Airport Insecurity…

I arrived at the airport (Toronto’s Pearson International) on time – 90 minutes before my flight, with plenty of time to check in, clear security, and get some breakfast in the Maple Leaf Lounge.  I had my NEXUS card out to get into the ‘right’ line at security, and as I was taking my laptops out and emptying my pocket the woman in line behind me started chatting with me.  Normally the person behind me is concerned that i am taking too long, but this was something different.

“Sir, you should know that i work for the same company as these security screeners (Garda) and I want you to know that this lady checking your bags recently won an award as the top screener, so you can feel safe that she will catch anything that doesn’t belong.’

She was not trying to intimidate me; she was trying to ‘show off’ her employee, and let that employee know that she truly was recognized.  Unfortunately she picked the wrong person to do that to.

I have been and continue to be critical of Canadian (and American, to a lesser extent) airport security screening.  I have been shown time and again proof that they will indeed prevent me from taking a drink onto an airplane, but would likely not catch someone with proper training whose intent was to do harm to an airplane or its passengers.

In understand better than most the reasoning between many of their policies… a bottle of water might not be water for example, it might be any number of clear liquids that could either detonate or otherwise compromise an airplane (any Grade 8 science student knows that chemicals react – either to air, flame, or other chemicals causing a harmless looking liquid to ignite, corrode, or become poisonous gas).  However these are only a couple of threats – very Level 1 threats.

Every business traveler (and most others!) knows that you have to remove your laptop from your bag so that it can be x-rayed separately.  However it would not be difficult for a real expert (you would really have to know what you are doing) to create a threatening device that would x-ray identically to a laptop.  Of course, they have screeners for gunpowder and many other explosive substances, and can tell by a simple swab if anything in your bag has been in contact with these materials (I have a colleague who was subjected to secondary screening because he had recently done some consulting work at a military ordinance facility).  However the screeners do not screen for ‘anything hazardous’… they screen for an array of specific chemical substances that are known to be hazardous.  It would not be difficult (for a chemistry major) to concoct an explosive that would slip through these screens.

Every poker player knows that you don’t only play your cards, you play the man (or woman) across the table.  That is why if we are ever going to really have secure skies the airlines (and governments) are going to have to change the screening process, starting from when and where it begins. 

The ‘No Fly List’ is a joke, persecuting against infants who share the same name as known terrorists (although respectfully you have to wonder about any couple who named their child Osama in the last decade) but missing the fact that fake identities – even those that would pass airport scrutiny – are not that difficult to come by. 

If our airports and airlines are ever going to be truly secure then screening has to start when someone purchases their ticket.  This does not mean racial profiling, but rather a check of criminal records, known associates, and more.  Don’t ask me what they should be looking for though… ask Israel; they have been doing this right since the 1970s, and their security is legendary.

As a cigar smoker I learned long ago that butane torches work better than matches or other types of gas lighters.  However I also know how they can be used to take down an airplane, so when the TSA or CATSA confiscates them I kick myself for forgetting, not the agent.  When I first started traveling I had a great utility knife that I wore in my belt – it was confiscated in Cleveland, and rightly so… it is dangerous.  I understand most of the policies about what you are and are not allowed to take onto an airplane, and when I hear people complain or ridicule these policies I either sit quietly by or, if I am in the mood to waste my breathe, try to explain why the policies are what they are. 

However an airplane with hundreds of passengers cannot be secured exclusively in the 90 minutes prior to boarding… it has to start well before that, and until it does I am afraid that what we pass when we board an airplane is not security, rather it is security theatre… and no matter how good the actors are, it does not change the fact that they are just players on the stage, trying to convince you of something that is not.

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