June 18, 2014

Terminal Madness: What is Airport Security? (Part One)

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Written by: Patrick Smith
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(Editor’s note: this is the first part of a two-part series exploring the current realities of airport security.)

In America and much of the world, the security enhancements put in place following the catastrophe of September 11th, 2001, have been drastic and of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational and pointless.

The first variety have taken place almost entirely behind the scenes. Comprehensive explosives scanning for checked luggage, for instance, was long overdue and is perhaps the most welcome addition. It’s the second variety, unfortunately that has come to dominate the air travel experience. I’m talking about the frisking, x-raying, body scanning and confiscating that goes on at thousands of concourse checkpoints across the globe. These procedures waste our time, waste our money, and humiliate millions of us on a daily basis.

There are two fundamental flaws in our approach:

The first is a strategy that looks upon every single person who flies — the old and young, fit and infirm, domestic and foreign, pilot and passenger — as a potential terrorist. That is to say, we’re searching for weapons rather than people who might actually use weapons. This is an impossible, unsustainable task in a system of such tremendous volume. Up to two million people fly each and every day in the United States alone. Tough-as-nails prison guards cannot keep knives out of maximum security cell blocks, never mind the idea of guards trying to root out every conceivable weapon at an overcrowded terminal.

The second flaw is our lingering preoccupation with the tactics used by the terrorists on September 11th — the huge and tragic irony being the success of the 2001 attacks had almost nothing to do with airport security in the first place. As conventional wisdom has it, the 9/11 terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard boxcutters. But conventional wisdom is wrong. It was not a failure of airport security that allowed those men to hatch their takeover scheme. It was, instead, a failure of national security – a breakdown of communication and oversight at the FBI and CIA levels. What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset — a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings and how they were expected to unfold. In years past, a hijacking meant a diversion to Beirut or Havana, with hostage negotiations and standoffs; crews were accordingly trained in the concept of “passive resistance.” The presence of boxcutters was merely incidental. They could used anything — onboard silverware, knives fashioned from plastic, a broken bottle wrapped in tape — particularly when coupled with the bluff of having a bomb. The weapon that mattered was the intangible one: the element of surprise. And so long as they didn’t chicken out, their scheme was all but guaranteed to succeed.

For a number of reasons just the opposite is true today. The hijack paradigm was changed forever even before the first of the Twin Towers had fallen to the ground, when the passengers of United 93 realized what was happening and began to fight back. The element of surprise was no longer a useful tool. Hijackers today would face not only an armored cockpit, but a planeload of people convinced they’re about to die. It’s hard to imagine a hijacker, be it with a boxcutter or a bomb, making it two steps up the aisle without being pummeled. It’s equally hard to imagine that organized terrorists would be willing to expend valuable resources on a scheme with such a high likelihood of failure.

In spite of this reality, we are apparently content spending billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened and cannot happen again — guards pawing through our luggage in a hunt for what are effectively harmless items: hobby knives, scissors, screwdrivers. Not to mention, even a child knows that a deadly weapon can be crafted out of virtually anything, from a ballpoint pen to a shattered first class dinner plate.

The folly is much the same with respect to the restrictions on liquids and gels, put in place following the break-up of a London-based cabal that was hoping to blow up jetliners using liquid explosives. Allegations surrounding the conspiracy were revealed to substantially embellished. In an August, 2006 article in the New York Times, British officials admitted that public statements made following the arrests were overcooked, inaccurate, and “unfortunate.”

Among first to express serious skepticism about the bombers’ plans was Thomas C. Greene, whose essay in The Register explored the extreme difficulty of mixing and deploying the types of binary explosives purportedly coveted by the London plotters. “The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane lavatory is pure fiction,” Greene said during an interview. “A handy gimmick for action movies and shows like ’24.’ The reality proves disappointing: it’s rather awkward to do chemistry in an airplane toilet. Nevertheless, our official protectors and deciders respond to such notions instinctively, because they’re familiar to us: we’ve all seen scenarios on television and in the cinema. This, incredibly, is why you can no longer carry a bottle of water onto a plane.”

