrary, just one of the countless rituals of security theater to which air passengers are subjected every day. Flights are no more dangerous today, with the hand sanitizer, than yesterday, and if the TSA allowed you to bring 12 ounces of shampoo on a flight tomorrow, flights would be no more dangerous then. The limit was bullshit. The ease with which the TSA can toss it aside makes that clear.

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It was all a sham! The 12-ounce sanitizer exception, by the way, is still in effect. Security theater 0, pandemic theater 1.

Shoe-scanning technology, meanwhile, is now here, though not yet deployed at scale, so the most likely outcome here is that we keep our shoes on at the airport not because the cost-benefit of this procedure was reevaluated, but because we forked over a billion dollars to a defense contractor.

Still, if Joe Biden is looking for a return-to-normalcy tagline as he heads toward the 2022 midterms, he could do worse than “Our masks are off, and our shoes are on.” He can promise carry-on toothpaste for the second term.

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