New draconian TSA rules do little to improve aviation safety

TSA in action. Photo by Dan Paluska

President Obama has ordered a review of air transportation security screening processes. The failure of current procedures to stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from bringing an explosive device on board Northwest Airline’s Flight 253, apparently designed to bring down the plane on Christmas Day, highlights the need for effective, worthwhile security procedures and rules.

Amazingly, it turns out that Abdulmutallab’s father, Umaru Abdulmutallab, a respected Nigerian banker was so concerned about his son, he went to the American embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, to warn US embassy officials he feared his son had been “radicalized,” and while he had no knowledge of any of his son’s specific plans, he didn’t want anyone hurt.

Even so, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano said on ABC’s “This Week,” investigators did not have enough information to keep Abdulmutallab from boarding the flight to Detroit, and that the system worked as it should have.

Was she serious?

Wasn’t there at least enough concern and information to require a pat-down search of Abdulmutallab prior to boarding. Coming home from Paris this fall I got a pat-down along with most every other passenger in our gate area.

Even though the system supposedly worked, DHS and TSA (Transportation Security Administration) have reacted with new draconian security rules and asked countries with flights to the US to heighten their security. We don’t yet know if the same rules will apply to future US domestic flights, or if the new rules will be extended past their apparent December 30th expiration.

Every passenger on flights to the US will be subject to a secondary search at security checkpoints. At the gate area prior to boarding, secondary searches are mandatory. That includes a pat-down search and a hand search of all carry-on. At the gate, security personnel are to ensure the liquids, aerosols, and gels restrictions are strictly adhered to.

This will add time to security checks, and especially boarding, but a pat-down check could have stopped Abdulmutallab. A hand search of carry-on enables TSA to use their explosive detection equipment on carry-ons, and better locate concealed banned items. If done well, the inconvenience might be worth it, but this rule also appears to eliminate passengers boarding with drinks, some foods, and some duty-free items such as perfumes and alcohol, purchased in the secure area of airports. This would take us almost all the way back to the total liquid ban prior to September, 2006. The need for that ban was debunked years ago.

All passengers will be limited to one carry-on bag per person traveling to the US.

I assume that this is to make security and gate lines move faster. I don’t think it will increase security one iota. You don’t need two carry-ons to sneak explosives or weapons aboard a plane.

This is much more than an inconvenience for many, with no security boost for anyone. Airlines handle checked luggage roughly, and have no liability for lost or damaged valuables. If you’re a photographer like me, or a technician, for example, whose expensive equipment, as well as few personal valuables and items, medications, etc. which you can’t afford to have lost, damaged or stolen, won’t fit in a single bag, you must make an impossible choice, and one which doesn’t improve passenger safety.

One hour before landing, all passenger will be required to stow all their carry-on items, including electronic devices, magazines, newspapers, books, childrens’ toys, etc. and remain seated for the rest of the flight. Passengers will not be permitted to access their carry-on luggage, hold or have anything in their lap during this time. No food or drink will be permitted.

If you’ve been thoroughly searched before boarding, will stowing these and the airlines’ blankets and pillows early, actually improve safety? Does TSA really think terrorists won’t think of blowing up their explosive devices during the first hours of flight?

This will be a real hardship for many passengers with a zero gain in safety. Landing delays, and gate delays could push the hour to be much longer. Many older people like me take heart medications which cause us to frequent bathrooms. It’s essential to hydrate during flights, so that need is accentuated. Taking away toys, games, food, and drink for an hour or more from tired toddlers could result in havoc and ear-splitting screaming, making the last flight hour impossible for everyone in the plane, and for what?

We need a common sense approach to airline security, grounded in reality, not “knee-jerk” reactions grounded in shortsightedness. It seems to me the inmates are still running the asylum known as DHS/TSA.

Security expert Bruce Schneier says, “Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.”

He’s right, and these new rules haven’t changed his mind, nor mine.

  • John

    Actually Ned … the one piece of equipment that would have stopped this attack is the one that your organization campaigned against. This attack clearly showed that non-metalic items hidden on the body can be as dangerous, if not more, than the metalic ones that the metal detectors can find.
    So congratulations…. Your organization campaigned against and got banned the one piece of security equipment that could have stopped this attack. For once, TSA was doing what you always complain they don’t. They analyzed the threat and tried to put in place equipment in neutralize that threat. Interestingly, they stated in their case for full body scanners just a situation like this (and yes I realize that this flight orginated outside the US but we can’t enforce the use of equipment that we have banned for “civil rights”). you organization have managed to do nothing for travelers except make us less safe and then you don’t have the common decency to even post a note that says “we we wrong and for once TSA was right.”

    Thanks for making me less safe. Don’t expect my check.