The threat of liquid explosives does exist, but they cannot be readily brewed from the kinds of liquids we have devoted most of our resources toward. “I would not hesitate to allow that liquid explosives can pose a danger,” adds Greene, recalling Ramzi Yousef’s detonation of a small nitroglycerine bomb aboard a Philippine Airlines flight in 1994. The explosion was a test run for the so-called Project Bojinka, the long-forgotten Al-Qaeda scheme to simultaneously destroy a dozen widebody airliners over the Pacific Ocean. “But the idea that confiscating someone’s toothpaste is going to keep us safe is too ridiculous to entertain.”

But of all the half-baked measures we’ve grown accustomed to, few are sillier than the policy decreeing that pilots and flight attendants undergo the same x-ray and metal detector screening as passengers. As this book goes to press, a program is finally under testing in the United States that will soon allow on-duty pilots to bypass the normal checkpoint. It’s a simple enough process that confirms a pilot’s identity by matching up airline and government-issue credentials with information stored in a database. That it took twelve years for this to happen, however, is a national embarrassment when you consider that tens of thousands of US airport ground workers, from baggage loaders to cabin cleaners and mechanics, have been exempt from screening all along. Many of these individuals have full, unescorted access to aircraft, inside and out. Some are airline employees, though a large percentage are contract staff belonging to outside companies. An airline pilot who once flew bombers armed with nuclear weapons is not to be trusted and is marched through the metal detectors. But those who cater the galleys, sling the suitcases, and sweep out the aisles, have for years been able to saunter onto the tarmac unmolested. If there has been a more ringing, let-me-get-this-straight scenario anywhere in the realm of airport security, I’d like to hear it. Although nobody is implying that the hardworking caterers, baggage handlers, and the rest of the exempted employees out there are terrorists-in-waiting, this is nevertheless a double standard so staggeringly audacious that it can hardly be believed.

The Transportation Security Administration will point out how the privileges granted to tarmac workers are contingent upon fingerprinting, a ten-year criminal background investigation and crosschecking against terror watch lists, and that ground employees are additionally subject to random physical checks. All right, but the background checks for pilots are no less thorough. And as for those random spot-checks, one apron worker told me that he hadn’t been stopped or patted down in over three years. “All I need is my ID, which I swipe through a turnstile. The only TSA presence we notice is when the blue-shirts come down to the cafeteria to get food.”

Here’s a true story:

I’m at the TSA checkpoint at a major US airport. I’m on duty, in my full uniform, and have all of my gear with me. I hoist my luggage onto the x-ray belt, then pass through the metal detector. Once on the other side, I’m waiting for my stuff to reappear when the belt suddenly groans to a stop.

“Bag check!” shouts the guard behind the monitor. Two of the most exasperating words in air travel, those are.

The bag in question turns out to be my roll-aboard. The guard has spotted something inside. The seconds tick by as she waits to confer with her colleague. One minute passes. Then two. Then three. All the while, the line behind me grows longer.

“Bag check!”

At last another guard ambles over. There’s a conference. For some reason these situations require a sort of football huddle, with lots of whispering and pointing, before the belt can be switched on again. Why an offending piece of luggage can’t simply be pulled from the machine and screened separately is a topic for another time, but let us ponder, for a moment, how much time is wasted each day by these checks.

Finally the second guard, the meanness of whose scowl is exceeded only by the weight of the chip on her shoulder, lifts my roll-aboard from the machine and walks towards me. “Is this yours?” she wants to know.

“Yes, it’s mine.”

“You got a knife in here?”

“A knife?”

“A knife,” she barks. Some silverware?”

Yes I do. I always do. Inside my suitcase I carry a spare set of airline-sized cutlery – a spoon, a fork, and a knife. Along with packets of noodles and small snacks, this is part of my hotel survival kit, useful in the event of short layovers when food isn’t available. It’s identical to the cutlery that accompanies your meal on a long-haul flight. The pieces are stainless steel and about five inches long. The knife has a rounded end and a short row of teeth — I would call them serrations, but that’s too strong a word. For all intents and purposes, it’s a miniature butter knife.

“Yes,” I tell the guard. “There’s a metal knife in there – a butter knife.”

