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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