Airport Security Theatre: A play in two parts

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The airport security situation remains a mess for many passengers. We’ve heard of new rules being tested by the TSA for domestic US travel (e.g. books removed from carry-on bags for suddenly being too thick for the x-ray machines to see through) but the two most ridiculous bits to me come from foreign airports.

Act 1 – Abu Dhabi

Effective immediately departures from Abu Dhabi to the United States are no longer subject to the large electronics ban enacted in March.

The move comes as the airport declares it is compliant with the newly revised security policies laid out by US authorities. These new rules affect more than just the 10 airports initially flagged for restrictions but compliance should be relatively easy to achieve in most cases, especially in airports where US pre-clearance is available. Indeed, that angle was always strange about Abu Dhabi’s inclusion in the ban. Passengers boarding flights to the US in Abu Dhabi pass through US immigration and customs while still in the UAE. They also must pass through security screening that meets TSA standards.

By applying the electronics ban at Abu Dhabi the US government essentially admitted that either the rules are not being applied consistently in general or that there are problems with the internal standards for security checkpoints. The move to clear that up this weekend helps clear up those challenges for at least one airport. It will be interesting to see what happens at the other nine.

Act 2 – Italy

The rule against carrying larger liquids through a security checkpoint is nearing its 11th birthday (thanks, underwear bomber!) and to many travelers, it remains both bizarre and annoying. It is even harder to reconcile as the number of exceptions, mostly for medical reasons, grows.

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The risk of carrying these larger containers through the checkpoint is mitigated thanks to the use of newer scanner systems that can verify the contents. So, why not use these scanners for everything? Like many things it is all about money. New scanners are expensive and adjusting the passenger flow through security lines to handle screening all the bottles would slow things down or require increased staffing. That all adds up to reasons or excuses to skip the idea, unless you happen to be in Genoa, Italy.

The local airport authority teamed up with a local charity, Flying Angels, and the security crew to allow containers of pesto up to 500g through the checkpoint, subject to additional screening and payment of a fee. The fee is treated as a donation to Flying Angels and earns the passenger a sticker for their pesto container. At the security checkpoint the stickered tub is scanned in the specialized machine and, because it is a condiment and not a security risk, allowed on to the plane.

This is great, of course, for the passengers bringing home a souvenir and willing to pay the extra euro to do so. But if it can be done here and at an almost reasonable price that furthers the view that the issue is more about money than anything else. And now more than a decade on the fact that airports and governments have chosen to not invest some of the billions paid by passengers in security screening fees in things like this to cure pain points is most unfortunate.

Encore – The books

The reported need to remove books from carry-on bags for additional screening is one of those things that could be either completely innocuous or absolutely horrible. The harmless version of the story is that the books show up as thick blobs on the screener’s display and getting more detail is important enough to justify pulling them out to clarify the details. The problem comes from trusting that’s all the TSA will be doing.

The organization has shown a history of questionable behavior around things like flashcards with Arabic writing on them and other racial profiling scenarios. Sure, they’re not supposed to do that stuff and maybe it’s not mandated from the top. But if enough of the agents feel that bigotry inside then the potential exists for this to turn into a mess very quickly. And the TSA has definitely shown a reluctance to address that sort of issue internally.

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6 Comments

  1. IAN MARTIN

    Regarding Act 2 quote The rule against carrying larger liquids through a security checkpoint is nearing its 11th birthday (thanks, underwear bomber!)

    The liquid ban has nothing whatsoever to do with the underwear bomber. It is in fact to do with the plot to blow up 7 trans Atlantic airliners using liquids using Oasis drinks bottles.

    • Seth Miller
      Author

      Ah, yes…the underwear bomber is why we take out shoes off. Another idiocy of “security” that we have the ability to screen for far more easily but don’t bother investing in because putting on this show is more fun.

      Being on the other side of the world when the liquid ban went into effect was especially annoying. But caused by different idiots.

  2. Kevin

    Richard Reed (shoe bomber) is in fact responsible for us removing shoes of all design including crocs. Little or no thought is often evident in implementing this measure; and similarly with the carriage of liquids in the cabin of aircraft. However; duty free is thumbs up as it is obviously void of insider threat. Back around the 1980s there were concerns about IEDs in Cigarette Packets (The Marlboro Man). I ask, can one fit an IED in a cigarette packet that cud do similar damage to one inserted in a laptop or book?
    I’m sure the experts will have an answer.

    • Seth Miller
      Author

      But is duty free actually void of threat? Or does it just appear that way? Sure, there is a background check on airport employees to get the SIDA badge but suggesting they are without risk is myopic.

      What about the time I had a flight diversion that required all passengers to leave the secure area of a small airport on a military base. The ground staff kept us hydrated but as we passed back through security we had to surrender our bottled water only to be given new bottles as we passed to the other side, all from the same pallet of plastic bottles. And I know for a fact no screening was done of the water as I watched it roll through to the “secure” side of the building.

      Part of the problem is the presumption that there really is a risk all the time and that a full screening of everyone everywhere always is necessary and useful. Even the 40ish idiots in the USA who weekly try to carry a handgun through a TSA checkpoint are almost certainly just idiots, not threats to aviation security. And yet we continue to invest in new and ridiculous policies rather than in systems that can directly and easily address the pressing issues. I don’t mind spending money on security. But much of the billions spent in the past 16 years has been misguided. That sucks. And I have no problem calling attention to such.

  3. Kevin John Luke

    I suspect my comments were deemed unacceptable for publishing.
    As one with 30+ years experience in Global Avsec I endeavoured to submit realistic input.
    My intent was not to directly reflect incorrect information but to focus on fact and possibilities.
    Thank for the opportunity to comment; and certainly I now know to refrain from commenting in the future.
    Kind regards.
    Kevin

    • Seth Miller
      Author

      Or, you know, that the anti-spam system holds all messages from new commenters to the site and we sleep from time to time before releasing them. Less than 4 hours in queue isn’t so bad, I’d say. 😉

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