She opens the compartment and takes out a small vinyl case containing the three pieces. After removing the knife, she holds it upward between with two fingers and stares at me coldly. Her pose is like that of an angry schoolteacher about to berate a child for bringing chewing gum to class.

“You ain’t taking this through,” she says. “No knifes [sic]. You can’t bring a knife through here.”

It takes a moment for me to realize that she’s serious. “I’m… but… it’s…”

She throws it into a bin and starts to walk away.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “That’s airline silverware.”

“Don’t matter what it is. You can’t bring knifes through here.”

“Ma’am, that’s an airline knife. It’s the knife they give you on the plane.”

“Have a good afternoon, sir.”

“You can’t be serious,” I say.

With that she grabs the knife out of the bin and walks over to one of her colleagues, seated at the end of the checkpoint in a folding chair. I follow her over.

“This guy wants to bring this through.”

The man in the chair looks up lazily. “Is it serrated?”

She hands it to him. He looks at it quickly, then addresses me.

“No, this is no good. You can’t take this.”

“Why not?”

“It’s serrated.” He is talking about the little row of teeth along the edge. Truth be told, the knife in question, which I’ve had for years, is actually smaller and duller than most of the knives handed out by airlines to their first and business class customers. You’d be hard pressed to cut a slice of toast with it.

“Oh come on.”

“What do you call these?” He runs his finger along the miniscule serrations.

“Those… but… they… it…”

“No serrated knives. You can’t take this.”

“But sir, how can it not be allowed when it’s the same knife they give you on the plane!”

“Those are the rules.”

“That’s impossible. Can I please speak to a supervisor?”

“I am the supervisor.”

There are those moments in life when time stands still and the air around you seems to solidify. You stand there in an amber of absurdity, waiting for the crowd to burst out laughing and the Candid Camera guy to appear from around the corner.

Except the supervisor is dead serious.

Realizing that I’m not getting my knife back, I try for the consolation prize, which is getting the man to admit that, if nothing else, the rule makes no sense. “Come on,” I argue. “The purpose of confiscating knives is to keep people from bringing them onto planes, right? But the passengers are given these knives with their meals. At least admit that it’s a dumb rule. ”

“It’s not a dumb rule.”

“Yes it is.”

“No it isn’t.”

And so on, until he asks me to leave.

This was wrong, on so many levels, that it’s hard to keep them straight. Just for starters, do I really need to point out that an airline pilot at the controls of his plane would hardly need a butter knife if he desired to crash the plane?

I know this comes across a self-serving complaint, but at heart this isn’t about pilots. It’s about how diseased our approach to security is overall. Like most airline crewmembers, I’d have no problem going through screening if it were done fairly, logically, and rationally. In a way, TSA is going about this backwards. They’re working to come up with a system that exempts pilots, when what they ought to be doing is improving the rules for everybody.

Thousands of travelers, meanwhile, have their own versions of stories like mine: the girl who had her purse confiscated because it was embroidered with beads in the shape of a handgun; the woman whose cupcake was taken away; the pilot in San Francisco whose infant daughter’s baby rattle was taken because it had liquid inside; a four-inch plastic rifle from toy action doll confiscated on the grounds that it was a “replica weapon.” Or the woman and her toddler son refused passage through a checkpoint because they boy was carrying his plastic lightsaber.

Each of those things really happened. There’s no real need to arrange them order of ridiculousness, but it’s that last one, with the lightsaber, that makes you wonder if we haven’t lost our minds. A lightsaber, if you’re not familiar, is a make-believe weapon made famous throng the Star Wars franchise. In Earthly terms it’s a flashlight covered by a rounded plastic cone. As a weapon, though, it exists only in fantasy. The product neither looks like a real weapon nor contains parts that are TSA contraband. It is an imaginary weapon hazardous only to a race of imaginary space-people invented by George Lucas. Thus, confiscating a lightsaber is a little like confiscating a genie bottle or a magic wand.

Actually, it’s a lot like confiscating a genie bottle or a magic wand. And this is the lunatic world of security we now live in: one of blind adherence, stripped of reason, in which even the stupidest of policies are enforced to the letter of the law.

This article was originally published on and is used here with the author’s permission. Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, author, and host of His new book is COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

About the Author

Patrick Smith



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