Northwest Airlines: A First Class Security Hole

Northwest Airlines operates one flight, daily, from Shanghai’s Pudong Airport: Flight 26, to Tokyo Narita.

On Tuesday morning I arrived at the airport two hours before flight 26’s scheduled departure and took my place in the very long check-in cue that snakes in front of the Northwest counters. Ahead of me, I could see that all passenger luggage was being hand-searched by airport staff before passengers were allowed to check it. This is nothing new: it’s been going on – off and on – for several years now, and likely has to do with the fact that NW 26 continues to Detroit after a Tokyo layover.

On Tuesday I stood in the coach check-in lane until recalling that I have Northwest “elite” status, which – among its handful of benefits – allows me to check-in via the shorter line designated for first class passengers. So, I slipped beneath the stanchions and took my place behind a mere two passengers (rather than the dozens lined up in coach).

And, from there, I noticed another, very important reason why the first class line was moving more quickly than the coach line: Passengers in the coach line were required to subject their checked-luggage to a hand-search; passengers in the first class line were NOT. Below, a photo of the first class line on Tuesday. Note the screened area to the immediate left of the first class passengers: it’s one of several bag hand-check areas stationed to the right of each coach line, and to which coach passengers were subjected before checking their bags. The first class passengers were able to proceed directly to the counter.

Perhaps I’m missing something here, but this struck me – and strikes me – as a giant security hole. Put it this way: if you’re flying Northwest from Shanghai to Tokyo, and you don’t want to subject your bags to a hand-check (for whatever reason), simply buy or upgrade to a First Class ticket. You’ll be hand-check free (at least, you would have been last Tuesday).

Before posting this item, I contacted Northwest Airlines and the Transportation Security Administration [TSA] and notified them of my concern. Both responded, in different ways.

First, TSA, which sent me a form brush-off pointing out that security in Shanghai isn’t their problem. According to their email:

As a sovereign entity, that country may establish its own security requirements for airports and air carriers that are not necessarily the same as those required in the United States.

Fair enough, I suppose, though it’s very much a fact that TSA requires certain security standards for air carriers flying to the US. It may be that TSA doesn’t see anything particularly threatening in only hand-screening coach-class passengers in lieu of China’s other security precautions (of which I know nothing). But because they only sent me a form response, I can’t say for sure.

Next, Northwest Airlines. This afternoon I received a phone call from an individual identifying herself as a Customer Service representative for the airline. She told me that she was aware of my concerns, and asked me to repeat them for her. After I did, she assured me that “all passengers are subject to the same security requirements at Northwest Airlines,” but that she would be addressing this issue with the relevant Northwest officials in Shanghai. Obviously, the first part of this statement is false: on Tuesday, at least, first class passengers were subject to less stringent security requirements than coach class passengers. One can only hope that she – and others – follow-through on the second part of the statement.

A couple of additional thoughts. It may very well be that this was a one-time incident. Or, perhaps, the hand-searches were required by Shanghai Pudong Airport, and not Northwest Airlines – and it was the airport staff that decided that first class passengers and their luggage pose no security risk. In either case, though, it strikes me that Northwest’s staff had a responsibility to address the situation, both for security reasons, and customer service reasons. Because, let’s face it, security aside, it looks flat-out awful if Northwest doesn’t require its first class passengers to undergo the same searches as the coach ones (I’m hoping nobody at Northwest believes that first class passengers are less of a security risk than coach ones).

Alas, as I’ve written in the past, this kind of slip-shod approach to passenger safety is not unknown at Northwest. Later this year, that may change: Northwest is being acquired by Delta Airlines, which – I’m told – tends to take a greater interest in the safety and comfort of its passengers. I certainly hope so.

14 comments

  1. meh…. I think TSA said it best. Shanghai’s security is their business. Don’t forget that profiling is perfectly legal in many, if not most, countries. If you had looked more like a terrorist they may have checked your bag. Get back to working on that book ;>)

  2. it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the pudong airport people decided that first class passengers are no security threat. very shanghainese, in that way. why would anyone who can afford first class want to commit an act of terror? it’s the rabble that should worry you. and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if northwest went along with it not wanting to offend their chinese first class passengers. and it doesn’t surprise me in THE LEAST that we’re talking about northwest airlines here. they’re the most hated US-based airline flying out of shanghai mostly because they treat their passengers with contempt bordering on cruelty. is there a worse cadre of flight attendants than the bitter old women who fly shanghai > detroit/minneapolis for them? seriously! bring on delta!

  3. Actually it’s a comment regarding the 2nd comment. What exactly does a “terrorist” look like. That would be a big help for the TSA and a lot quicker for the rest of us.

