Security theatre and what might actually make air travel safer

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.

Security theatre

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: 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.

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  1. Agree on all your points. However, I am a carry-on traveler and wouldn’t want to change that, even if they decided not to charge me to check bags. They can screen me more, pat me down, check me again – it’s all cool. The new rules are ridiculous, and will in no way keep anyone safer! As you point out, it is just a way to make sure that the travel and airline industries inch closer to bankruptcy.

    My question is, what are they doing on the back end to improve the system? The TSA always makes changes that the public has to deal with, when that’s not really what caused the breakdown. Clearly, if this person was on a watch list and his father was warning people – he should have never even made it through security and on a plane.

    I want to know what is changing on the other end to prevent this. THAT is where the real problem lies.

    Happy Travels!

    Thanks for your comment. Like you, I am often a carry-on traveller and I have to agree that I would miss the convenience of this. However, I think it’s possibly a trade-off worth making. It would lighten the work load for the security screeners and also reduce the chaotic scenes on board when passengers can’t find space to stow their bags. Perhaps airlines could make check-through baggage free of charge and also permit passengers to take a small bag (about half the current size limit) as carry-on luggage free of charge. Passengers who want to take more than a small bag board could pay a premium for the privilege? I do agree with you about the problems at the other end. – Caitlin.

  2. Thank you for demonstrating more common sense, Caitlin, than everyone who works at the TSA put together. I couldn’t agree more that they are focusing on the wrong kinds of changes whenever something like this happens–they’re like doctors treating the symptoms instead of diagnosing and treating the disease. They need to be less reactive and more proactive, but they don’t seem to know how to do that. Which is odd, since the rest of us seem to, based on comments I’ve seen on Twitter.

    My aside to the carry on luggage issue….it’s not just about the checked bag fees. The problem of too many carry-on items has been around longer than that. You will never convince people to stop carrying on luggage until the airlines solve the problems of theft and lost luggage. People just don’t trust that their luggage will be waiting for them at baggage claim–safe, sound, and intact–when they get there.
    .-= Gray´s last blog ..Christmas in Burlington, Vermont =-.

    No, I agree with you that it’s not just about checked baggage fees, but I definitely think it’s a contributing factor. Too much carry-on luggage certainly seems to be a worse problem in the US (where the checked baggage fees prevail) than in other parts of the world, in my experience. Clearly, I would always advise taking valuables on board as carry-on luggage though. – Caitlin.

  3. I think just having competent people working would do a lot to help security. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the people not looking at the xray screens. (especially in heathrow!)
    .-= Nomadic Matt´s last blog ..Waitomo’s Glow Worm Caves =-.

  4. Caitlin, your common sense approach to air safety makes sense to me. As I traveled on a domestic flight in the U.S. yesterday, the main thing I noticed was an increase in the number of TSA employees roaming the airport observing passengers. My husband and I made the week-long trip with carry-on luggage for the very reason that Gray suggested – we didn’t want our luggage to be lost during a multi-city itinerary.
    .-= Donna Hull´s last blog ..Saturday’s scene: Blue Ice =-.

    Yes, we definitely need to be able to trust airlines to deliver our bags to our final destination. – Caitlin.

  5. Good points. I haven’t been in an airport since Christmas Day, but efforts by the TSA do seem to be more theatrical than effective. The TSA could never roll out a policy of “passenger alertness” and be taken seriously by the majority of travelers. That said, I agree that it’s probably the most effective means to avert further potential disasters.
    .-= Keith´s last blog ..Are You a “Suitcase?” =-.

  6. I am utterly dreading my flight to NY from Switzerland in a week… especially the ridiculous last-hour rule. I can handle checking in luggage, and even paying for the privilege. I can handle cutting back on toiletries, squeezing them into tiny bottles, and wearing slip-on shoes.

    What I can’t even begin to handle is the last hour without access to the bathroom, or worse – a book or magazine, if that is indeed going to be the case. Talk about boredom, and stress build-up for those who don’t love flying in the first place.

    I agree with Matt about lack of careful screening. Sometimes they look – and often they don’t. Too busy chatting about coffee break and whatnot. Sorry, but if you’re supposed to save our lives, I’d like to think you’re concentrating. A bit like the pilot up ahead, no?

    Caitlin, I think your suggestions make sense… I wonder whether there will be some grassroots movement to complain about useless regulations and push governments (in this case the US) to develop approaches that really work. As a passenger, I truly don’t mind being inconvenienced in the name of safety. But only in the name of safety – not in the name of anyone’s desire to make me ‘feel’ safer when I know I’m not.
    .-= Scribetrotter´s last blog ..The Dunes-Mongolia =-.


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