Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Trousers down, arms up!

Commentary - Executive magazine (February 2008)

Over the last few months work and pleasure have taken me from India via the Middle East to Europe and onto North America. That’s a lot of flying, and a lot of security checks.
Out of all the airport security I encountered, it was Western airport security – unsurprisingly - that was the most invasive. It was also the most pointless, despite the rhetoric that it supposedly makes us “feel safer” and that it is necessary to thwart the terrorist threat by having to queue for hours, then shuffle through the metal detector in your socks while holding up your belt-less trousers – after, of course, quaffing whatever drink you accidentally had in your bag.
The biggest irony is that the Middle East (bar Jordan), that hotbed of terrorism and conflict, is one of the easiest regions on earth to pass through airport security. Equally puzzling is why, after nail clippers and a can of shaving cream are removed from my hand luggage in Europe and the States, I can waltz onto the plane with a glass bottle of duty free whiskey – nay hard to smash the bottle of booze and stab someone with, if one was so inclined.
Then there is the idiocy of some of the items given onboard - metal cutlery that could be turned into what the prison community calls a “shiv,” as well a set of headphones that could easily be used as a garrotting wire.
After all, what’s the point of taking away nail clippers? Threaten the stewardess with the forcible clipping away of her finely manicured nails? “Open the cockpit or her nails geddit!”
As a friend once remarked, the most dangerous thing a passenger has is their hands and legs – the limbs of a well-trained martial artist for instance. A ballpoint pen is equally dangerous, as the mob film Casino graphically illustrated when a man is repeatedly stabbed in the neck with a writing instrument.
A vivid imagination as well as Hollywood can give a wannabe killer a lot of ideas, but that is not the point. The point is that there are innumerable ways to kill someone and provoke terror, and there is not much even the tightest security can prevent– just ask a warden at a maximum-security prison about his experiences.
That said, security is of course necessary, but to what degree?
As the head of Lebanon’s Civil Aviation Authority, Hamdi Chaouk, told me: “Technology is so advanced they don’t need to do this, stripping and removing shoes. The EU has not been able to compromise on what people need and security. Who can tell me this security has done something?”
Well, unfortunately, no one can. A team at the Harvard School of Public Health recently found no evidence that X-raying carry-on luggage prevents hijackings or attacks. They also found no evidence that making passengers take off their shoes and confiscating small items prevented any incidents. In fact, of the 13 million seized items by the United State’s Transportation Security Administration last year, most of the prohibited items were nail clippers and cigarette lighters, not guns or explosives tucked inside someone’s socks.
So why all the inconvenience to get on a plane? (while not on a bus or a train?)
It strikes me that the billions of dollars now being spent on security is a great way of making money and creating jobs. Indeed, at New York’s JFK airport, seven people were needed to process one line, from the X-ray machine to the pat-down, to the swabbing of laptops. Furthermore, the cosmetics and water bottling sectors (as well as the nail-clipper industry) must be rubbing their hands with glee due to the increased sales that result from the need to replace everything removed from passengers.
But let’s not be flippant. Security is no laughing matter. It’s a $59 billion a year business that is set to treble worldwide by 2015 to $178 billion, according to industry tracker Homeland Security Research. And that prediction is all dependent on another grandiose 9-11 terrorist style attack not happening. If a major attack occurs in the United States, Europe or Japan the security market will increase twelve-fold by 2015 to $730 billion, with the USA accounting for 42% of that expenditure.
That’s good news for the security sector. But the saying “one man’s loss is another man’s gain" is also applicable here. Although some undoubtedly profit from the whole security rigmarole, a report has estimated that for every 624 million passengers that each spend two hours a year waiting in line, the annual loss to the economy is some $32 billion. Furthermore, additional security expenditure means costs are passed down to passengers. It’s no surprise then that people are opting to travel by car, train, boat and bus instead, which is not good news for the airline sector, already hit by rising fuel prices.
So for the benefit of everyone, it should seem a no-brainer that airport security should be taken much more seriously, not for the time consuming joke it currently is.

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