Swimming with the Razorfishes

Friday, August 18, 2006


Flying on 8/10

I had the pleasure of flying from New York's John F. Kennedy airport to Schiphol International in Amsterdam on August 10, the day the terror plot was "disrupted" and all the additional security measures were implemented. I returned on 8/17. Two interesting observations.

Leaving from JFK, we were security screened in order to get to the gate. Fairly standard TSA stuff: shoes off, X-Ray everything and walk through a metal detector. Because I was being a space cadet, I set off the metal detector twice (I forgot both my cellphone and a metal PBA card in my wallet). On the second failure, I was moved into a cordoned-off area for more thorough search. Segregating me is good; I should not have been able to come into physical contact with someone who cleared security.

Once we cleared the security city check point, however we could walk to the terminal, shared by about 10 gates. The outgoing flight was delayed for five hours, so I (and everyone else) had that much time to do something nefarious. The terminal has restaurants, custodial cabinets, and shops, all containing materials that could be fashioned into an explosive.

Once the flight started boarding, we all just piled onto the airplane. No additional screening. On a day of elevated risk, not so impressive.

Returning via Schiphol was somewhat different, but the same.

After checking our baggage, we walked directly to the terminal and waiting area; no up-front screening. In order to board the flight, however, we had to pass through a security check point (X-Ray and metal detector) to wait in a separate boarding area. This physical separation is good: it ensures that screened people and baggage are kept away from unscreened people and baggage as well as from things purchased in stores, stolen from supply closets, etc.

The security check point, however, was sloppily managed.

Travelers were crowded around both sides of the X-Ray machine. Multiple people were allowed to walk through the metal detectors at once. People who failed the metal detector were allowed to mingle with those who were passing through. Worst of all, though, was the table set aside for hand-inspection of bags that were flagged by the X-Ray screeners. It was up against the 3-foot tall metal railing separating the secure and insecure areas (bad thing #1), screened passengers were allowed to stand against the railing (bad thing #2), and more than once passengers were allowed to pass things between the secure and insecure areas (very bad thing #3), including a whole bag of stuff.

Physical security was so badly managed that any group of people who had rehearsed passing items between each other would have had no problem sneaking things onto the plane. Again, as in New York, there was no second screening.

A couple of observations.

  • There is no way that a single security checkpoint will catch people up to no good. In both New York and Amsterdam, there should have been at least one additional point where passengers were screened. As an aside, I flew from Charles de Gaulle in Paris to Newark international this past November. At Charles de Gaulle there was a second screening before getting on the flight.
  • I managed to board the plane in both New York and Amsterdam without speaking or interacting with the security staff in any way. Before boarding a flight, every passenger should have to speak to trained security people, preferably more than once.

And, of course, I don't think there is any way that we can prevent a small group of really determined people from blowing up a plane. There are just too many ways to create chaos. Almost all airport approaches require flights to fly over urban areas at low altitudes. Would it be impossible to get a smuggled stinger missile and stand on the roof of some building in Queens?

Which is to say, all these "security" measures don't address the fundamental reasons that people want to blow other people up: poverty, ignorance, intolerance, skewed foreign policy.


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