  • Ned Levi

    John, I appreciate your comment, even though we don’t see eye to eye on this issue.

    You are incorrect about your statement that TSA’s program to install and use “full body scanning” has been banned. In fact, their program is being implemented as rapidy as originally planned.

    Today there are 40 “full body scanning” devices in 19 airports across the country. TSA will be installing 150 more next year. That’s $52,500,000 worth of the scanners (includes installation and the room needed for observation of the results) already planned.

    So, clearly our small voice hasn’t slowed down TSA’s implementation of the “full body scan” equipment one bit, but you’re right, as currently proposed, I’m against their implementation, as are many other Americans. I think our objections can be overcome with some reasonable safeguards in the procedures used to utilize them in the country’s overall transportation security strategy. I don’t know why TSA hasn’t done anything about that, but it may be because they currently have no head of the agency and therefore a lack of leadership to get the job done. Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) continues to hold up the approval of Erroll Southers, a former FBI special agent and a counterterrorism expert, who has the unanimous bipartisan blessing of 2 Senate committees. Many think he might actually bring some sanity to the TSA asylum.

    Even so, you can’t blame the lack of “full body scanning” on this incident (we can’t force the Netherlands to use such equipment in its airports) and you can’t say this is the one piece of equipment which could have stopped this incident or ones like it. A simple pat-down search would have discovered the explosives sewn into the man’s underwear. Properly red flagging this man due to a host of factors would have caused secondary screening which would have stopped him, and caused a revocation of his visa. The UK denied him a visa and told our State Department, but they failed to act.

    You’re really not going to send that check? (LOL)

  • Frank

    We need a common sense approach to airline security, grounded in reality, not “knee-jerk” reactions grounded in shortsightedness.

    I AGREE, That’s why I made this statement when we were discussing the “full body” scanner.

    frank November 29, 2009 at 3:23 pm
    Hapgood November 28, 2009 at 10:14 pm
    In reality, it’s an ADDITIONAL hassle that offers no improvement in convenience (and questionable improvement in security, which we’re supposed to accept on faith).

    Mark my words, the next threat to US aviation will be bio-terrorism. We need to “see” what people are carrying on their bodies, as well as what they are carrying onto the plane and checking into it’s cargo bins.
    Yeah, Hapgood, let’s keep using that 1960’s technology for METAL devices. apparently, to you, that makes us safe enough.

  • Frank

    I assume that this is to make security and gate lines move faster. I don’t think it will increase security one iota. You don’t need two carry-ons to sneak explosives or weapons aboard a plane.
    This is much more than an inconvenience for many, with no security boost for anyone. Airlines handle checked luggage roughly, and have no liability for lost or damaged valuables. If you’re a photographer like me, or a technician, for example, whose expensive equipment, as well as few personal valuables and items, medications, etc. which you can’t afford to have lost, damaged or stolen, won’t fit in a single bag, you must make an impossible choice, and one which doesn’t improve passenger safety.

    Interesting, how you reason yourself out of having to go to the baggage claim area versus security employees having to screen “fewer bags”, allowing them more then a few seconds per bag.

  • Pingback: Tweets that mention New draconian TSA rules do little to improve aviation safety --

  • Allison

    These restrictions aren’t about making us safer. It’s about keeping us scared.

  • Pat

    FINALLY – a common sense article on the subject!!
    Have you thought to forward this article to the WH?
    You obviously have more sense than the TSA!!

  • Hapgood

    At least I am encouraged to see that everything I’ve read so far about the “heightened security” has included criticism of the TSA’s actions, questioning the benefit, reasoning, effectiveness, and (of course) inconsistent implementation of the restrictions. Previously, an “incident” like this would have led to fear, panic, and a desire to sacrifice more of our freedom and convenience to the TSA in exchange for vague promises of “enhanced security.” I haven’t seen anyone praising the TSA for their quick reaction, or claiming that the new measures make them feel any safer or reassured. (I suspect the TSA’s blog includes a glowing propaganda statement written by their resident PR flaks trumpeting the rapidity and effectiveness of the TSA’s response, but I have given up reading that blog because it’s too upsetting.)

    I’m encouraged because it indicates that people are no longer just unquestioningly accepting what the TSA does as “necessary” or “effective.” While the TSA itself remains immune to any form of oversight or accountability, the fact that criticism is so open and widespread immediately after a “terrorist incident” suggests that the day when the TSA’s “inmates” are called to account for and justify the cost and effectiveness is getting that much closer.

    Meanwhile, the only thing we can do about the TSA’s “‘knee-jerk’ reactions grounded in shortsightedness” is to avoid flying whenever that’s possible.

  • Joah Taylor

    New TSA rules will cost airline companies a lot of money. That’s why I drive to Orlando for a vacation.

