Absurd heights of air security

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 December, 2010, 12:00am

It is surely time for Hong Kong International Airport security officials and Cathay Pacific's Tony Tyler, as chief executive of one of the world's leading airlines - and CEO designate of the association of international airlines - to invite American transport security officials to Hong Kong for practical lessons in what is secure and insecure about a well-run international airport.

Airport screening of passengers in the West is no longer security but the theatre of security of the absurd to make passengers believe that, after so many hassles and indignities, they will be safer. Indeed, 80 per cent of Americans do believe they are safer because of the inconvenience.

A vast and burgeoning industry now makes its living from this theatre. Besides the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) itself, a US$7 billion enterprise, aviation security is estimated to be worth US$80 billion a year - almost as much as it costs business in the lost time of 2.5 billion or so passengers who travel by air each year around the world.

US President Barack Obama claimed that his counterterrorism experts told him that the new full-body scanners and invasive pat-down procedures were the only ways to guard effectively against threats such as the attempted Christmas Day bombing last year (when the would-be bomber tried to detonate a device hidden in his underwear). If Obama's counterterrorism experts told him this, then he needs to get wiser advisers. If he believes them, then America should get a wiser president (though there is no obvious candidate waiting in the wings).

Security officials continue to dance to the terrorists' tune. After the 9/11 bombers succeeded, passengers were prevented from carrying box-cutters, knives or other sharp objects. The shoe bomber was grabbed by passengers before he could do damage, but airports promptly banned liquids, gels and creams. The Nigerian terrorist clumsily concealed a bomb in his underpants, so the TSA is leading airports everywhere to demand that all passengers reveal all their assets.

No, that isn't just the obvious joke. The TSA claims that you do not have to 'disrobe' to pass through its new revealing toys, but you have to take off your coat, jacket, shoes, belt, and empty all your pockets, including of handkerchiefs, wallets and money. Forget anything and you will get a personal grope as well. Machines at Amsterdam had a 50 per cent alarm rate because they do not like handkerchiefs or a heavy-duty sanitary napkin. More to the point, the machines, the Journal of Transportation Security reports, are easily fooled: a thin pancake of PETN high-explosive taped to the abdomen is missed by the latest expensive hi-tech machines.

Bombs in underwear are literally last year's terror, but - incredibly - US authorities have suggested the next terror tactic. TSA administrator John Pistole told the Christian Science Monitor: 'We're not going to get in the business of doing body cavities.' One next option will be to carry bombs inside passengers, just like drug couriers. Customs authorities already use scanning machines that can pick up drugs carried internally, but evidently law enforcement officials don't talk to each other or think laterally.

Authorities seem reluctant to admit to the escalating costs and quality control problems. If every passenger at every airport for every flight has to be checked for the full panoply of potential terrorist devices, sharp objects, lethal liquids, battery devices, do-it-yourself bomb assembly kits, and explosives inside the body, by people earning less than US$13 an hour, there are bound to be issues.

In the security pecking order, the military and police come top because they get to use real guns. Private security guards would rank next because they get perks and don't constantly have to face an abusive public. That leaves airport security to hire former hairdressers or bartenders who failed to make the grade in those jobs, people who love uniforms and being in charge, or masochists prepared to accept low pay and public abuse. US airports fill me with insecurity. It is not just the constant chitchatting among screeners, but their lack of professionalism compared with screeners in Hong Kong.

Airport security has become premised on the idea that every passenger could be a terrorist. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack by turning over each stalk - ultimately exhausting and self-defeating. If there are 1,000 terrorists among the 2.5 billion passengers a year, that's a 0.00004 per cent chance that the passenger whose intimate assets are being revealed or who is being groped is the target.

Terrorists are already looking elsewhere, at using innocents like children or old folk as their mules, at cargo or at inside jobs as airport or even TSA staff, at attacks landside where passengers queue for the security checks. Imagine the chaos if a terrorist set off the alarm at the security checkpoint, and then triggered a device.

The answer is to be smarter than the terrorists. Gather better intelligence, do background checks on passengers to keep the bad guys off aircraft. Run security as Hong Kong does: smooth, thorough multi-layered checks of hold luggage, cargo and staff as well as cabin baggage; emphasise unexpected and random checks; keep the cockpit door closed; encourage passengers to fight back for their lives.

If you really believe that every passenger might be a terrorist, the only answer is to strip and drape them all in hospital gowns and render them unconscious for the entire flight. Don't worry about the frills of lie-flat beds, fancy meals or entertainment - just pack them in, 2,000 to a jumbo jet. Low-cost airlines would love it and probably demand passengers pay for their own knockout drops.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator who travels 250,000 kilometres a year



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