Curbside checkin? The
first thing in any security scare is always to eliminate
curbside checkin, and then, a week or two or three later, to
What is the point of
this? Are we trying to deter terrorists by forcing them to
briefly endure long lines and having to carry their bags
inside the terminal?
Most people seem to think that
the passing of the Airport Security Federalization Act earlier
this week marks a solution to the problems which culminated in
9/11. Not so. The new legislation - good as it is - will not
bring about any immediate fixes, and meanwhile the airlines are
arguing and attempting to delay resolving a key vulnerability.
This week's column states a few
essential facts about airplane security, and tries to expose
some of the lies that are being passed off as truths.
Passing the Buck
This must be the only time
in US history that the public has almost unanimously clamored
for the government to take over the role of private enterprise,
united in the fervent belief that government workers will do a
better job than private employees!
And, as for the weaknesses
in the security screening prior to 11 Sept, why is everyone now
acting surprised about this? Anyone that ever walked through a
security barrier could see that the screening process was close
to completely haphazard and random. I can't count the number of
times that I've had strange looking objects in my carry on pass
through with no scrutiny at all - we all of us knew that the
security screening process was patchy and imperfect, but no-one
did anything about it.
In particular, the FAA knew
this, and occasionally would fine the airlines ridiculously low
amounts of money such that it was cheaper for the airlines to
pay the fines than to buy improved services from the security
companies they contracted with. Now everyone is choosing
to blame the security contractors, while ignoring the real
problem - the airlines had lowballed their security services and
made it essentially impossible for a high quality and more
thorough screening procedure to be provided.
But, that's all water under
the bridge, isn't it. Let's talk instead about the present state
of play. While the airlines have rushed to secure their cockpit
doors (you'd get whiplash from watching how fast they reversed
their earlier arguments against doing this incredibly sensible
thing!) they are still complaining that other security
improvements will be complicated, time consuming and costly to
implement, and (their ultimate argument) may result in customer
I'm talking about baggage
security. What's the easiest way for a terrorist to crash
a plane today? Easy. Buy a ticket, and, and, being
very careful to answer the oh so difficult questions at the
counter correctly ('Did you pack this suitcase yourself', etc
etc) check a suitcase with a bomb inside onto the flight.
Just a small lump of plastic
explosive the size of a Coke can is all that is needed to make a
really big bang and to cause any plane to crash. Then,
after having checked the suitcase and got a boarding pass,
simply leave the airport. Watch the plane take off with
the suitcase on board, and listen for the loud explosion.
Presently, the domestic airlines have no positive baggage
matching procedure, and test less than 10% of luggage for
explosives, and so there is nothing to prevent the scenario I've
Now - wait for it. Here's
what the airlines say in response. They say that if they
had to implement a positive baggage matching system, this might
mean that, on average, one flight in seven is delayed about
seven minutes. In other words, all flights will be delayed
an average of one minute.
Let's see if I've got this
right. We're all being delayed an average of one hour or
more in our check-in process at present so that the airlines can
be absolutely sure we don't take a dangerous nailfile on board,
but the airlines aren't prepared to delay the flights another
minute so as to have a positive baggage matching procedure?
What's wrong with this picture???
A Shameful History of Delays
Almost exactly 13 years ago,
on 21 December 1988, Pan Am's flight 103 exploded over
Lockerbie, Scotland. A bomb was in one of the
unaccompanied suitcases on board the plane, and the act of
sabotage highlighted the vulnerability of planes to bombs in the
Two obvious solutions
presented themselves. First, require all luggage to be
transported together with its owner - ie, matching bags to
passengers. The reasoning for this is that a bomber is
less likely to want to kill himself as well as the rest of the
passengers. This is, of course, imperfect reasoning, but
it still presents as at least some level of precaution.
Secondly, screen luggage as
well as carry-on items and check for hidden bombs. Modern
devices can not only Xray the luggage but also 'sniff' their
contents and detect the tell-tale chemical traces of explosives.
This strategy would reduce the chance of terrorists smuggling
bombs onto planes down to almost zero.
So, in 1990, Congress passed
an Aviation Security Bill that gave the FAA three years to
install explosives detection machines at US airports, with an
escape clause allowing for delays if suitable technology did not
yet exist. Problem solved.
Suitable technology does
exist, and some airports are now equipped with such devices.
But not all airports, and not sufficient devices. Indeed,
even after 9/11, fewer than 10% of checked bags were being
checked for bombs and a survey of 30 machines at nine airports
showed that 73% were not in continuous use! Problem not
On 17 July, 1996, TWA flight
800 crashed mysteriously shortly after leaving New York.
Later that year, Congress passed another law that ordered the
FAA to establish rules for certifying the companies that hired
the passenger screeners at airports. Problem solved.
Apparently nothing much
happened, and so in 2000, another law gave the FAA until May 31,
2001, to issue the regulations. FAA spokeswoman Rebecca
Trexler said the agency was just about to issue new rules for
screening companies before the terrorist attacks, umm, 'put them
on hold'! Problem not solved.
And now we have another
airline crash and another piece of legislation to solve the
problem. Can you spot the pattern here?
The explosives detectors
that were supposed to be installed by 1993 are still not
installed, and those that have been installed aren't even being
used all the time. The security company certification
requirements of the 1996 act have been delayed and delayed.
The new legislation gives until the end of 2002 for all checked
luggage to be inspected by explosives detectors, and follows
that up with a requirement that within 60 days of now, airlines
must start inspecting all bags with X-ray machines,
bomb-sniffing dogs, hand-searches or other methods, including
matching bags to passengers.
Guess what. Are the
airlines saying 'Yes, certainly, we'll do that right away'.
No. They're saying that this is too short a time (but,
really, this requirement goes back to the 1990 legislation - how
much time do they want?). And, of course, they're also
saying 'we can't afford it'. Unbelievably, they're also
saying that customer service might suffer - as if they care!
"It's tough for us," says
Dick Doubrava, the Air Transport Association's security chief.
"Can it be done in 60 days? We'll make a good-faith
Meanwhile, the DOT is
clearly not on top of things, either. Although this is
supposed to be done by 18 January, (a very short time frame that
includes the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holiday
periods), DOT's Lenny Alcivar said Tuesday, "It's really too
early to discuss these details."
Question - When will it no
longer be too early to discuss the details? And just how
much faith can any of us have in the airlines' 'good-faith
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23 Nov 2001, last update
21 Jul 2020
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