  4. World business between PVG NRT is very, very lucrative for NWA and they won’t take any chances on offending those customers even if it means doing something stupid like not doing the same security. Like everyone else who flies that route on a regular basis, I’m looking forward to Delta taking over and cleaning up a really bad situation. They should fire the entire ground staff and ALL of the flight attendants. If you sit in coach the flight attendants treat you like garbage as if they should be sitting there and not you.

  5. @Mr Wilson, a terrorist looks like an Arab, not a Minnesotan. As you know, TSA can’t just search Arabs and hippies, they are legally obligated to search/treat everyone equally unless they have some ‘substantive’ reason to focus on a particular person. It is a tricky legal balancing act fraught with controversy. Our correspondent Adam has forgotten that other countries don’t work like this. In France, for instance, the security just looked me in the eye and waved me through, even though anyone who looked slightly arabic/black was getting searched. China is similar. In fact, the only people they really search are the ones traveling to the US. Last time I flew out of Beijing it pretty much looked like security was just going through the motions. The agents just pointed at the people ticketed to go to the US and they searched us. Everyone else was free to pass through. They probably just didn’t want the Americans to complain that they hadn’t been properly searched.

  6. Joe – You write, “They probably just didn’t want the Americans to complain that they hadn’t been properly searched.” That’s a great point. Now, back to the book.

  7. Last time I flew out of Beijing, before the Olympic hand-checks came into place, the Air Canada executive check-in counter did not even use the scale on check-in … I could have had bags well over the 25kg limit.
    “Elite” passengers can get away with a lot! Kind of spoils one for real life, when I have to line up with the rest of the plebes.

  8. You seem awfully biased against NWA. To say that Delta or any other US airline takes a greater interest in their passengers saftey is absolutely foolish. You write some intelligent blogs, certainly only your bias can make you sound so foolish. The PVG security is their own business. The airport dictates it as does any in the US. The flight to Tokyo and on to Detroit does not always us the same airplane and you often board a different plane in Tokyo. Has nothing to do with the level of security. Everyones bags are checked via the xray. First class passenegers do get searched on the jetway before boarding. I know, I was searched both out of Beijing, Shanghai and out of Tokyo flying business class each time. Which by the way is the class of travel on NWA for international flights.Not first class.

  9. Mr. J. Ronald –

    Thanks for the comment. A couple of quick replies.

    First, yes, I am very, very biased against NWA. It’s an awful airline, and I only fly it when I must (which is, alas, often).

    Second, I did not “say that Delta or any other US airline takes a greater interest in their passengers safety …” You did.

    Third, it may be that everyone’s luggage is checked by X-ray, but only coach passengers have their checked baggage checked by hand. Which is to say, First Class (or World Business Class) isn’t subject to the same level of security as Coach.

    Fourth, first class passengers may be checked on the jetway (I didn’t see that last week), but those checks concern carry-on. This post concerns checked baggage. Totally different issues.

  10. I’ve heard a few times that the classic terrorist profile is someone who shows up at the last minute and buys a first class ticket for cash.

    Jihadists like legroom too you know.

  11. This is my first time at your blog and I have to say while the topics look interesting, the font you’re using is awful and very difficult to read, especially in the comments section. Unless it’s my settings…?

  12. Excuse me…”You must fly them” am I missing something here? If you hate NW THAT much do us all a favor and fly somebody else instead of dragging your whine on to every NW flight you step on.

    NW outranks ALL other us majors in DOT stats. I fly them across the Pacific freq. their product is as good, if not better than most Asian carriers.

    This issue appears to be a personal one and not that of Northwest.

  13. HAHAHHAHAHAHHAH Well, how about THIS for an AMERICAN loophole…

    I flew my Cessna 172 II from St. Cloud to Wilmer Regional Airport. Never had to present an ID, walked to my car, and around the gate, and got into my plane, radioed Ground, taxied, Switched to Tower, cleared airspace, asked Minneapolis Center for a flight following, then LANDED with Commercial Aviation.

    I could THEN, WALK to about 30 international 747, 777, Airbuses etc… without questioning from anyone. I can walk, to a parked fueltruck, say I need to fuel my skyhawk… and only imagine the horror. You thought the Hindenburg was bad… wait until you see high octaine aviation fuel.. Hydrogen… eat your heart out.

    Hows THAT for a security loophole.

    Only way TSA would work if the “terror” suspect is non-Caucasian.

    Being white, I could basically do what I please, perhaps place a Mechete, or Glock .357 in lavitory. Or perhaps, walk up into the cargo hold…

    Meh… you are a fool to beleive blogs have any affect. Look up “How to buld a Colbolt Fission Device, or Suitcase nuke… or how about a Thermonuclear Hydrogen bomb”

    TSA = SHEEPLE CONTROL, tahts about it.

    When I got my pilot’s license, being white, I didn’t have to even show any nationality paper… I had a Minnesota Driver’s License.

    I’M FROM CANADA< MUAHAHHAHAHAHAH

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