Tackling Terrorism

It’s been a while since I vented on airport security issues, but mail from readers has me revisiting my own angst over what continues to unfold in terminals everywhere. Not all readers are aware that crewmembers must undergo the same inconveniences (and mortifications) as the public, so while I empathize with your annoyance, you’re hauling a weighty load of coals to Newcastle by directing it at a pilot.

Caterers, cleaners, ticket agents and mechanics all are able to bypass the metal detectors on the way to their jobs in the airside (as it’s called) zone. Pilots and flight attendants, however, despite our ID tags, must lift our luggage onto the belt, remove our shoes, and hand over our nail clippers with the rest of you. If this seems absurd, well, what can I say, and a discussion of the politics of the situation would find this particular pilot hunched over a 40-page rant, his fingers trembling with frustration. Steps toward universal airside access for all workers are finally being taken, but at what cost to privacy this might entail remains to be seen.

What baffles and troubles me most is how we’ve continued with the post 9-11 pageantry of humiliation and scrap metal confiscation despite the fact everyone considers it farce. The ongoing nonsense seems to underscore our vulnerability by flaunting our refusal to behave rationally. At last, however, airlines have announced they plan to dispense with the inane “Have you received any gifts or packages from strangers?” dialogue on check-in.

A reader says, “I was not allowed to bring my Starbucks coffee through the metal detector without tasting it first. But what if I’d simply filled my shampoo bottle, stowed snugly in my zippered amenities case, full of gasoline?” And for that matter, a shattered wine bottle or dinner plate handed out enroute is no less dangerous than a nail file or corkscrew. To cite specific ironies here is simply too easy, as there are thousands of ways to defeat an already pointless system.

As I’ve discussed in the past, there are more important things to worry about than sharp objects. Steps are already underway, meanwhile, to extend the deadline for mandatory explosives screening for all checked luggage. This is discouraging, maybe, but while initially lobbying for comprehensive explosives screening, I now wonder if its efficacy is worth the price. What got me thinking was revisiting the story of terrorist Ramzi Yousef. In addition to his links to the 1993 World Trade Center prelude, Yousef masterminded something called “Project Bojinka,” a 1994 plot to destroy more than a dozen US airliners on a single day over the Pacific. Yousef was an expert at making hard-to-detect liquid explosives, and in a test run for his Bojinka scheme he deposited a device beneath the seat of a Philippine Airlines 747 flying from Manila to Tokyo. It exploded, killing one passenger. Yousef used a relatively tiny amount of nitroglycerin for his bomb, a substance, in such quantities, basically undetectable by current or proposed methods.

I suggest it’s time to address the terrorism issue entirely systemically. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of Semtex. Call me a corporate shill, but I don’t find it fair, or even useful, to ask the airlines, already strangled by debt, to bog down their resources in a futile attempt to snag any and all dangerous items from people’s luggage. Doing so does little to improve safety while driving away passengers and causing hardship for the airlines and their thousands of employees.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.