Holmes Report Blog

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Flight Risks: So it appears that not everyone agrees with me that the security restrictions imposed on British air travel in the wake of the alleged terror plot last week were both extreme and, for the most part, nonsensical.

There are so many points to make here, it’s hard to know where to start, but…

1. The notion of using liquids to blow up a plane was neither new nor unknown to the authorities. The fact that nothing had been done in the decade—that most airport security machines don’t detect liquid explosives—since the first such plot meant that when action was taken, it was hastily implemented in the most disorganized and inconvenient way possible.

2. I have yet to have anyone explain to me what danger would have been posed by me or anyone else taking a paperback book on board a plane. The only reason I can imagine for this is again that the new security measures were implemented so hastily that the authorities simply banned everything they could think of. Again, the haste was unnecessary, given that this was not a novel threat.

3. Once again, the authorities were simply reacting to the latest threat. This has become a pattern: after the 9-11 attacks, we banned nail clippers and other sharp objects, because that was what the terrorists used last time; after the shoe bomb attempt, we started asking people to take off their shoes, at some airports, for a while; after the alleged plot last week was discovered, we banned liquids. What happens next? Just like the shoe thing, the liquid ban will gradually be relaxed. Some other threat will make headlines and there will be another hasty over-reaction, that will last until those headline are replaced by some new scare. Is a well thought-out consistent policy really too much to ask.

4. Airline security remains woefully under-funded. There’s no reason airports could not run efficient security checks on laptops, books, infant formula and whatever else passengers want to take on board, except the government won’t put up the money, and airlines are not prepared to raise fares for security. So even the cursory checks provided today add an intolerable delay to air travel—for little or no discernible benefit. And at the risk of belaboring the point, when security is stepped up there aren’t enough people to do real checks, so the solution is simply to ban everything.

5. All of this focus on the cabin ignores the real threat, which is the stuff that goes in the hold, which gets an even more cursory check than do the passengers. The fact that more luggage is going into the hold increases the risk of flying.

6. The last piece of my rant below about a no-security airline was a joke. I know irony was one of the victims of 9-11, but I guess I assumed some slim strand of it had survived somewhere.

In short, current airport security is deliberately designed for maximum inconvenience and minimum efficacy. This does not seem to me to be a particularly controversial view. It’s shared by British Airways (“when the moment struck, BAA had no plan ready to keep Heathrow functioning properly”) and by almost everyone quoted in this USA Today story (“Security has finally reached the nether regions on the idiocy graph.”)

The broader issue, of course, is the extent to which we should be prepared to give up ordinary freedoms in the face of terror threats. As a Brit who has spent 20 years in New York, and who has homes in Times Square and on Oxford Street (both of which could be considered high-profile targets), who makes 20 trans-Atlantic air trips a year, I guess my position is fairly obviously that I am disinclined to compromise on that point.

But if there are compromises to be made, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they be well thought-out, logical, and provide some tangible benefit in terms of safety. I don’t think what happened last week meets any of those criteria.


  • At 5:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    a lot more rational than your previous post Paul - and for what it's worth, I entirely agree with your comments on security issues here. However, whether you care to admit it or not, you did 'leave the door wide open' on the earlier one...

  • At 5:35 AM, Blogger outlander11 said…

    Agree with the previous comment - this is a much more reasoned and sensible arguement. I think the timing was off on your previous post, and given the sensitivity in this area, you are going to have to endure some flack.


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