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Tuesday 29 December, 2009

Good morning or afternoon

Here's a third update on the ongoing changes to security after the failed crotch-bomb attack on Christmas Day.  And my continued thanks to people sending in reports of their own travel experiences, which has been very helpful in attempting to form a coherent picture of an incoherent situation.

First, a rather scary bit of fyi.  It truly was a crotch bomb This article shows pictures of the explosive package and the underwear in which it was contained.

The scary part of this?  Well, after the shoe bomber, we all had to remove our shoes for inspection.  After the planned liquid bombings, we all have to remove liquids for inspection.  So, now, after the crotch bomber, ......

All joking aside, if we're not being aggressively poked and prodded in our most personal private parts now, airport security is not doing its job.  Worryingly, no readers have reported any degree of effective pat-down (or should I now say 'feel up') to ascertain if they too have a crotch-bomb.

What is the point of patting down our trouser legs if the terrorists are known to be carrying crotch-bombs?  What is the point in multiple inspections of our carry-on bags if the terrorists are secreting their explosives around their private parts?

All this extra inconvenience and delay and hassle is totally for nothing if the security screeners are too squeamish to actually inspect the part of each person's body where the crotch-bomber hid an explosive device that, if correctly detonated, was 50% more powerful than that needed to punch a hole in the side of the plane.

We all need to change our security paradigm.  We must not complain at intrusive personal searches.  Instead, we must complain if we and every other passenger is not being given intrusive personal searches.

Today I'm writing with variously good/bad news about the evolving response to the crotch-bomber.  Confused?  Well, that's probably the best way to describe not just ourselves but also what is now happening with security.

And, to clarify - if needed :  It seems that all the extra security measures are only being applied to international flights inbound to the US.

If you are flying within the US, if you are flying from the US, or if your flights don't involve the US at all, there will probably be no change in your normal experience, apart from possible spill over of security congestion if you're at an international airport that also has flights traveling to the US.

Reading between the lines, the nonsense Emergency Amendment that the TSA issued in response to the failed bombing attempt (see yesterday's special update for details) has attracted such an overwhelming level of complaint (and ridicule) that the TSA has been quietly backpedalling.

While the TSA refuse to admit to making any changes to their EA themselves, airline officials have unofficially indicated they've now been told by the TSA that they are free to choose how they wish to respond to this new threat themselves.  One hour confined to seats or not, moving map display or not, reading materials and blankets available or not - all these silly things are now up to the discretion of each pilot of each flight.

Some airlines have formalized these changes into official policy - for example, on British Airways, service is back to normal in all respects.  Thank you, BA, for leading the return to sense and service.

But at the same time that some things are liberalizing, other things are not.  The extra searching of passengers and their carry-on items is currently still in place, and we'll probably see this continue in at least some form.

Readers who carefully read through the TSA EA that I sent in full yesterday will have noted that there was no mention of restricting the amount of carry-on items that passengers can take into the cabin.  These restrictions have been primarily instituted by the airlines, with the reasoning being that the extra time it is taking to search bags is delaying flights so much that, at least short term, a quick fix is to reduce the amount of carry-on to be searched and double searched.

Some airlines are responding with liberalizing their checked baggage policies and charges, others are not; and you should view this as a negotiable item if you are having to check something you'd otherwise have carried on; try to positively negotiate a waiver of any checked bag fee that might otherwise be applied to the item that you would formerly have carried on.

Point out that under the contract of carriage that applied when you bought your ticket, the airline has said you can carry the item onto the plane, and point out the new restriction is not a government imposed restriction.  Show them the copy of the EA in yesterday's newsletter if necessary.

The restriction on carry-on items has been more severely applied in Canada than anywhere else.  Because more people fly from Canada to the US than from any other country, the impact on flights from Canada has been more severe than anywhere else, and so their official Transport Canada agency decreed yesterday

Effective immediately US bound passengers are not allowed to bring carry-on bags into the cabin of the aircraft, with some exceptions.  Passengers may carry with them the following items: medication or medical devices, small purses, cameras, coats, items for care of infants, laptop computers, crutches, canes, walkers, containers carrying life sustaining items, a special needs item, musical instruments, or diplomatic or consular bags.

Transport Canada also has authorized the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority to use RCMP and local police officers to actively assist with some procedures specific to the screening process.  The purpose of this is to alleviate the immediate pressures at the security checkpoint resulting directly from the temporary emergency measures announced by Transport Canada on December 26.  Additional searches of passengers and their exempted items will continue.

Delays can be expected so passengers are advised to arrive at the airport three hours in advance of their scheduled flight.  These measures are expected to be in place at least for several days.

WestJet, which does not charge a fee for the first two checked bags, is allowing passengers to check a third bag with no fee.  Air Canada has dropped excess baggage fees.

Reader John reports that on a flight from Saskatoon yesterday he and all other passengers were told they could only take items onto their flight that they could fit in their pockets or carry in their hands.

The most ridiculous part of the absolute shambles that this response has become is that some commentators are describing this as a good thing - suggesting it may be designed to confuse potential terrorists and to give the TSA and their international clones more flexibility.  This is not a new claim - the TSA have been hiding behind it for years as an excuse/response when asked questions such as 'How come the metal detector always lets me through at this airport without alarming, but at this other airport, it always alarms?', or 'How come I had to remove my shoes at this airport but not at that airport?'.

There are many rebuttals to the claims that this uncoordinated mess is a good thing, and here are simply two :

First, we as passengers have a right to know what to expect, and what is required of us, so we can fairly and reasonably plan and optimize our journey based on this knowledge.

As a corollary to this, how can we comply with security restrictions if we're not told what they are?

Second, if a security measure is valid/justified/necessary, it should be applied uniformly and consistently, all the time.  Otherwise, at times when it is not being enforced, our security is being compromised.  A terrorist would much prefer to chance his luck against a security measure that is only occasionally applied; whereas if the terrorist knows that the security measure is always applied, he will be prevented from attempting to exploit the weakness.

A couple of readers have asked about how the TSA can be held accountable for the promulgation of ineffective but massively inconvenient restrictions, and who/where/how to complain and seek review of such measures.

We have almost no opportunities to influence such policy making.  There are two distinctive things about security :

1. Effective security requires paranoia that may manifest itself as foolishness.  Always remember the adage that the security people and their measures have to be effective 100% of the time, whereas terrorists succeed if they are successful only once.

2. People who devise security procedures are essentially unaccountable because they can hide behind - rightly or wrongly - the statement 'If you knew what I know, you'd agree with what I'm doing, but I can't tell you the secrets I'm privy to, so you'll just have to trust me'.

The truth is that this Emergency Amendment was probably rushed out by two or three people working the late shift on Christmas Day, with no-one else around to consult with and all senior staff on vacation.  They did a stupid/bad job, and that is both why the EA has a time limit on it (quite unusual), why the airlines resisted full compliance, and why the TSA are now unofficially relaxing the requirements of the EA.

The accountability/oversight of TSA and other security services really is a complex subject that seldom gets much airing, and which has few obvious solutions.  For now, public pressure to our elected representatives is about all we can do - but don't go expecting much from President Obama's promised review of aviation security issue.

You can be sure I'll send out further updates if (when!) there are further changes that might impact on your travels, otherwise, stay tuned for Friday's regular newsletter

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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