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Sunday 27 December, 2009
A quick note to bring you up to date on new
security issues associated with air travel, and to ask for your
As you probably know, on 25 December a
Nigerian national on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit attempted to
detonate a bomb about 20 minutes prior to the plane landing in Detroit.
The bomb was apparently a mixture of a
powder and a liquid, and rather than exploding, 'fizzled' - bursting
into flames and setting fire to the terrorist, his clothing, and the
side of the airplane cabin. Pro-active passengers detained the
terrorist and extinguished the flames. The plane landed safely and
the Nigerian is now in federal custody.
Interestingly, it seems the explosive used,
PETN, is the same explosive that Richard Reid, the infamous shoe-bomber,
also tried to use. It can be a formidable explosive if properly
manufactured and is somewhat unstable as well. The passengers on
both flights are fortunate that the explosive failed to detonate.
How did the explosive get through security?
And what measures will be taken to protect us against this risk in the
Indeed, there's a third question as well -
Abdulfarouk Umar Muttalab himself (the terrorist in question) - get
through security. He was known to US and international security
forces as a 'person of interest' and his own father had reported his
growing alarm about his son's growing Islamic extremism to the
authorities in Nigeria.
That's a relevant and important question to
ask, because there are two major components to aviation security -
detecting/preventing terrorists from attempting to do bad things before
they do them, and of course the detecting dangerous materials and
preventing their carriage onto flights. In this case, both parts
of the process completely failed.
As for how Muttalab got the explosives onto
the plane, that unfortunately is tremendously simple. The metal
detectors that we walk through detect neither powders nor liquids, they
only detect, ummm, metal. So anyone wearing baggy clothing can
conceal pints or pounds of liquid or explosive on their person with the
greatest of ease, which makes the whole charade of the limitations on
liquids just that - a charade.
The easiest/best way to conceal liquids or
solids on one's person? Well, there are plenty of good ways, but
for the best, I can't help thinking of a buxom seeming woman with a bra
that is padded with explosives - there is almost no chance that any
screener is ever going to demand a woman remove her bra and inspect the
So, yet again, this incident reveals the
nonsense and bluff that is current airport security. Most of
all, this is not a sudden surprising revelation. Those of us 'in
the know' (and that includes all of you because I've written about this
before) have known for some time that the metal detectors are completely
useless when it comes to detecting explosives. Yes, they'll detect
guns and knives, but no, they won't detect explosives.
There are only two practical ways to detect
explosives concealed on a person - by using the new special X-ray booths
that 'see through' clothing to reveal what is underneath a person's
clothing, or by physically patting a person down (and I'm not sure how
effective a pat down is in terms of revealing what may be concealed in a
woman's cleavage or bra padding).
So Muttalab was far from fiendishly clever.
In actual fact, he - like Reid before him - was incredibly stupid.
Neither of them managed to detonate an unstable high explosive that
would have been likely capable of destroying the plane if properly
Which brings us to the last part of this
note. What can we expect of airport security next time we fly?
At this stage there are still evolving responses to the issue, with
various rumors and facts indistinguishably floating around out there.
Here's a mix of both :
More of the restrictions apply to
international flights in to the US than to flights within the US or
departing the US, but expect some amounts of these restrictions to apply
to domestic flights too, and a generally increased level of alert
everywhere in the world.
Increased inspection of carry-on items
: In other words, expect to take longer to get through security
due to more time being taken with each person, with a greater percentage
of secondary inspections. The wisdom of this is far from apparent.
Limitations on carry-ons : This
is stupid - if a person can hide pounds and pints of explosive on their
person, who cares about carry-on restrictions? But it is an easy
thing for the authorities to do, and apparently some airports and
airlines are already restricting passengers to only one item of
carry-on. And that too is a stupid restriction, because that one
item might be a huge over-sized rollaboard bag, whereas the next
passenger, with a handbag and small briefcase will be told that they
have to check one of the two items. But anticipate the possibility
of only being allowed to take one physical item with you.
Apparently at least four airlines are now limiting passengers to one
item only on flights in to the US : Alaska Airlines, Air Canada,
WestJet and British Airways, and my guess is this will flow to other
airlines just as soon as they call an executive in from vacation to
approve the policy change.
More physical pat-down searches :
There's a greater chance you might be required to submit to a physical
pat-down search, even if the metal detector doesn't sound an alarm.
If you're wearing form fitting clothing that shows you're less likely to
be concealing anything, you might reduce your chances of being selected,
but if you're in bulky baggy ill fitting clothing, your chances are
probably going to increase.
Secondary searches at the gate :
Expect additional random searches of yourself and your carry-on items
when boarding flights.
Restrictions on movement/activity on the
flight : This one's a real kicker.
Joe Brancatelli reports that Air
Canada has stated, today, 'New rules imposed by the U.S. Transportation
Security Administration also limit on-board activities by customers and
crew in U.S. airspace that may adversely impact on-board service.
Among other things, during the final hour of flight customers must
remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have
personal belongings or other items on their laps'.
The logic of this is so asininely stupid as
to beggar belief. Apparently the TSA believes that terrorists
would only want to blow up a plane in the 60 minutes prior to its
landing. Why not 65 minutes prior to landing? Or 90 minutes?
etc etc. So they want to restrict us to our seats - no bathroom
trips allowed - and not allow us to do anything at all. No
listening to your iPod, indeed, it seems you can't even read a book.
Just sit there, motionless. Does that sound like fun to you?
And does it make you feel safer?
To answer the rhetorical question, the 60
minute period probably represents the maximum time the TSA feel they can
force us to sit, motionless, without arousing too much passenger
protest. So it really isn't about security at all; it is simply
the TSA pushing the limits of what they can get away with. One
gets the strong feeling that if they had their way, we'd all sit
handcuffed to our seats for the entire length of all flights (and, who
knows, it may yet come to that!).
Who knows what else might be put in place,
and who knows how long these knee jerk and largely useless (but
potentially massively inconveniencing) measures will remain in place.
And that's where I'm asking for your help. Please
me know your experiences when flying over the next week or so.
Were security lines longer than normal? Did you experience any
extra restrictions or security? Or was everything normal?
And was your experience on a domestic US flight, an international flight
in to the US, or some other type of flight?
I'll advise us all of people's experiences,
either in the next newsletter on Friday 1 January or sooner if there are
significant issues to report. As for me, I'm considering canceling
my flights to CES in Las Vegas, early January. With the current
rampant hyperactive security lunacy, I think I'd rather stay at home.
How long will this all last? Well,
we're still removing our shoes every time we go through US airport
security, and we're still having to limit our carry-on liquids, so who
knows how long whatever the latest new procedures may remain in place.
Until Friday and the new year, please enjoy safe travels