A Transatlantic Case for Sane Airport Security

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Shoe and laptop removal? Please. Maureen Dowd and the chairman of British Airways attack the TSA's outdated measures.

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London -- A knight of the British empire and a renowned American columnist had a coincidental meeting of the minds today on the matter of airport security. On this side of the Atlantic, the man was no less than the chairman of British Airways, Sir Martin Broughton, who lashed out at the airport security requirements imposed by Washington. From Washington, we had The New York Times's Maureen Dowd, who has no patience with inane bureaucracy (or pomposity). She took only some 800 words to skewer the Transportation Security Administration.

Airline passengers can be protected with security measures that are not as nonsensical, intrusive, and inconsistent as the current ones, Broughton said. He called for a "risk-based approach to security rather than one-size fits all." Does it make any sense to subject airline pilots and crews to the same scrutiny as a student from Yemen? he asked.

"The current procedures have grown Topsy-like, with each new procedure being super-imposed on the existing structure every time there is a new security incident," Broughton said Tuesday.

Laptop computers must be taken out of bags, even though tests have demonstrated that this is not necessary. As consumers stand in long lines to buy the iPad -- from Fifth Avenue in New York to Regent Street in London -- officials at the Transportation Security Administration in Washington have decided it must be removed from bags in airport screening lines. It is a measure that has "zero security benefit," Broughton said in his speech.

Broughton's observations came in a speech Tuesday to the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport. That may not sound like the forum for making news, but the Financial Times reported it on the front page, describing Broughton's remarks as "scathing." ("British Airways chairman lets fly at one-size-fits-all security checks," is the headline of the FT's story.) He was more so a few months ago, when he said that Britain was "kowtowing" to America.

"The current procedures have grown Topsy-like, with each new procedure being super-imposed on the existing structure every time there is a new security incident," he said Tuesday. "Every time, it's a procedure to stop a repeat of what has already been attempted rather than a program to prevent the next new attempt by terrorists."

In 2011, we are still required to take off our shoes as part of airport screening. Why? Because nearly a decade ago, some guy named Richard Reid boarded a flight from Paris to the United States with explosives secreted in his shoe, which he tried to detonate while on board.

We are now limited to the amount of liquids or creams, including toothpaste and baby formula, we are allowed to take on flights. That's because in 2006, British police arrested some 20 men who were allegedly plotting to blow up 10 airlines over the Atlantic using liquid explosives. It was a complex plot, involving emptying, then refilling and resealing, soft drink bottles and syringes in order to insert peroxides. During the trial, it emerged that authorities trying to replicate the plot in laboratory conditions had to make more than 30 attempts before they were able to get the explosives to detonate.

As for laptops, the British Airport Authority developed x-ray machines capable of scanning them while in the bag a few years ago. The machines were tested for 18 months, and passengers were allowed to leave their computers in their bags. "The result was successful, with improved convenience and equivalent detection capability," Broughton said.

He added, "What happened when the trial concluded?" It was a rhetorical question.

We all know why extreme and unnecessary measures are imposed, why children and women with mastectomies are subjecting to humiliating screenings, as Dowd noted in today's New York Times column, "Stripped of Dignity."

Americans, as Broughton noted, want a "zero-security-incidents" approach. And woe unto the politician who is in office if there is a terrorist attack. The Sarah Palins and Peter Kings will pounce (and their Democrat counterparts if it happens on a Republican watch). And, it has to be said, they will be aided and abetted by journalists. Newspapers and television networks will send out their top investigative reporters to uncover what government officials failed to do.

Image: Frank Polich/Reuters

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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