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31 July 2007

Airport security, mostly hype

As someone who flies to work, I have made some observations on flying and airport security which I thought I would share here. Having gone through the same routine over 50 times this year alone, you get to spot the subtle differences that are maybe lost on the more casual traveller.

First off, security.

Good security is when an independent 3rd party checks my bags. Like putting them in a scanner and deciding if I’m carrying anything inappropriate. Questionable security is trusting passengers to be honest. When you check in, you are asked the following questions:
1. Did you pack the bag yourself?
2. Could anyone have interfered with your bags?
3. Are you carrying anything for anyone else?
4. Are you carrying any sharp or dangerous items?

Whilst I answer honestly to the above, it is of course open to any would be terrorist to simply lie. I don’t really understand the point of the above questions. Like much of airport security it is simply taken as a given that passengers will do exactly as asked when questioned. This is just the routine for an airport, do it anywhere else and it’s just weird.

For instance, in most train stations you buy your ticket, go through the barrier and then wait on the platform to board the train. Not so at Great Victoria Street, Belfast where they act as if they are an airport departure lounge. There you buy the ticket, wait in an overcrowded concourse and then are only allowed to pass through the barrier when the ticket inspector has word that the train is approaching. Herding the passengers around like cattle in this way is exactly the same way they are treated at airports. Completely normal at an airport, completely weird at a train station. This isn’t a security issue at the train station, since many of the other stations on the same line are completely unmanned.

Next, as part of the check in procedure to fly you are asked to show Photo ID. For "security reasons" however the standards for acceptable ID between airlines vary enormously. For a UK domestic flight no passport is required yet for most people this is the preferred form of ID. Some opt for a driving licence and especially if you want to fly domestically, but don’t want your details added to the national ID register then this is a good alternative to the passport. However, despite this being for security reasons, EasyJet (the web’s favourite airline, see earlier blog about rip-off credit card charges) accept any valid form of photo ID they tell me. So an easily forged form of photo ID would be acceptable and it worries me that something done in the name of security could be so easily forged. If they took security more seriously, they might even list the acceptable forms of ID on their website but instead to find out you have to mail their premium rate contact centre, how unhelpful.

Then when you get to the security area you have to show a boarding card, however I am unsure why this is since there is no cross checking that I am indeed the person named on the boarding card. In the security section itself we have the new rules about taking liquids. Since the terrorist threat about liquid based bombs is now largely behind us, this focus on liquids to me seems inappropriate. For instance, I can take 5 100ml bottles but not a 200ml bottle. All bottles must be under 100ml, fit in a clear plastic re-sealable bag and be scanned separately. Yet, whilst the paranoia about liquids exists (I don’t carry any, makes my life simple) I am nonetheless allowed to carry a tie, belt, 10m of Ethernet cable, power supply cables, shoe laces and any number of items that could be misused on a plane. Yet, I can’t take a vacuum sealed bottle of water over 200ml, even if I take a sip first. These differences in security are never adequately explained, instead the travellers are herded around the airport like sheep expected to do exactly as they are told and not question why. The arbitrary limit of 100ml is bizarre since of course the 5 100ml containers could be combined post-security into 1 500ml bottle that was bought in a shop on the other side of security. Who are they trying to kid that this is effective?

Indeed I wonder why it is that at peak holiday season and in a queue of holidaymakers, there am I with my laptop bag being told to take it out of the bag. As if I don’t know already. Yes, I’m aware that’s what I have to do, yes I saw the notices and yes I would have taken it out already if there was more than 1 table to unload the bag onto and you give me more than 2 milliseconds to actually put my bag on it to empty the contents first. Yes, at an airport everyone feels obliged to give you verbal instructions. Why then do they bother with the written signs? Maybe the queues wouldn’t be so long if the tables before x-ray were bigger, giving people more time and space to unpack their bags, remove coats etc. Why also am I asked to remove my belt for x-ray – is this a mad plot to take over a plane using belts? If so, I wonder why no one questions the several metres of electrical cable I carry in my laptop bag. Typical “body search” stats are around 20-25% for random searches. Whilst there are still some people who don’t empty their pockets and set off the electrical scanners, the rest of us still get stopped randomly about one time in 5. You should also be prepared to take off your shoes a similar amount of times, something that evidently doesn’t occur to those people who fly in flip flops, have to remove them and go barefoot through the security scanners. You and several tens of thousands of people before you – enjoy the infection you pick up, never mind the dirty feet you’ll have until you reach your destination.

