9. On shoes and airport security: some thoughts

My day started at 3.30 am, and included three flights: from Copenhagen to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam to New York and from New York to Richmond, Virginia. There was a security check at every airport, but it was only on the New York — Richmond flight (a domestic US flight) that I was asked to remove my shoes. The reason? No one wants to be the person who gets that procedure changed.

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the world of international air travel changed overnight. Security tightened measurably in most of the world’s airports, and especially in those in the USA. If I remember correctly, some time after the attacks, a suspected terrorist was caught trying to sneak some kind of blade on board a plane by some kind of hidden shoe mechanism.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took steps. Now shoes had to be removed at security checkpoints, so they could be x-rayed along with bags, laptops and belts. It was pretty damn annoying, but the reasoning was easy enough to understand. It didn’t even smack a lot of panic then.

Now fast-forward some years. Some airports have stopped the shoe procedure, while others still insist on doing it. It’s a public secret that it doesn’t really make a difference whether the shoes come off or not — security wise, at least. For the passengers, it’s quite irritating, but it’s not something that seems worth fighting over.

Why is it still necessary to remove one’s shoes when traveling inside the US, when it isn’t required to go from Amsterdam to New York? Why isn’t the TSA moving with the times, and dropping this policy? Many would applaud that decision, that’s certain. But not the right people. And that’s why nothing happens.

It’s because no one wants to stand up and say:

“Enough with this shoe nonsense! We can see that it doesn’t have an effect anyway, besides annoying the crap out of air travelers.”

And that’s because it’s so easy to use ad absurdum arguments that sound great, but are in reality false binaries.

“Would you save two minutes during your security check if the price is letting the terrorists take over our planes?”

Nobody wants to be the guy that lets the terrorists win. Nobody wants to take the fight that it would require to do something about a deeply entrenched tradition, that’s obeyed unquestioningly by most of us — if for nothing else, to avoid trouble. It’s simply not worth it for anyone to stick their neck out.

And so it remains in place.

Maybe there’s a silly ruleset in your apartment complex that no one obeys, but no one wants to fight to actually get changed. Maybe there’s a member of your circle of friends who no one really likes anymore, but who isn’t disliked enough that anyone would go to the trouble to throw him out. And maybe you’ve been faking your orgasms from the beginning, but have come to the conclusion that you have too much heart to say something after all this time.

It’s easy to get stuck. It’s easy to end up having a situation, that’s clearly not satisfying. And it’s very easy indeed to conclude that fighting for change simply isn’t worth it. I’ve seen this in projects, in volunteer organizations, in friend circles and even in my own company.

No one wants to rock the boat. Add to that how much harder it becomes to muster the necessary energy if the problem in question isn’t affecting you directly somehow. It’s also (usually) easier to defend the status quo than to defend making changes. Change is hard. It’s risky, and it can fail. Being the person to get up and say “Why is it we’re doing it this way? Can we do it some other way?” requires courage and a position of feeling safe and trusted, that we don’t all enjoy.

Sometimes you have to do that, though. Even though it’s hard. Someone has to ask critical questions and be willing to follow through even when there’s opposition. Someone has to ask “Why?” once in a while, and not accept answers that are basically “Because!”

You shouldn’t become a self-appointed critic of the entire world. That’s not what I’m advocating. But I’m saying that if we don’t sometimes say what’s on everyone’s mind and take some hard discussions that are unpleasant, we won’t change a thing.

And I for one, would love to be able to fly without having to take off my shoes for no reason whatsoever. Metaphorically as well as literally speaking, and that is true for many things besides airport security checks.

Claus Raasted is an Innovation Strategist, and recently wrote “The Innovation Cycle”. He serves as the Director of the College of Extraordinary Experiences, is a Coach at McKinsey & Company and is a founding partner at the Global Institute For Thought Leadership. He also has a past in reality TV, but these days, who hasn’t?


Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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