Airport Security - A Sham or a Shambles?
Let's not pretend that
we are now 100% secure, and let's not also pretend that we
can ever achieve 100% security.
Most of all, let's not
adopt a mindless attitude but instead temper security with
Here's an unlucky litany of 13
recent stories that clearly indicates that something is very
wrong with our present approach to airport and airline security.
Note - this article, written in
2003, remains sadly in large part accurate, even six years
No way of detecting this
An Australian smuggled two
sharpened sticks, each over a foot in length, onto a plane. He
used these in an attack on flight crew as he struggled to get
access to the cockpit. One can only guess at what he would have
done if he had smashed his way into the cockpit.
Wooden sticks can't be
detected by current metal detectors at airports. Short of
stripping people naked, we have no defense against this
More things that require
A lady tried to walk through
the metal detector with her ticket in a holder that was hung
around her neck. She had to remove the holder and send it
through the Xray machine, for fear of there being a razor blade
(that the metal detector wouldn't detect) hidden inside the
But if razor blades are a
problem and the security screener thought the lady might be
hiding one, and if the metal detector can't detect them, then
why wasn't she patted down, or - to be totally safe - strip
Very expensive, very secure,
so what is the remaining danger?
All US passenger jets have
now been fitted with secure cockpit doors, at a cost of $25,000
- $40,000 each. (You can get a secure door for your house for
one hundred times less money.) These airplane doors are bullet
proof and strong enough to resist an adult male trying to crash
So why are we still
forbidden to take miniature key-ring style pocket knives on
board a plane? What remaining threat does a one inch bladed
pocket knife pose to the pilots, crew, and passengers?
If I don't like you, I can
A lady passenger gets into
an argument with the United Airlines gate agent about not having
an assigned seat, even though she booked and checked in many
hours ahead of the flight.
By her account, the gate
agent escalated the conflict rather than calmed things down, and
then (after giving her a boarding pass and allowing her onto the
jetway) comes after her and announces that he won't let her fly
because he 'doesn't feel comfortable' allowing her onto the
plane. Because this is now a security issue, his supervisor is
unwilling to overrule him. She is forced to stay overnight in
Chicago and flies out the next day on a different airline.
Is 80% good enough?
A recent survey in Britain
showed that 20% of all illegal objects are undetected when going
through X-ray machines.
Similar studies in the US
have suggested similar results. Most weeks I get several emails
from people laughing at having discovered they accidentally had
a knife or something else forbidden in their carry on, but not
having it detected at the airport.
No way in
If your checked bag is
searched, the personnel typically then secure it with an
unbreakable plastic tie, whether it needs it or not.
So, you get to your
destination, and find your luggage now has an unbreakable
plastic tie on it. How do you open your bag, when you are not
allowed to carry scissors or knives with you?
The terminal is safe, but
the plane is still at risk
In some US airports,
'anti-terrorist' police are now equipped with machine guns - an
inaccurate weapon that sprays bullets everywhere and one that is
definitely not recommended for a crowded concourse full of
passengers. Airport passenger terminals are perhaps the safest
buildings in America.
Meanwhile, the largely
unprotected and undefended air-side of an airport has all manner
of contractors and suppliers coming and going, largely without
any controls or security at all. These people can drive into the
airport in a truck that could conceal a hundred weapons or
massive quantities of explosives, and have unmonitored access to
airplanes and air cargo areas.
No need to hijack a plane
when there are thousands sitting around to steal
Although it is now very
difficult for a terrorist to take over a plane in flight, how
difficult is it for a terrorist to simply steal a parked plane,
taxi it to the runway, take-off, and fly it to whatever building
he wishes to crash it into.
Or, for the 'think big'
terrorist, how difficult is it for them to steal a hundred or
even a thousand planes from one of the desert 'mothballed'
parking lots on which old planes are stored.