Next, we come to the gate. I frequently fly through gate 13 at Edinburgh. Well it’s actually called gate 12b for the stupid superstitions nitwits who wouldn’t fly out of a gate 13. As if isn’t obvious. Gate 12, Gate 12b, Gate 14. Doh!. Even Homer Simpson could figure that one out. Look, if people were actually that superstitious could some bright spark kindly explain when I recently flew on Friday 13th May that it was just as busy as any other Friday? Maybe some of us actually live in the 21st century rather than the dark ages?

So to the gate. Here they claim completely erroneously “please present your boarding pass and photo ID for final inspection”. Nope, wrong. What they should say is “please present your photo ID for final inspection together with your boarding pass”, because when you get into the actual plane they check your boarding pass again, THAT is the final inspection. The number of times I have been stuck on a queue on the stairs in the rain to get into a plane because someone has thought they didn’t need to present their boarding pass again you think the airports would at least be clear with their English.

On board the flight if you are not elderly, handicapped, pregnant, obese, a child, or a deportee under escort then please make your way to the emergency exit rows. The seats here (usually over wing) have approximately 50% more legroom than standard seats. Seats big enough for someone over 5 ft 8”. Seats big enough that you can actually sit in comfortably and not worry about DVT. Seats that you might stand a chance of being able to sleep in. However, despite the large notice pasted to the seat in front that you are in an emergency exit is it still mandatory for the cabin crew to remind me that the big door next to me is an emergency exit and have I read the very large notice 2 feet from my face? Well of course so, I didn’t have much choice did I, I could hardly miss it. More mandatory verbal instruction. However, I just wonder what the probability would be of me actually needing to reach up, remove the top panel in the door and carefully pull the lever whilst holding the handle underneath the window so that I could carefully ease the door into the cabin at a careful angle before jettisoning it outside in the event of an emergency in my airbus A318. My experience reading about emergencies is that sitting on top of tens of thousands of tons of flammable fuel I am more likely to be burned to the crispiest of crispy things before I’ve even got as far as thinking about undoing my seatbelt. The probability of ever needing the knowledge that the cabin crew have forced upon me regarding the door operation is, well, pretty small. Especially as the emergency exit door is in fact over the fuel tank.

I turn now to the other nonsense regarding airline security. What is the great mystery that surrounds walking under a wing that for our safety we are not allowed to do so if we disembark from the rear of the aircraft? Why is this never explained? Why is it that the cabin lights must be dimmed for takeoff and landing and why is it that I can quite happily fall asleep during the safety procedure but for reasons of security I have to have my window shutter left open for takeoff and landing? Does the crew never think that passengers might be interested in an explanation for these bizarre rituals and customs? Perhaps these rituals might even be a bit more relevant than the likelihood of ever needing to know how to operate the emergency door. Curiously, now that I am fully aware on how to open the emergency door, the one thing neither the flight crew nor the instructions tell me is when I should open it. I am naturally assuming that mid flight I can’t just feel a bit adventurous and decide to open it on a whim for some fresh air. I am also naturally assuming that there’s some equivalent announcement such as the one after landing when they say “cabin doors to manual”, but in all the safety announcements I’ve sat through in the emergency row not one person has explained to me how I will know when I should open the door and what mechanism allows it to be opened. Even if the flight crew said “in an emergency then you must open the door immediately” it would be something, but no. Perhaps if I am in an emergency and not burnt to the crispiest of crisp things first I might find out.

Once those of us sitting in the emergency exit rows have been instructed on the contents of the safety sheet staring us in the face, it is the turn of the rest of the plane to get the safety briefing, informing us of the safety features of the plane, the oxygen masks, seat belts, life jackets (they also carry life cots for babies don’t you know!), pull the toggle to inflate and so on. Don’t forget your seat must be in the upright position with the armrests down and the tray secured. All very well, but if it’s so important why not explain it properly. Having useful instructions like this available somewhere in the airport could actually make people interested in the whys and wherefores of the safety briefing rather than most of them falling asleep before it has started.

