Security: Airport: December 2009 Archives


December 30, 2009

I flew back from Soviet Canuckistan last night and got to experience the new security measures firsthand. The high order bit is that nearly all carry-on baggage is banned. They make exceptions for a few things like women's purses, medicine, baby stuff, cameras, and laptops (allegedly no chargers but we saw exceptions) but even then you can't carry them in a significant bag: the security lines were full of people carrying their naked laptops. Luckily, Mrs. Guesswork was carrying some stuffable cloth bags which we were able to use as for our laptops, paperwork, a book, etc. My co-worker Derek wasn't as lucky, but the airline customer service rep did provide him with a substitute:

After you've checked all your valuable stuff, you get to go through security. The magnetometer and the bag x-ray are the same, but once you get through that, they hand-search all your stuff as well as giving you an extremely thorough pat-down, said pat-down extending to going through your wallet, presumably in order to verify that your money won't explode. All this was still quite a bit slower than the ordinary security screening, however. As reported previously, the FAs required you to stay in your seat for the last hour of the flight, but didn't try to stop you from having what remained of your stuff in your lap during that time.

As usual, TSA is being pretty uncommunicative about the rationale for the new restrictions. My impression based on Transport Canada's statement is that TSA required a whole bunch of new security restrictions including the hand searches and pat downs and that this created really long wait times at Canadian airports. So while restricting carry-on doesn't serve any real security purpose it does reduce the amount of searching that has to be done and therefore somewhat ameliorates the waiting time problem.

Obviously, keeping you in your seat for the last hour of the flight is pretty pointless. Even if terrorists can't blow themselves up from their seats, nothing stops them from detonating a bomb 61 minutes before landing. This just seems like fighting the last war.

On the other hand, doing really extensive searches of people probably does add some security value. This isn't to say that there's no way for someone to smuggle explosives onto the plane with the current level of screening, but this presumably does increase the required level of sophistication. On the other hand, it's a huge hassle for travelers—I never travel with checked luggage if I can avoid it, but the new restrictions more or less require you to check bags. As I said earlier, the cost/benefit analysis hasn't really changed since before the attempted attack. If it wasn't worth doing this level of searching a month ago, it isn't worth doing it now just because we're freaked out that someone finally tried the attack we knew would eventually come. And if it is worth doing now, then it was worth doing before so why weren't we doing it?

I can't see any reason to have different levels of screening for domestic and international flights. It's not like it's that much easier to lay your hands on explosives in Canada or Europe than in the US, so what stops a terrorist from flying to the US without any weapons or anything, getting explosives and then boarding a plane in the US? The added security is particularly silly on flights which originate in Vancouver and Toronto; ordinarily you clear customs and immigration in the US, so at least in theory terrorists might board the plane in say Frankfurt and not be apprehended until they arrive in San Francisco, at which point it's too late (of course, if the no-fly list actually worked, this would be less of an issue, but since it's actually pretty lame...). However, in many Canadian airports, including YVR and YYZ you clear immigration and customs in Canada (and this is done by TSA agents so there's no concern about not trusting foreigners) and when you land you just get off the plane. For flights from those airports, there's no meaningful distinction between domestic and international flights even if there would have been otherwise.

Ideally, in a week or two the panic response will die down, TSA will relax their restrictions and we'll go back to when we thought just having to take your shoes off was annoying. Reading the tea leaves, though (see, for instance, William Saletan's post here), I suspect that instead this will accelerate the deployment of whole body scanners as an alternative to the pat-downs. Ironically, Wikipedia reports that the first airport deployment of whole body scanners was in Schiphol, the airport where Umar Abdulmutallab (thanks to Wikipedia for the name) boarded; it would be interesting to know if he went through the scanners. Of course whole-body scanners don't let you scan carry-on luggage any faster, so it's hard to see how anything other than a lower level of paranoia will improve that.


December 27, 2009

Since some clown from Nigeria decided to try to blow up a 777, apparently the TSA has decided to give us some new security procedures. They're sooper secret, but apparently pretty cool:

TSA has a layered approach to security that allows us to surge resources as needed on a daily basis. We have the ability to quickly implement additional screening measures including explosive detection canine teams, law enforcement officers, gate screening, behavior detection and other measures both seen and unseen. Passengers should not expect to see the same thing at every airport.

Anyway, the new rules appear to apply to international flights into the US and include secondary screening for everyone, requiring passengers to stay in their seats for the final hour of the flight without any carry-on baggage in your lap, including laptops, pillows, and blankets. The other major restriction is restricting you to one carry-on bag. (There are rumors of a no electronics policy but that seems to be only sporadic). I just saw a report on Canadian TV about how much this is slowing things down in Canadian airports and I'm looking forward to experiencing it myself on Tuesday.

At least for me, it's pretty hard to see any rational connection between these restrictions and security (see here for the thread on the TSA blog where commenters express frustration and TSA doesn't even confirm that these restrictions are policy, let alone defend them). Certainly, if you were carrying a bomb you could set it off at any point during the flight. In fact, it's not clear to me that there is anything special about the last hour, except that I guess it's more likely to be over the US, for whatever that's worth. As for limiting you to one carryon, I suppose that's designed to minimize the number of bags they have to screen.

More to the point, it's not clear that any new security measures are required. Eventually someone was bound to try to blow up a bomb on a plane and someone eventually did. It's not like we didn't know that you could carry plastic explosive on your body through the magnetometer, so what exactly has changed that merits reassessing the method of screening, let alone the screening effectiveness/inconvenience tradeoff? I suppose one could argue that maybe this attack is potentially part of a coordinated effort and thus tightened security efforts are temporarily appropriate while we investigate if he had any collaborators, but if that's true at some point TSA should revert to their previous policies. I don't see any reason to keep them at this level indefinitely.