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Sunday 27 December, 2009

Good afternoon

A quick note to bring you up to date on new security issues associated with air travel, and to ask for your feedback.

As you probably know, on 25 December a Nigerian national on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit attempted to detonate a bomb about 20 minutes prior to the plane landing in Detroit.

The bomb was apparently a mixture of a powder and a liquid, and rather than exploding, 'fizzled' - bursting into flames and setting fire to the terrorist, his clothing, and the side of the airplane cabin.  Pro-active passengers detained the terrorist and extinguished the flames.  The plane landed safely and the Nigerian is now in federal custody.

Interestingly, it seems the explosive used, PETN, is the same explosive that Richard Reid, the infamous shoe-bomber, also tried to use.  It can be a formidable explosive if properly manufactured and is somewhat unstable as well.  The passengers on both flights are fortunate that the explosive failed to detonate.

How did the explosive get through security?  And what measures will be taken to protect us against this risk in the future?

Indeed, there's a third question as well - how did Abdulfarouk Umar Muttalab himself (the terrorist in question) - get through security.  He was known to US and international security forces as a 'person of interest' and his own father had reported his growing alarm about his son's growing Islamic extremism to the authorities in Nigeria.

That's a relevant and important question to ask, because there are two major components to aviation security - detecting/preventing terrorists from attempting to do bad things before they do them, and of course the detecting dangerous materials and preventing their carriage onto flights.  In this case, both parts of the process completely failed.

As for how Muttalab got the explosives onto the plane, that unfortunately is tremendously simple.  The metal detectors that we walk through detect neither powders nor liquids, they only detect, ummm, metal.  So anyone wearing baggy clothing can conceal pints or pounds of liquid or explosive on their person with the greatest of ease, which makes the whole charade of the limitations on liquids just that - a charade.

The easiest/best way to conceal liquids or solids on one's person?  Well, there are plenty of good ways, but for the best, I can't help thinking of a buxom seeming woman with a bra that is padded with explosives - there is almost no chance that any screener is ever going to demand a woman remove her bra and inspect the bra's padding.

So, yet again, this incident reveals the nonsense and bluff that is current airport security.  Most of all, this is not a sudden surprising revelation.  Those of us 'in the know' (and that includes all of you because I've written about this before) have known for some time that the metal detectors are completely useless when it comes to detecting explosives.  Yes, they'll detect guns and knives, but no, they won't detect explosives.

There are only two practical ways to detect explosives concealed on a person - by using the new special X-ray booths that 'see through' clothing to reveal what is underneath a person's clothing, or by physically patting a person down (and I'm not sure how effective a pat down is in terms of revealing what may be concealed in a woman's cleavage or bra padding).

So Muttalab was far from fiendishly clever.  In actual fact, he - like Reid before him - was incredibly stupid.  Neither of them managed to detonate an unstable high explosive that would have been likely capable of destroying the plane if properly detonated.

Which brings us to the last part of this note.  What can we expect of airport security next time we fly?  At this stage there are still evolving responses to the issue, with various rumors and facts indistinguishably floating around out there.  Here's a mix of both :

More of the restrictions apply to international flights in to the US than to flights within the US or departing the US, but expect some amounts of these restrictions to apply to domestic flights too, and a generally increased level of alert everywhere in the world.

Increased inspection of carry-on items :  In other words, expect to take longer to get through security due to more time being taken with each person, with a greater percentage of secondary inspections.  The wisdom of this is far from apparent.

Limitations on carry-ons :  This is stupid - if a person can hide pounds and pints of explosive on their person, who cares about carry-on restrictions?  But it is an easy thing for the authorities to do, and apparently some airports and airlines are already restricting passengers to only one item of carry-on.  And that too is a stupid restriction, because that one item might be a huge over-sized rollaboard bag, whereas the next passenger, with a handbag and small briefcase will be told that they have to check one of the two items.  But anticipate the possibility of only being allowed to take one physical item with you.  Apparently at least four airlines are now limiting passengers to one item only on flights in to the US :  Alaska Airlines, Air Canada, WestJet and British Airways, and my guess is this will flow to other airlines just as soon as they call an executive in from vacation to approve the policy change.

More physical pat-down searches :  There's a greater chance you might be required to submit to a physical pat-down search, even if the metal detector doesn't sound an alarm.  If you're wearing form fitting clothing that shows you're less likely to be concealing anything, you might reduce your chances of being selected, but if you're in bulky baggy ill fitting clothing, your chances are probably going to increase.

Secondary searches at the gate :  Expect additional random searches of yourself and your carry-on items when boarding flights.

Restrictions on movement/activity on the flight :  This one's a real kicker.  Joe Brancatelli reports that Air Canada has stated, today, 'New rules imposed by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration also limit on-board activities by customers and crew in U.S. airspace that may adversely impact on-board service.  Among other things, during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps'.

The logic of this is so asininely stupid as to beggar belief.  Apparently the TSA believes that terrorists would only want to blow up a plane in the 60 minutes prior to its landing.  Why not 65 minutes prior to landing?  Or 90 minutes?  etc etc.  So they want to restrict us to our seats - no bathroom trips allowed - and not allow us to do anything at all.  No listening to your iPod, indeed, it seems you can't even read a book.  Just sit there, motionless.  Does that sound like fun to you?  And does it make you feel safer?

To answer the rhetorical question, the 60 minute period probably represents the maximum time the TSA feel they can force us to sit, motionless, without arousing too much passenger protest.  So it really isn't about security at all; it is simply the TSA pushing the limits of what they can get away with.  One gets the strong feeling that if they had their way, we'd all sit handcuffed to our seats for the entire length of all flights (and, who knows, it may yet come to that!).

Who knows what else might be put in place, and who knows how long these knee jerk and largely useless (but potentially massively inconveniencing) measures will remain in place.  And that's where I'm asking for your help.  Please let me know your experiences when flying over the next week or so.  Were security lines longer than normal?  Did you experience any extra restrictions or security?  Or was everything normal?  And was your experience on a domestic US flight, an international flight in to the US, or some other type of flight?

I'll advise us all of people's experiences, either in the next newsletter on Friday 1 January or sooner if there are significant issues to report.  As for me, I'm considering canceling my flights to CES in Las Vegas, early January.  With the current rampant hyperactive security lunacy, I think I'd rather stay at home.

How long will this all last?  Well, we're still removing our shoes every time we go through US airport security, and we're still having to limit our carry-on liquids, so who knows how long whatever the latest new procedures may remain in place.

Until Friday and the new year, please enjoy safe travels

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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