Monday, September 25, 2006

Batteries, airlines and security

Pilot Patrick Smith, writing for Salon, points out that the airline security rules for batteries and laptop computers make good sense, and asks why so many of the other airline security rules make so little sense.

Smith points out that laptop batteries are a serious fire risk for airplanes. This isn't a hypothetical risk: pilots fear onboard fire more than almost any other accident, and planes have crashed from fires. Batteries used by Dell and Apple laptops have recently been catching fire -- a frightening nuisance on the ground, a deadly danger at 10,000ft. Consequently, when airlines banned or put restrictions on laptop batteries, the restrictions are based on real risks.

The same can't be said for other security measures used by the airports. Chicken Little rules airport security there, creating ineffectual, pointless and invasive "security" acts to pretend to defend against pretend dangers. With all the sound and fury, it is frightening just how ineffective it all is: despite all the baggage checks, despite sniffer dogs and strip searches and all the rest, one month ago yesterday a 21 year old student flew home to the USA from Argentina with a souvenier stick of dynamite in his baggage. (What was he thinking? Oh wait -- male, 21, student -- he wasn't.) The dynamite wasn't discovered until after the plane landed in Houston.

In response, security at Argentinian airports was tightened. Have they increased the number of sniffer dogs checking baggage? There is no evidence they have. Instead, once again small safety scissors are being seized from people's carry-on luggage, even though the American Transportation Security Administration (TSA) allows scissors with rounded tips.

Smith notes:

Because a person smuggled dynamite inside a checked suitcase, we're going to take kiddie scissors and tiny cans of shaving cream from your carry-ons. That sounds suspiciously like TSA thinking, so I have to wonder who, exactly, has ordered up this rigmarole? Was it Argentina's call, or have America's homeland security wizards asked foreign airports to enhance their inspections? (Later, when I try to find out, nobody in Washington or Buenos Aires returns my calls or e-mails.)

Smith points out the sheer craziness of the ban on liquids:

Before heading over to be frisked and wanded, I notice the man has taken my shaving cream and placed it on the floor with a small pile of similar contraband. You'll see this same thing at airports in America: heaps of shampoo, toothpaste, soap, bottled water, cups of coffee, jumbled into bins to await disposal. Logic would dictate this material needs to be carefully removed and destroyed. After all, it's potentially hazardous. If you're taking somebody's shaving cream, the presumption has to be that perhaps it's not shaving cream after all, but instead something dangerous. Otherwise, why is it prohibited? And some of those liquid bombs we've been hearing so much about are concocted from highly unstable chemicals, meaning they need to be handled very carefully.

So what happens to this stuff? Does the bomb squad come in every evening and cart it away in steel casks? Don't be ridiculous. It's hurled into the trash. The line of reasoning goes like this: We already know these items are harmless, but we're going to take them anyway. Later, after you leave, we will dump them down the drain.

Are you feeling safer?

Millions of sheeple across the US are, completely oblivious to that every growing pile of supposedly deadly liquid explosive right next to the line they are standing in. What's important is that the TSA does something: confiscate scissors that couldn't cut paper, seize cups of coffee, or stick their finger in their ear and cry "Wibble wibble wibble!", it is all the same to the half-wits who can't distinguish between doing something and doing something right.

In another column, Smith pointed out yet another example of stupid security theatre:

For instance, TSA's new carry-on rules aren't just stupid, they are so stupid that it's hard to believe the agency hasn't yet been called to the carpet. As I learned a week ago traveling to San Francisco, not only is it forbidden to bring a beverage through the security checkpoint, it is forbidden to bring a beverage that has been purchased in the secure zone onto a plane. The lack of logic is absolutely maddening: If somehow saboteurs were able to get a workable liquid explosive into the gate-side Burger King, and from there into the hands of a passenger accomplice, could they not do the same with other forms of explosives -- or for that matter with knives, guns, pipe bombs and bags of anthrax? Airlines have begun making public address announcements encouraging passengers to finish their drinks in time for boarding. The sight of businessmen, clustered at the mouth of the boarding bridge, gulping down coffee at final call was equally amusing and pathetic.

Just how invasive, expensive and pointless will this faux security have to get before the American public and airlines will grow some backbone and follow the lead of British and European airlines?

Me, I'm betting nothing less than compulsory strip searches and straightjackets for all passengers will do the trick.

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