Airport security is theatre with TSA as the stage director

Now that 2009 is drawing to a close, I can take some time and reflect on the year that has just been and focus to the year that is coming. 2009 had me in the air for the most I have ever been in a single year, with over 100,000 miles of international travel clocked up, going back and forth from the UK to the US.

This afforded me the luxury of seeing first hand at how laughable the security and policies of the airports really where, with many an incident witnessed that would make you doubt just what we are doing to safe guard our skies. I will say now, that the conclusion I have come to is this, by the time any one is approaching the security gate at an airport, then already it's too late. All bets are off.

The press is scrambling at the moment, trying to answer the question, how the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, managed to smuggle all those chemicals on board without being detected. I am not at all surprised myself, having seen some of the items I have accidentally slipped on board without any one asking me anything.

Getting through

Due to the fact that I go back and forth so often, I try and not check a bag in, as this creates many delays and effectively cuts you off from doing any plane changes mid itinerary. You'll be amazed at how flexible the airline gate agent can be when they learn you don't have checked-in luggage to manage. I keep a bag of toiletries in the US, but sometimes I have to carry the odd piece with me, sometimes forgetting I have them in there, as I use the same bag every time.

So let me list out some of the items that have travelled with me, in my hand luggage, and at what point they were spotted in the journey.

  • Full (over 100ml) tube of toothpaste
    This particular tube flew back and forth a number of times over the Atlantic (GLA, LHR, IAD, AMS) before finally being spotted after a check in New York (EWR).
  • The infamous nail clippers
    Oh these little beauties have never left my case, and go back and forth all the time
  • Spray on Deodorant
    Glasgow Airport (GLA) spotted this one, and removed it. IAD missed it when I came back home, but Heathrow spotted it when I was rescreened before going up to Glasgow.
  • Large Office Scissors
    This one scared me the most. I had borrowed a large pair of office scissors the night before to go and trim my beard at the hotel. I used my normal bag to take them back to the hotel for the last night. I came back to the office the next morning for a few hours before heading to the airport and clean forgot about them still in my bag. Washington (IAD) security did spot them, but since they were only 4" in blade length, and not over, I was allowed to carry them on. I took them to London Heathrow (LHR) and before even entering their second screening I voluntarily handed them over noting that IAD had allowed me to fly with them. They were amazed and took down some details.
  • Full Scottish Kilt with trimmings
    Anyone that has seen a kilt knows just how much metal there is on it. The only airport to actually spot this, was Chicago (OHR), with me successfully pulling it through GLA, LHR, IAD, RIC without anyone even asking to open my buggage.
  • Full bottle of water
    This one was my father, who managed to get a full bottle of water past security, using the cunning technique of holding it in his mouth! His hands where full while he was packing the security tray that he held the bottle of water in his mouth. He forgot about it, and simply walked on through when told. No one said a thing.
  • To de-belt or not to de-belt
    Huge inconsistancies with the removal of the belt policies. Basically if they spot it then you are asked to remove it. If they ask "have you removed your belt?" simply nod, and walk on through. I have a metal buckle, and its never picked up.

As for carrying on knives and metal objects, I wouldn't bother, they'll give you those when you get on board. Business class and above give you good solid metal cutlery that you can then use to do whatever it is you want to.

I have spoken with mothers and other passengers, who pull out items from their hand luggage in mid-flight shocked at what they brought through. Full SMA Powder cans of milk, knitting needles, and even a screw driver, a network engineer sitting beside me spotted while he was pulling out his laptop.

What hope?

By the time we are all seated on the plane, then all we can do is hope that the intelligence gathering agencies have done everything they can to keep the "bad guys" off the plane in the first plane.

Oh, but wait a minute, they already did their job. Airport security let us the travelling public down once more by ignoring the watch lists and doing nothing about it.

"The suspect, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was on a broad watch list of 550,000 names since last month, Gibbs said. That list does not automatically bring tighter screening of individuals, Gibbs said, and Obama has ordered a review of the procedures for determining which people on the list undergo more stringent checking." - source CNN

This is the most shocking piece of news I have heard from the whole affair.

The amount of times your identity is checked before getting on the plane, and not one of them, felt it was worth doing a quick lookup against a list of only 550,000 names? By all means, take these named individuals and perform a thorough check of their persons and their luggage. These are the very people the likes of the FBI, CIA, MI6 etc have flagged as "we have nothing concrete on them, but keep an eye on them nonetheless".

It naturally begs the question, why on earth do we have such lists when they aren't being checked? Why am I spending all my time filling in documentation as to where my first night of stay is when you aren't even checking it?

What now?

So in true "lets make sure we are seen to be doing something", we are going to get the flurry of activity at the security desks where the agents actually wake up and do something. All the measures announced over the last few days are the things we all had hoped was being done in the first place.

"Travellers are undergoing "pat-down" searches before boarding and being restricted to one item of hand luggage." - source BBC

Although for good measure, they have added some new ones, just to labour the point.

"During flight, passengers will be asked to follow flight crew instructions, such as stowing personal items, turning off electronic equipment and remaining seated during certain portions of the flight." - source TSA

Even worse, as the level of inflight stress rises, now that we are not allowed to get up and stretch our legs - we no longer have any idea when the hell it is going to end, as they pull all updates away from us.

"In-flight entertainment is being withdrawn where it includes maps of the plane’s location, for fear bombers will be able to pinpoint targets." - source TheTimes

But is it really just more set peices to make us all feel a lot happier? An insider thinks so:

"Counter­terrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better. Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers." - source TheAtlantic

Not everyone is pleased to see such reactionary measures.

"In addition to keeping with its usually tradition of making policy on a reactionary basis, this one wouldn’t even have done anything to prevent the attempt over the weekend. The guy was in his seat when he tried to light the explosive device. And the passenger who confronted him got out of his seat to do it." - source The Agitator

And this if you recall, is after the TSA handbook was released on the internet by a disgruntled agent who felt their procedures were completely ineffective.

The romance of air travel?

Sadly the romance of air travel and being flung to far corners of the globe has gone. It isn't that security has got worse or better, it has just got to the point where no one really trusts what is going on. Public confidence has been lost, and all we see is long ineffective lines at security, knowing only too well, that those that really want to bring down a plane, will most likely find a way.

There is no one magic solution here. But our rights as the travelling public are being eroded each and every year. Before too long, we'll be asked to change into brightly coloured jump suits and ushered through airport terminals with armed guards herding us like cattle.

I love flying, but I hate airports. The agencies have plenty of time, especially on a transatlantic flight to do a passenger check up, so should anyone be on there that shouldn't be there, the airplane can be alerted and necessary action taken.

I want to see some "high" tech procedures being brought in here. I want to see some computers talking to one another, and doing automatic searchs. Here let me give you one for free:


It really, in this day and age, not to be too hard to do. Can it?


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