My thoughts on the proposed new security measures in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day terror attack.
Christmas Day was peaceful in my home. All I had to worry about was opening presents, taking a walk up to a nearby hill with panoramic views of the city, and cooking and eating a great feast.
Elsewhere things were not so peaceful. I’m particularly thinking of the attempted terrorism attack on a flight landing in Detroit.
Every time something like this happens, there’s a knee-jerk response that goes something like this: the airport and airline security regime changes in some inexplicable way, chaos reigns for several weeks or months, the system gets codified, becomes predictable and then slowly relaxes. For example, after 9/11, the Australian authorities banned metal cutlery, knitting needles, nail clippers, tennis rackets and other random items from flights. They relaxed this ban two days ago, on Christmas Eve, acknowledging it served no real security purpose.
In the case of the latest attack, the new security measures proposed by the US Government and Transportation Security Administration mean that passengers will have to remain in their seats, without any personal belongings on their laps or access to their hand luggage for the entire last hour of the flight. It reminds me of the children’s game Statues where you can’t move. [Update: Elliott.org has the full text of the new security directive].
Based on what I’ve read, I don’t believe any of this actually makes air travel any safer. The cynic in me says it’s all just security theatre – a smoke and mirrors show so the authorities can plausibly claim they are doing something to make air travel safer. A more charitable view says they are genuinely trying to do something but since they have no idea what to do, they are simply clutching at straws. Either way, it seems to me that most new security measures are intended only to make us feel safer and in reality do nothing but annoy passengers and hurt airlines’ businesses.
Sensible security suggestions
I am no security expert, but here are a few things that I believe might actually make air travel safer, without pointlessly annoying passengers.
1. Acting on information. In this case, the suspect’s father warned the US about his son in November. It seems there was not enough information to put him on the no-fly list, but perhaps he could have been selected for additional screening? But surely something could have been done with that information?
2. Sort out check-in baggage. It seems to me that part of the problem is that too much stuff is taken on board in the carry-on luggage rather than checked through. I don’t think the problem is what is taken on board – banning things like knitting needles and tennis rackets does seem fairly pointless – but the vast quantity of stuff that has to be screened must surely be a distraction. If you limited the size of carry-on baggage to handbags and briefcases rather than allowing small suitcases as well, then perhaps the security screeners could do a more thorough job of, you know, screening. In order to make this palatable to consumers, airlines would have to stop charging for check-in baggage.
3. Build on what works. No matter what we do, no security screening system is perfect. We know what works. What do United 93 (the plane that went down in Pennsylvania in the 9/11 attacks), the Shoe Bomber and the Christmas Day Detroit attacks have in common? In all three cases, it was the passengers who averted disaster (or in the case of United 93 averted a worse disaster). Back when terrorists just wanted to hijack planes rather than explode them, terror experts recommended passengers don’t fight back. 9/11 changed that equation. It’s not practical to put air marshals on every plane – and on large planes you would need more than one to be effective – so alert, courageous passengers may be the answer. Why not educate us what to look for and how to deal with it?
Meanwhile, I’m glad I’m not flying this week. If I did have to fly, I would be checking through as much as possible and going through security lines with the bare minimum. Why not bite the bullet and pay to check through your bags? It’s likely to shorten your trek through security. In future, why not make your decision on the price of the ticket, including check-through baggage? It’s worth noting that in the US, Southwest and JetBlue don’t charge for baggage and overseas, only the budget airlines like easyJet and RyanAir do.