No need to hijack a plane
when you can shoot it down
A lone terrorist armed with
a lightweight, portable, low cost surface to air missile could
potentially shoot down planes within a 50 mile radius of an
airport, including over big city centers. It would take less
than 30 seconds for him to leave his car, activate the missile,
aim and fire it.
The government's solution?
Proposing 'smart fences' around airport perimeters, protecting
the first mile but not the other 49 miles. And by the time
anyone can react and respond to a terrorist sighting - well,
let's just say that the terrorist has had plenty more than 30
seconds with which to attack planes.
Who watches the watchers?
It was recently discovered
that a sizeable number of Transportation Security Administration
employees had prior felony convictions, including weapons
charges and violent assaults.
And, as for the 50,000 other
TSA employees, the new higher standards of training are being
thrown into question due to the disclosure that many trainees
were given the answers to their training exams prior to sitting
Travel with Photo ID -
anyone's will do!
A 49 yr old man grabbed his
passport as he rushed out of the house and flew from Britain to
Spain and back. During the course of checking in for his
flights, passing through security, going through Customs and
Immigration, etc, he estimates he showed his passport perhaps a
dozen times to officials, with no problems.
When he returned home, he
discovered that he had been using his son's passport rather than
his own. His teenage son's photo is of course quite different to
his appearance, and his son's name is also different. No-one in
Britain or Spain noticed these discrepancies.
Security or Shakedown?
With a straight face, an Air
Canada checkin agent in Calgary tells a passenger that he can't
fly on his return flight, because he is a security risk. The
name on his ticket (first name followed by last name) doesn't
match the name on his ID (last name followed by first name).
Airport security is called to confirm this situation.
The passenger tried to point
out it was just a reversal of his first and last names, and also
pointed out that he had already flown the first half of his
flights with no problem. No deal.
The solution to this
'security' problem? To buy another ticket, on the spot, from the
ticket agent, with his name in the correct order!
The boy who cried wolf
A new national system of
terrorist threat level alerts provides five different categories
of threat assessment. Since this was introduced after 9/11, the
nation has been continually on level 3 - yellow in color, and
described as 'Elevated', with a 'significant risk' of terrorist
attack being present, or level 4 - orange in color, and
described as 'High', with a 'high risk' of terrorist attack.
Despite these dire warnings,
no terrorist attacks have occurred, and there is no evidence
that the elevated or high threat alerts have prevented any
terrorists from attacking. What would you think of a weather
forecaster if every day he told you that there was a significant
or high risk of rain, but after 20 months of such predictions,
it had never rained? Would you still wear a raincoat every day?
A chain is only as strong as
its weakest link. Similarly, security is only as strong as its
It is inappropriate to flood
one area of vulnerability with billions of dollars of manpower
and technology while leaving other vulnerabilities unchanged and
insecure. For example, while focusing very closely on securing
passengers, little attention has been given to securing other
people that have access to planes on the ground - these other
people could hide weapons on board or just simply plant
explosives in the plane.
Our nation and our lives can
never be totally secure. Even that most security conscious of
all countries - Israel - is plagued with apparently incurable
terror bombings and suicide attackers.
As the Israel example
clearly illustrates, the ugly reality is that there is nothing
we can do to defend against a determined squad of terrorists who
are willing to lose their own lives as part of an attack against
the United States. We need to understand, accept, and prepare
for this. We should not pretend that we can achieve a level of
security that has eluded Israel.
Yes, we should be vigilant,
and yes, we should do all we can to make it difficult for
terrorists to succeed. But we need to transform our attempts at
securing our lifestyle from being a series of flashy public
relations events and instead focus on the less glamorous behind
the scenes aspects of security.
Most of all, we need to
temper security with common sense. If terrorists can smuggle 18"
long wooden daggers and 1" sized metal razor blades onto planes
without detection, please allow ordinary passengers the right to
once more travel with manicure sets and small pocket knives.
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13 Jun 2003, last update
28 May 2011
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.