'More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.'In June, my friend inadvertently carried a penknife on to a flight from Brisbane to Melbourne. The scanners on the outbound journey didn't spot it, but it was confiscated on our return – we weren't putting luggage in the hold. The knife was similar to the one above, which is its replacement. I concluded then that the standard of security at Australia's domestic terminals is, at best, inconsistent.
I have long railed against the tedious-beyond-belief experience at British airports. Placing the contents of your cosmetic bag – even though each item is less than 100 ml – in the clear plastic bag. You're supposed to arrange them neatly, even though the sides of the bag offer no support to the contents. And if, in your rush to get the bag sorted properly while taking off your shoes, belt and jacket – oh, and taking your computer out of its protective soft case – you forget to discard the half-empty drinks bottle in your handbag, you get hauled over by a miserable-looking power-crazed 'official' who subjects you to delay and humiliation – because, after all, you look like really dodge, potential terrorist material, don't you, clutching your water?
Returning from Melbourne a couple of days ago, again with only hand luggage, my bag was removed from the belt and I was asked if I was carrying an aerosol. I wasn't. I was directed to a side table and instructed to 'find' the aerosol in my bag. But I didn't have one. I looked over my shoulder towards the security staff for some help in identifying the offending item. None was forthcoming. After standing there helplessly for a few minutes I returned to the fray, washbag in hand. Please could they tell me what the problem was. Eventually one of them took out several items and placed them in a tray. The man in charge of scanning picked out two (above). 'That's not an aerosol,' I said as each item was held up questioningly. He gave them back to me without more ado.
I noticed the same aerosol querying of several people behind me in the queue, which had lengthened considerably. I later learned that security staff are not allowed to look in your bag (so they won't be accused of having planted something), but if the scanner suspects an item, how are you to know which it is unless they help you identify it?
I don't think we'll even visit the subject of biosecurity – and all those banana and beagle botherers as you try to enter Queensland.
Kip Hawley talks* about managing risk rather than enforcing regulations: of foiling a massive plot to disrupt the transportation network rather than ensuring the safety of individual passengers. Future terrorists are unlikely to repeat the shoe-bomb formula: they adapt and find loopholes. The list of banned items – from umbrellas to snow domes to bright pink Tweezermans – tells them what to expect at airports and therefore facilitates the avoidance of detection. Randomization may be the key: pat-downs, interviews, swab tests, thorough bag searches; who knows what passengers would encounter?
Governments and airport authorities have to be seen to be doing something about thwarting terrorist attack from the sky. But the public are long past subdued tolerance, no matter what. How could outdated preventative measures possibly outwit today's al Qaeda agents? Randomization would at least add variety to the security ordeal and get most of us airside faster and with less risk of grumpiness.