And so we inevitably turn to the nonsense of the mobile phone ban. Those of you still living under the mistaken belief that mobile phones are banned on planes for security reasons, where have you been hiding the last few years? Let me recommend this article as a good place to start on why a mobile ban is silly at a purely technical level. However, let me expand that further by making the following comments:

1. If the signal from a phone could interfere with the equipment on the plane, why do they let any mobile phones on the plane at all? They don’t allow nail clippers, plastic forks and other devices that would stretch the abilities of a ninja warrior to cause trouble on a plane, yet allow a mobile phone that could be left on, used in the toilet and act at a distance to crash the plane. You tell me whether it makes more sense to ban a device like that or a plastic fork.
2. If the signal from the phone is that dangerous, can someone tell me what protects the plane’s electronics from the constantly broadcasting signal from the mobile phone mast that clearly penetrates the aeroplane’s body? Especially as so many people have misgivings about living near mobile phone masts but not about actually using a phone themselves every day. They believe the mast is more dangerous, if the airlines have information to the contrary maybe they should jump in when people start opposing the building of masts near schools etc.
3. If mobile phones could interfere with electronics, surely they would install a Bluetooth receiver that picks up broadcasting signals since these are more than likely coming from mobile phones left on in the plane. On most flights I’ve been on, there are at least 4 signals within range inside the plane. Typical Bluetooth networks often have the phone make and/or the person’s name in them so it wouldn’t take a lot of effort to identify some offenders. “Could John with the Nokia 6280 please turn off his phone please” could be entertaining on the aircraft speakers, if security with phones was taken as serious as we are led to believe.
4. If mobile phones did cause problems with ground masts and roaming to multiple masts, which is the most common believable technical problem, the people living under flight paths and near airports would live in a perpetual mobile fog. With the figures above from Bluetooth, my guess is that at least 10% of people just put their phones on silent, that being the case as the plane takes off the phone begins to roam to multiple masts and anyone one ground using one of those masts could have problems. I have never heard of anyone reporting such a problem. Secondly, if airlines and mobile phone companies took airline security with mobile phones seriously they would be able to tell who the offenders were. Something along the lines of “at 7:48am your phone was in the reception area covered by Springfield international airport, then roamed to three masts before disappearing out of reception. The positional information indicates you were travelling at 150mph and regained reception near Donutsville International airport 200 miles away 40 minutes later, 2 minutes before a plane from Springfield landed and we have good reason therefore to believe your phone was left on in the plane. As such we are fining you for not complying with airline security regulations.” This does not happen. Why?
5. Why are mobile phones safe to use in hospitals but not on a plane? If the electronics on a plane are more sensitive than those on a hospital ward shouldn’t we be complaining to plane manufacturers to build airplanes that are more robust against actual malicious electronic attack?

Next, why do we assume terrorists are stupid when plainly they are not. These are the sort of people who operate covert international networks for years undetected, who planned the 11th September raids, who plan and make sophisticated devices and are capable or remaining at large years after their pictures and arrest warrants are posted. Anyone seen Bin Laden lately? So what is our reaction? There was a shoe bomber threat so we have random shoe x-rays. There was a threat about liquid bombs and so we now have liquid limits. There was a car drive into Glasgow airport and so Edinburgh airport has concrete blocks at the doors. I think the one thing we should assume is that a clever terrorist is unlikely to repeat the same tactic twice, meanwhile the rest of the law abiding population has to deal with increasing levels of somewhat questionable security.

Don't just take my word for it, the increased security and delays are causing queues at check in desks which are now considered by MPs as a risk in their own right.

This is no longer just the opinion of a bored frequent flier, nor it is just the opinion of a few MPs in grey suits, it is also the opinion of the airline industry. The International Air Transport Association's head has said that the UK has
unique screening policies inconvenience passengers with no improvement in security.


Give the guy a medal. Now, what are we going to do to have effective security that not only treats passengers like adults but is in fact secure and which doesn't assume terrorists are stupid and grind airports to a standstill?
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