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Airline Mismanagement

Starting shortly after 9/11, I have published a weekly newsletter that includes a 'This Week's Security Horror Story' mini feature as part of it, highlighting security nonsense.

Aviation security and 'homeland security' has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar a year business.

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Airport Security - A Sham or a Shambles?

Let's not pretend that we are now 100% secure, and let's not also pretend that we can ever achieve 100% security.

Most of all, let's not adopt a mindless attitude but instead temper security with common sense.



Here's an unlucky litany of 13 recent stories that clearly indicates that something is very wrong with our present approach to airport and airline security.

Note - this article, written in 2003, remains sadly in large part accurate, even six years later.

No way of detecting this threat

An Australian smuggled two sharpened sticks, each over a foot in length, onto a plane. He used these in an attack on flight crew as he struggled to get access to the cockpit. One can only guess at what he would have done if he had smashed his way into the cockpit.

Wooden sticks can't be detected by current metal detectors at airports. Short of stripping people naked, we have no defense against this happening again.

More things that require nakedness?

A lady tried to walk through the metal detector with her ticket in a holder that was hung around her neck. She had to remove the holder and send it through the Xray machine, for fear of there being a razor blade (that the metal detector wouldn't detect) hidden inside the ticket holder.

But if razor blades are a problem and the security screener thought the lady might be hiding one, and if the metal detector can't detect them, then why wasn't she patted down, or - to be totally safe - strip searched?

Very expensive, very secure, so what is the remaining danger?

All US passenger jets have now been fitted with secure cockpit doors, at a cost of $25,000 - $40,000 each. (You can get a secure door for your house for one hundred times less money.) These airplane doors are bullet proof and strong enough to resist an adult male trying to crash through them.

So why are we still forbidden to take miniature key-ring style pocket knives on board a plane? What remaining threat does a one inch bladed pocket knife pose to the pilots, crew, and passengers?

If I don't like you, I can punish you

A lady passenger gets into an argument with the United Airlines gate agent about not having an assigned seat, even though she booked and checked in many hours ahead of the flight.

By her account, the gate agent escalated the conflict rather than calmed things down, and then (after giving her a boarding pass and allowing her onto the jetway) comes after her and announces that he won't let her fly because he 'doesn't feel comfortable' allowing her onto the plane. Because this is now a security issue, his supervisor is unwilling to overrule him. She is forced to stay overnight in Chicago and flies out the next day on a different airline.

Is 80% good enough?

A recent survey in Britain showed that 20% of all illegal objects are undetected when going through X-ray machines.

Similar studies in the US have suggested similar results. Most weeks I get several emails from people laughing at having discovered they accidentally had a knife or something else forbidden in their carry on, but not having it detected at the airport.

No way in

If your checked bag is searched, the personnel typically then secure it with an unbreakable plastic tie, whether it needs it or not.

So, you get to your destination, and find your luggage now has an unbreakable plastic tie on it. How do you open your bag, when you are not allowed to carry scissors or knives with you?

The terminal is safe, but the plane is still at risk

In some US airports, 'anti-terrorist' police are now equipped with machine guns - an inaccurate weapon that sprays bullets everywhere and one that is definitely not recommended for a crowded concourse full of passengers. Airport passenger terminals are perhaps the safest buildings in America.

Meanwhile, the largely unprotected and undefended air-side of an airport has all manner of contractors and suppliers coming and going, largely without any controls or security at all. These people can drive into the airport in a truck that could conceal a hundred weapons or massive quantities of explosives, and have unmonitored access to airplanes and air cargo areas.

No need to hijack a plane when there are thousands sitting around to steal

Although it is now very difficult for a terrorist to take over a plane in flight, how difficult is it for a terrorist to simply steal a parked plane, taxi it to the runway, take-off, and fly it to whatever building he wishes to crash it into.

Or, for the 'think big' terrorist, how difficult is it for them to steal a hundred or even a thousand planes from one of the desert 'mothballed' parking lots on which old planes are stored.

No need to hijack a plane when you can shoot it down

A lone terrorist armed with a lightweight, portable, low cost surface to air missile could potentially shoot down planes within a 50 mile radius of an airport, including over big city centers. It would take less than 30 seconds for him to leave his car, activate the missile, aim and fire it.

The government's solution? Proposing 'smart fences' around airport perimeters, protecting the first mile but not the other 49 miles. And by the time anyone can react and respond to a terrorist sighting - well, let's just say that the terrorist has had plenty more than 30 seconds with which to attack planes.

Who watches the watchers?

It was recently discovered that a sizeable number of Transportation Security Administration employees had prior felony convictions, including weapons charges and violent assaults.

And, as for the 50,000 other TSA employees, the new higher standards of training are being thrown into question due to the disclosure that many trainees were given the answers to their training exams prior to sitting the test.

Travel with Photo ID - anyone's will do!

A 49 yr old man grabbed his passport as he rushed out of the house and flew from Britain to Spain and back. During the course of checking in for his flights, passing through security, going through Customs and Immigration, etc, he estimates he showed his passport perhaps a dozen times to officials, with no problems.

When he returned home, he discovered that he had been using his son's passport rather than his own. His teenage son's photo is of course quite different to his appearance, and his son's name is also different. No-one in Britain or Spain noticed these discrepancies.

Security or Shakedown?

With a straight face, an Air Canada checkin agent in Calgary tells a passenger that he can't fly on his return flight, because he is a security risk. The name on his ticket (first name followed by last name) doesn't match the name on his ID (last name followed by first name). Airport security is called to confirm this situation.

The passenger tried to point out it was just a reversal of his first and last names, and also pointed out that he had already flown the first half of his flights with no problem. No deal.

The solution to this 'security' problem? To buy another ticket, on the spot, from the ticket agent, with his name in the correct order!

The boy who cried wolf

A new national system of terrorist threat level alerts provides five different categories of threat assessment. Since this was introduced after 9/11, the nation has been continually on level 3 - yellow in color, and described as 'Elevated', with a 'significant risk' of terrorist attack being present, or level 4 - orange in color, and described as 'High', with a 'high risk' of terrorist attack.

Despite these dire warnings, no terrorist attacks have occurred, and there is no evidence that the elevated or high threat alerts have prevented any terrorists from attacking. What would you think of a weather forecaster if every day he told you that there was a significant or high risk of rain, but after 20 months of such predictions, it had never rained? Would you still wear a raincoat every day?

Seeking Perfection

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Similarly, security is only as strong as its weakest point.

It is inappropriate to flood one area of vulnerability with billions of dollars of manpower and technology while leaving other vulnerabilities unchanged and insecure. For example, while focusing very closely on securing passengers, little attention has been given to securing other people that have access to planes on the ground - these other people could hide weapons on board or just simply plant explosives in the plane.

Our nation and our lives can never be totally secure. Even that most security conscious of all countries - Israel - is plagued with apparently incurable terror bombings and suicide attackers.

As the Israel example clearly illustrates, the ugly reality is that there is nothing we can do to defend against a determined squad of terrorists who are willing to lose their own lives as part of an attack against the United States. We need to understand, accept, and prepare for this. We should not pretend that we can achieve a level of security that has eluded Israel.

Yes, we should be vigilant, and yes, we should do all we can to make it difficult for terrorists to succeed. But we need to transform our attempts at securing our lifestyle from being a series of flashy public relations events and instead focus on the less glamorous behind the scenes aspects of security.

Most of all, we need to temper security with common sense. If terrorists can smuggle 18" long wooden daggers and 1" sized metal razor blades onto planes without detection, please allow ordinary passengers the right to once more travel with manicure sets and small pocket knives.

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Originally published 13 Jun 2003, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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