    My Advice: When you decide to go somewhere on holidays, vacations, funerals, reunions, business trips, etc., drive your car or take a bus or train.

  • John Tinnian

    I think you’re missing the point. The reason for new knee-jerk rules when something like this happens is not to improve safety. In reality, the new rules are for PR purposes only. DHS/TSA wants people to think that they are keeping everyone safe. So they come up with new rules so they can say “see, we are doing things to make everyone safe.”

    Of course, anyone with half a brain realizes that such new rules don’t improve security and only result in making flying a pain in the neck for everyone. But that doesn’t matter to DHS/TSA. As you said, the inmates are running the asylum and they are spending more effort trying to win the PR war than in trying to figure out how to actually improve security.

  • Frank

    With the exception of John, most (predictably) just complained about the TSA. Reality check, people. a BOMB got onto a United States carrier heading for the United States with EASE.

    WHAT ACTIONS should be taken to prevent this from happening again? anyone?

  • Hapgood

    Ned, indeed this incident indeed points out multiple failures in the systems that are supposed to protect our Homeland from people like the latest bomber. But none of those failures occurred at TSA checkpoints! Nonetheless, the response was for the TSA to rush some half-baked restrictions into place, as if the new hassles that just about everyone can see are absurd are supposed to convince the public that the government is “on top of it.” Or maybe it’s intended as a distraction from the real failures? Either way, it looks like people aren’t buying it, and are not hesitating to subject the TSA to well-deserved ridicule. And that’s a good thing.

    As for the virtual strip search, Allah has clearly answered the TSA’s prayers by providing a needed dose of FEAR that, by right, should instantly silence (and properly humble) everyone who objected to full-body scanners on “privacy” grounds. The scanners probably would have found the underwear bomb, and finally given the TSA’s PR flaks a genuine “success” to crow about. But I suspect even that might not instill enough confidence in the TSA to silence the objections.

    The strip search might be more acceptable if we could be assured that the loss of privacy and dignity will buy us actual security. The strip search scanner would have caught the underwear bomber only if the vigilant officers in the remote hidey-holes who spend their days peering at our nude bodies do their jobs effectively. Unfortunately, the TSA’s consistent track record in audits and undercover tests gives no reason to believe that they’d do any better with more intrusive inspection than they’re doing now.

    The fact is that anything that actually could provide effective protection would be so costly and intrusive as to make air travel itself impractical. For example, the TSA could require all passengers to arrive four hours early for a full security inspection that includes a full “dump search” inspection of all belongings. Then the passenger strips naked in front of an officer, who conducts a limited body cavity search (similar to what prisoners undergo) and hands the passenger a prison-style jump suit (without pockets) which is worn until arrival at the final destination airport. The only belongings a passenger may carry are identification papers, tickets, boarding passes, and perhaps enough cash to buy replacements for any lost items, all in a clear plastic bag. Everything else is checked baggage. If you have valuable items with which you aren’t willing to trust the checked baggage handling, you’ll have to FedEx them separately.

    That regime would probably reduce the risk of a terrorist attack to as close to zero as humanly possible– assuming that cargo and the airport itself are secure (another major flaw in the current “security theater” approach). But how many people would choose to fly if that’s what flying involved? The balance of hassle and security does need to be addressed decisively, but not by TSA bureaucrats acting in secret with no accountability for the effectiveness of what they impose.

  • Frank

    Isnt it interesting that these TERRORIST ATTACKS on airlines, the one last week and 9-11-01, happened almost within the first year after a (new) PRESIDENT was elected into office?


  • Frank

    The strip search might be more acceptable if we could be assured that the loss of privacy and dignity will buy us actual security. The strip search scanner would have caught the underwear bomber only if the vigilant officers in the remote hidey-holes who spend their days peering at our nude bodies do their jobs effectively. Unfortunately, the TSA’s consistent track record in audits and undercover tests gives no reason to believe that they’d do any better with more intrusive inspection than they’re doing now.

    While, you’re whining……………the TSA:

    TSA Week at a Glance: 12/14/09 to 12/21/09]

    21 passengers were arrested after investigations of suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents
    37 firearms found at checkpoints
    3 artfully concealed prohibited items found at checkpoints
    37 incidents that involved a checkpoint closure, terminal evacuation or sterile area breach

  • Pingback: New year’s resolutions: aviation safety and service()

  • John Palys

    My family has decided to stop flying. We will not stand naked before our masters.

    “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. ” Ben Franklin

    This is just another contrived measure to see how far they ca push us into being controlled by the state. Wake up America!!

    Fed up in Chico, CA

  • Pingback: TSA makes positive use of intelligence, but clings to technological dependence()