Friday, January 01, 2010

Institutional inanity and mindless security theater in post-Christmas US airlines

I suppose I'm lucky I haven't tried to fly anywhere since Nigerian underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an international flight over Detroit on Christmas day. The piece below from the Economist is only one of the reports I have been reading that describe, in the Economist writer's words, "the insanity that has taken over America's airport security thinking" in response to that foiled attempt. Clearly, the feeling is that they have to do something right away, whether or not it completely makes sense, so there has been a blizzard of new rules:
[The] rule keeping passengers in their seats for the final hour (as if terrorists couldn't move their appointment with eternity up an hour) is just part of the problem. [JW: To be fair, I suppose the moment when you most want to avoid having a plane blown up is when it's coming in for a landing at a major airport. Nevertheless....] There are other absurdities: one rule limits the number of carry-ons that international passengers can bring on board (because apparently there are no terrorists whose plans can accommodate packing light). [....]

One particularly egregious regulation forbids flight crew from mentioning any landmarks the plane might be passing over (as if terrorists make plans that rely on announcements from the flight crew.) The "don't mention the Grand Canyon" rule is particularly breathtaking in its stupidity. After all, there's nothing to stop a terrorist from using a combination of pre-flight Google Earth prep and advanced in-flight window-based technology as a substitute for a helpful flight attendant.
One colleague e-mailed them about how this rule works in practice:
Airlines aren't supposed to show that map thing anymore, so you can't track your progress across the Atlantic, and they don't tell you how long you have left in your journey. My neighbour, in the window seat yesterday, flagged down a stewardess to ask whether the land below us was Greenland, the stewardess told him that she wasn't allowed to tell him anymore!
=> The Economist writer suggests, correctly, that Jeffrey Goldberg's post on "The Maddening Stupidity of the TSA Security Burlesque" is worth a read. Also an earlier post of Goldberg's, "More Magical Thinking from the TSA":
I will repeat a couple of points I've made before:

[....] Unless and until the TSA begins invasive body searches, most measures taken at security checkpoints in U.S. airports should be considered mere security theater. We now have instances of Muslim terrorists hiding bombs in their rectums, and, apparently, having bombs sewn into their underwear. While it is true that bomb-detection technology is always improving, so too are the methods of bomb-smuggling and manufacture used by terrorists.

On this latter point, I recognize, of course, that we won't soon, or ever, be experiencing cavity searches at American airports. So [...] why bother with the rest of the security-checkpoint nonsense?

As Bruce Schneier has pointed out, the only two innovations since 9/11 that seem to work against terrorists on planes are hardened cockpit doors (which are irrelevant if the terrorist is simply trying to blow up the plane) and the willingness of passengers to fight back, which is what worked in this most recent case. The rest is silliness that serves only to torture passengers with bladder issues and make air travel even more unpleasant than it already is.
=> Ditto for a post by another Atlantic blogger, Megan McCardle. I confess that I rarely agree with McCardle, but a post she wrote on Monday, "TSA Fails to Intercept Terrorist; We Pay the Price," hit the right note.
I don't know what annoys me more: Janet Napolitano saying "the system worked" when what she means is "the system failed, but smart passengers proved that the system is unnecessary", or the moronic new rules the TSA is apparently putting into place in order to "prevent" future such occurances. [....] Every time they miss something, we have to give up more liberty. [....]

I cannot imagine where this is going to end. No, actually, I can imagine all too well: with passengers checking all luggage and flying in specially issued hospital gowns. And when some enterprising terrorist manages to sneak through that cordon by swallowing his explosives, the TSA will tell us that "the system works" and start the cavity searches.
=> Bruce Schneier, who appears to be the top security guru for both Goldberg and McCardle, got it right:
I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks.
--Jeff Weintraub
==============================
The Economist
December 29, 2009 | 22:10
Obama: "mix of human and systemic failures"
Gulliver (Business Travel)

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama issued his most detailed statement yet on the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253. Mr Obama didn't mince words. The fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man, could even attempt to blow up a plane was unacceptable, Mr Obama said. The president argued that a "mix of human and systemic failures" allowed Mr Abdulmutallab to board the plane despite already being on the radar of US intelligence agencies. Mr Obama promised he will "insist on accountability at every level" for the mistakes.

It's good that the administration is taking responsibility for this situation. Mr Obama said little, however, about the insanity that has taken over America's airport security thinking since Mr Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up flight 253 last Friday. Perhaps that's because Mr Obama doesn't have to go through security or sit strapped to his seat during the final hour of flight (one new rules prohibits passengers from leaving their seats or having anything on their laps during the final hour of flight). The president flies on Air Force One.

But just because the president isn't explaining the reasoning behind the new rules doesn't mean we can't talk about them. After all, the rule keeping passengers in their seats for the final hour (as if terrorists couldn't move their appointment with eternity up an hour) is just part of the problem. There are other absurdities: one rule limits the number of carry-ons that international passengers can bring on board (because apparently there are no terrorists whose plans can accommodate packing light). Another institutes pat-downs that avoid the crotch (where Mr Abdulmutallab supposedly hid his bomb).

One particularly egregious regulation forbids flight crew from mentioning any landmarks the plane might be passing over (as if terrorists make plans that rely on announcements from the flight crew.) The "don't mention the Grand Canyon" rule is particularly breathtaking in its stupidity. After all, there's nothing to stop a terrorist from using a combination of pre-flight Google Earth prep and advanced in-flight window-based technology as a substitute for a helpful flight attendant.

A colleague who just flew from London to DC emails about the practical implications of this rule:
Airlines aren't supposed to show that map thing anymore, so you can't track your progress across the Atlantic, and they don't tell you how long you have left in your journey. My neighbour, in the window seat yesterday, flagged down a stewardess to ask whether the land below us was Greenland, the stewardess told him that she wasn't allowed to tell him anymore.
The best place to go for more about this farce is the blog of The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who takes exactly the right tone in addressing the madness. Here's Mr Goldberg responding to the news that the new rules may "sunset" this Thursday:
By the way, these rules, the Washington Post says, are in effect only until December 30th. In January, you see, the jihad is over. That, or the TSA needs until December 30th to properly promulgate a formal set of inane new rules, to add to the inane rules currently in place.
Mr Goldberg's whole post is worth a read.

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home