Airport Security Around the World

Ideas and Issues

1392869753850.cachedLittle Rock   Brussels is a tragedy. One in a long line, and the feeling that the queue is growing is inescapable. Watching the endless loops in the news on CNN, BBC, and whatnot, who wants to pile on, but I can’t help myself from adding a word or two about airport security around the world, because that’s an area where I’ve had frequent encounters.

First, passengers have become endlessly patient with all manner of security precautions, regardless of their effectiveness. So consumer tolerance is absolutely not the issue.

Secondly, the rules continue to be different everywhere country to country. In the United Kingdom now liquids of less than 4 ounces are OK, but they have to be separated and put in a plastic bag. Flying all around the world including the US, I was stopped earlier this year and had to surrender a pack of razor blades to TSA that were dandy in New Orleans and London, but didn’t work in Washington’s Dulles, and when I questioned the agent, he yelled that I should have seen that on the TSA website, which was frankly, a laughable response. I’ve also been lucky enough to find four S’s on my boarding pass in both Heathrow and Halifax calling for extra security checks, where they required every piece of electronics to be swabbed and in Canada, actually turned on to make doubly sure. I’m good with all of this, but I have to wonder, if this is really security.

Thirdly, when the talking heads recommend screening of passengers before entering airport common areas and cite the elaborate protections around the rest of the world, I have to raise my eyebrows a bit at that as well. In Nairobi once you enter the airport you have to have your bags screened and go through an X-ray for example, but many passengers don’t realize that and wander about and queue up to the ticket counters only to be sent back for screening. Not much protection there, but you are screened going into the concourse and again before you go into the waiting area for your plane. In India because of their concerns about terrorists from Pakistan you are met at the door of the airport entrance where a soldier checks your passport and ticket, and there’s often long lines at every door, offering opportunities, but once they’ve checked your paper, you’re in. Your carry-on bags have to have a separate tag which is checked by the military before you go down the ramp to the plane. The tag is stamped by the military after you are screened by the machines. Nonetheless, Brussels-style opportunities in India are everywhere. On domestic flights virtually everywhere, including the US, nothing and nobody stops people from going into baggage pickup areas where there are soft targets galore. In Johannesburg I was once asked for a bribe by the screener as my bag came through the chute before he would hand it to me, which at the least was mission-drift.

I often wonder if any of this is really supposed to be security or mainly optics. Certainly in the US when we look at the almost $8 billion spent by TSA, we also read experts everywhere dismissing our liquid and shoe shedding protocols, along with much of the rest of what TSA is doing. Sure they catch the odd gun and knife, but that’s late in the game for a lot of mischief, and much of it is modern day traveler’s dementia.

So, should we have more dogs and police roaming the concourse and is that profiling? Would more patrols notice folks wearing one glove which turns out to be a “tell.” Maybe, maybe not, but I’m OK with them trying. Why put the dogs in the baggage pickup areas as opposed to the common areas for example? Is there a case of people having flown thousands of miles and then created mayhem? I can’t recall one. A million years ago I read a book by someone named Skolnick who was writing about the police and the fact that they are always looking for what he called the “invisible assailant.” That’s bad if they are blind to the threats of people who look like themselves, but that’s fair if we are talking about well-trained, professionals, rather than rent-a-cop security folks or the like who are actually on the alert for trouble and smart enough to suss it out.

I suspect if we were dealing with what HBO’s “The Wire” called “real police,” rather than play-pretend which is often the case now, even with TSTA, then me and the rest of the flyers would be OK with more looking and poking, if that’s the price of safe travel. The one thing that is overwhelming clear is that we have no choice but to get on the road and jump on planes, that comes with the job, but the rest of the jobs need to be done well to make sure we can get ours done too.