Surrender your dignity: a sceptic’s critique of airport security

With me, it’s not so much a fear of flying as a fear of airports. Up in the air, you are in the hands of superb professionals who have a very obvious vested interest in doing their job properly and landing safely. Up in the air is relaxing. It’s on the ground that it gets nasty. Stephen Bayley, Prison, hospital … airport: surrender your dignity now. The Independent 20 May 2012

I felt additional sympathy for the staff as a result of the limited curiosity they were permitted to bring to bear on the targets of their searches. Despite having free rein to look inside any passenger’s make-up bag, diary or photo album, they were allowed to investigate only evidence pointing to the presence of explosive devices or murder weapons. There was therefore no sanction for them to ask for whom a neatly wrapped package of underwear was intended, nor any official recognition of how tempting it might occasionally seem to stroke the back pockets of a pair of low-slung jeans without any desire to discover a semi-automatic pistol. Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport

We shall never know the identity of the man who in 1976 made the most unsuccessful hijack attempt ever. On a flight across America, he rose from his seat, drew a gun and took the stewardess hostage.

“Take me to Detroit,” he demanded.

“We’re already going to Detroit,” she replied.

“Oh… good,” he said, and sat down again. Stephen Pile, The Book of Heroic Failures 


For many years commercial flying was seen as a glamorous experience. This glamour was captured in the recent ABC TV series Pan-Am, which featured the pilots and stewardesses of the airline in the early 1960s, at the beginning of the commercial Jet Age. Both the series and the airline have disappeared. Alas, the allure has gone from air travel too.

Things started to go wrong in the 1960s when hijackings became all the rage. In this period many of the hijackings were connected to Cuba. Pilots actually took plans of Havana’s José Marti runways on flights south to Florida, the routes where most hijackings occurred. Wikipedia has a list of Cuba – United States aircraft hijackings. The US government had to fill in a form, which they would then lodge with the neutral Swiss embassy in Washington, to get stranded aircraft, passengers and crew off the Caribbean island. It got more serious in the 1970s when radical Palestinian factions employed hijacking to internationalise their cause

Before the outbreak of air piracy people would enter airports as casually as we now go into department stores. Airports sheltered the homeless. According to research by sociologist Kim Hopper, hundreds of people once lived in airports. They were the perfect venue for those down on their luck; they were warm in the winter and had air-conditioning in the summer. They had running water and bathroom facilities, which were mostly empty for long periods of the day. And there was also a good supply of free food, either discarded by restaurants or left behind by passengers in a hurry. The homeless could sleep without being too obtrusive.

It was on September 11th 2001 that the whole experience flying would be transformed. Now we have to de-shoe and de-belt, take our laptops out, put all our liquids in those see-through bags and all the rest of the rituals associated with post 9/11 air travel. In a previous post about travel I mentioned the recombobulation areas, where you can recover from all these indignities. It takes about the same amount of time to travel through air today as a few decades ago, but getting off the ground has become an odyssey. There have been hundreds of incidents since the heightened security measures were brought in. Here are a couple of examples:

In 2007 a man nearly died from alcohol poisoning at Nuremberg airport after drinking a litre of vodka rather than surrendering it before boarding the plane. The 64-year-old man, who was switching planes on his way home to Dresden from a holiday in Egypt, was told at a security check he would have to either throw out the bottle of vodka or pay a fee to have his carry-on bag checked as cargo. He was soon unable to stand or otherwise function, and a doctor called to the scene determined he had possibly life-threatening alcohol poisoning, and sent him to a Nuremberg clinic for treatment.

But the worst thing you can do is crack a joke. Philippe Riviere, an Air France co-pilot joked at JFK that he had a bomb in his shoes was arrested. This led to a 12-hour delay of the New York-Paris flight. “It’s not very often that you find a co-pilot making such inappropriate comments,” Lauren Stover, a transportation security administration spokesman told The New York Times. “We have zero tolerance for those kinds of comments.” He was arraigned on charges of falsely reporting an incident and could have faced up to seven years in prison if he had been convicted. Judge Deborah Stevens Modica of Queens Criminal Court set bail at $7,500. I can’t find out what finally happened to Monsieur Riviere, but Philippe, if you are reading this, please let us know what happened.

But all this security rigmarole helps protect us, right? Well, according to security expert Bruce Schneier, it is more like theatre and has little to do with actually making us safer.
Schneier is highly critical of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the organisation responsible for airport security in the USA. One major problem with these measures is that they tend to be reactive in nature; policies are based on looking backwards at the terrorists’ previous tactics. Schneier describes how this plays out:

We screened for guns and bombs, so the terrorists used box cutters. We confiscated box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screened footwear, so they tried to use liquids. We confiscated liquids, so they put PETN (Pentaerythritol tetranitrate) bombs in their underwear. We rolled out full-body scanners, even though they would not have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We banned printer cartridges over 16 ounces—the level of magical thinking here is amazing—and surely in the future they will do something else.

The list of forbidden items doesn’t really appear to be based on any rational evaluation of risk, but on knee-jerk reactions. The search for contraband takes up a lot of TSA time and uses resources that could go to other things, including more worthwhile security measures. Sealing off the cockpit was the single most important remedy adopted. Planes can no longer be turned into flying bombs. What’s more the 9/11 type of hi-jacking probably wouldn’t work again; knowing they have nothing to lose, passengers would almost certainly fight back.

Airport security should be the last line of defence, and we need to recognise that it is not especially effective. Terrorists have hundreds of possible tactics and millions of possible targets available to them. What you end up doing is spending billions to force the terrorists to alter their plans in one particular way. This does not make us safer. It would be more cost-effective we need to concentrate our resources in ways that work regardless of the tactics and targets chosen by the terrorists. According to Schneier, intelligence, investigation and emergency response provide the most effective security for air passengers. The rest is security theatre. Why isn’t there a cost-benefit analysis of the security measures? The TSA doesn’t even analyse whether the security measures it deploys are actually worth it.

Academics, on the other hand, have performed some cost-benefit analyses on airline-security measures. The results are damning: the security benefits of most post-9/11 security changes do not justify the costs. In Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart provide some fascinating analysis of the functioning of homeland security. The total number of people killed in the years after 9/11 by Muslim extremists outside of war zones is around 200 to 300 per year. These deaths are tragic of course, but they are not evidence of massive destructive capacity. During the same period more people – 320 per year -drowned in bathtubs – just in the United States. Perhaps we need a war on bathroom furnishings! There is an important lesson here. Discouraging air travel costs lives. Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports caused by the new security procedures may cause many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination instead of flying. As driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra road traffic generated has been estimated to result in 500 or more extra fatalities per year.

I do realise that airplanes and airports still represent an important target for terrorists. They have a huge symbolic significance. 9/11 was like a cinematic event with enormous propaganda value. We need to be aware of what terrorists’ goals are. They are not ultimately out to crash planes, or even to kill people. Their primary aim is to instil terror. We must be very careful not to do the terrorists’ work for them, by heaping indignities on passengers and subjecting us to arbitrary and irrational security measures. This merely serves to spread panic. Schneier believes that we should refuse to be terrorised. However, I am reminded of a Spanish saying – el miedo es libre – which literally translated means fear is free. The basic idea is that we are all entitled to our own fears, rational or not, and no explanation is required. Schneier’s message night not go down well with the general public. Maybe we want the security theatre. We need the feeling that the authorities are doing something to protect us.


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