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Flying in Europe? Don't fear a pat-down

European Union governments take different approach than US to airport security.

But opinions on what makes counterterrorism policy effective differ from country to country, and even more so from Washington to Brussels, as air travelers’ divergent experiences illustrate. Asked why security measures would differ so much between the United States and Europe, which share intelligence including direct threat information, e Belgian counterterrorism official Thomas Baekelandt shrugged. “It’s all a matter of how much risk a government wants to take,” he explained.

“The people defining policy — what kind of pat-downs you’ll have — are experts,” he said. But, he added, “they are politically checked and the political checks and balances are different in Europe than in the U.S.”

Todd Curtis, an American aviation safety analyst and founder of the travel-information site AirSafe (, said he’s taken a good long look at how Europe and the U.S. have responded to their threat levels. Curtis said he finds the Europeans’ more discreet approach to terror surveillance “more compatible with a risk-management approach that accepts that these kinds of threats can be reduced and controlled, but not eliminated.” The importance of that practical posture, he said, is that “if someone does take out an airplane or kill people in some kind of attack, it would not be a political disaster.”

Curtis said the American goal “to stop 100 percent of the attacks 100 percent of the time” has given birth to the much-maligned enhanced pat-down, because such an unforgiving aim justifies — to security planners — whatever extreme measures will achieve it.

Many of those involved in aviation security will spend Thanksgiving weekend watching not just football, parades and an endless array of food, but also the public backlash against the pat-down. Curtis predicted it might be the TSA and not the public that has to give in this time, something that would surely leave many travelers thankful.