Secure flying

Baroness Murphy

Bedd Gelert has suggested we should have a discussion about airport security and the underpinning policy approaches (security profiling or blanket coverage of restrictions). Since I am about to embark on a journey from Pisa to Stansted airport where travel time will be doubled as a result of security provisions that will make me feel not one wit safer I am happy to oblige. I am rather in favour of almost no security provisions of any kind on most flights except for those where special precautions are justifiable. This might include transatlantic flights for example, and flights to and from known terrorist risk areas such as Israel and, formerly, Northern Ireland) And for those few flights for there to be active security profiling instead of blanket security coverage.

The majority of the security measures seem utterly ludicrous for the majority of flights and the chances of the ordinary passenger being a bomber are so small as to be not worth worrying about in statistical terms. No doubt we will continue to have suicide bombers but is it worth the costs in human terms to take steps to stop them other than through the intelligence services and targeted measures? It might be much better for our own peace of mind to do nothing very much on most flights except for the airline to have a much better picture of who is travelling.  Bolting the door after the stable door has bolted, like universal restricting of carry-on fluids after an attempt or the random X-raying of high heels after a failed shoe bomber is more or less incomprehensible to me.  Now we are probably going to have total body scanners to detect what we’ve got in our underwear. I’ve got nothing against being scanned personally, and the exposure that these machines subject individuals to seems minimal compared with medical investigations but it won’t it simply add to the many hours wasted at airports and add further to the illusion that machines can exclude the determined fanatic? The problem with blanket security is that it creates an unnecessary unreasonable fear in those subject to it and therefore makes the impact of a terrorist attack even more attractive to those that perpetrate them.

I know that many profoundly disagree with me about this and many feel safer as a result of these measures and I wish we had some real facts and figures to help us make up our minds. While agreeing that security profiling is a better approach I can see that applying it in a practical way on a world-wide basis may be difficult.

About three times a year I drive to the Continent through Eurotunnel. There are no general individual security restrictions of any kind either going or returning but there are targeted searches of individuals traveling alone and others where the staff assess there is a risk, plus security analysis of the cars themselves. There are no individual measure on cross-channel ferries either. Is the risk of flying from Stansted to Pisa greater? Almost certainly not.

When I traveled with El Al to Jerusalem a few years ago I was subjected to several searching interviews at the airport on checking in; there was a degree of chaos but they were looking for specific risk characteristics and that seemed to me to be more focused on real risk. I’ll be interested to hear what others think.

15 comments for “Secure flying

  1. 11/01/2010 at 2:26 pm

    We have seemingly accepted that some 3,000 deaths per year in road accidents is statistically acceptable as the price worth paying for the convenience of road transport. If that was the British death toll from aircraft accidents and attacks, then their would be an outcry.

    Maybe what is needed is a calmer approach to big media stories, and people need to learn that while a terrorist attack is terrible, it is a tiny fraction of the deaths that will be caused from other day to day actions.

    Alternately, maybe we should treat motorists the same way as airline passengers are treated – and demand a dozen checks every time someone gets behind the wheel of a car? I suspect that might educate people about statistical risk fairly quickly.

  2. 11/01/2010 at 2:42 pm

    Measures such as banning liquids and x-raying shoes are ridiculous – as you say, bolting the stable door. Next time, the terrorists will find a different method no-one’s thought of yet. Simply passing bags through an x-ray machine is fine, though (Eurostar do the same) and if there are sufficient numbers of body scanners, that needn’t be too inconvenient either – it only takes a few seconds.

    What causes delays at airports is shortage of staff an facilities for the numbers of passengers travelling. This could be solved by getting rid of all the shopping facilities and other rubbish that most people don’t need, and only ever look at because they arrived at the airport so early anticipating queues at security. Airport operators always seem more interested in running shopping centres rather than improving the experience for passengers.

    Reduction in queues at the airports should be a priority, as there’s nothing to stop terrorists setting off a large bomb in the airport land-side, before any checks, which could potentially kill many people waiting to go through security.

    I have to say that I don’t agree that the risk is no higher on an aircraft than on a train or ferry. In the latter two, only people near the site of an explosion would be injured, and bombs would have to be quite big and therefore easily detectable. On a plane, only a small bomb is needed to damage the integrity of the aircraft and kill everyone on board.

  3. Croft
    11/01/2010 at 3:12 pm

    I’m not sure your common sense proposal has a hope as any government would create a hostage to fortune if anything happened that might well see it swept from power. I don’t think anyone in power really thinks most of these measures make the blindest bit of difference – just as flooding the streets with police offices after the London bombings made any difference. It is more about creating the allusion that government can do something (anything) to make people safer and erecting a defence that it did ‘everything it could’ if anything happens later.

    Frankly, the way things seem to be going I’m amazed the Lord Norton hasn’t been pounced on yet by the rozzers as he keeps taking photos of parliament and its environs. A depressingly steady number of journalists (both national and local) as well as tourists get hassled for the self same thing for, I’d suggest, dubious claims of an improvement in the real safety of Londoners.

    • 11/01/2010 at 6:53 pm

      Frankly, the way things seem to be going I’m amazed the Lord Norton hasn’t been pounced on yet by the rozzers as he keeps taking photos of parliament and its environs. :D

    • lordnorton
      14/01/2010 at 6:49 pm

      Croft: “Frankly, the way things seem to be going I’m amazed the Lord Norton hasn’t been pounced on yet by the rozzers as he keeps taking photos of parliament and its environs.”

      That thought occurred to me as well!

      • lordnorton
        14/01/2010 at 6:50 pm

        For the benefit of our overseas readers, we should perhaps point out that ‘rozzers’ refers to police officers.

  4. Bedd Gelert
    11/01/2010 at 3:53 pm

    “When I travelled with El Al to Jerusalem a few years ago I was subjected to several searching interviews at the airport on checking in; there was a degree of chaos but they were looking for specific risk characteristics and that seemed to me to be more focused on real risk. I’ll be interested to hear what others think.”

    This is a very good point, but I guess the question is how do we decide what are ‘specific risk characteristics’ ?? One could argue that a shoe with a platform sole might be a ‘risk characteristic’ after the failed shoe bomb incident, or someone else might describe the ‘risk characteristic’ in terms of the nationality [i.e. British], skin colour, country of origin, race, ethnicity or country of origin of Richard Reid.

    I ask the question because I have a feeling that governments will not be as calm and as circumspect as Baroness Murphy if the worst happens.

  5. Matthew
    11/01/2010 at 4:43 pm

    Bruce Schneier has a lot of very good things to say on the “security theatre” we all have to put up with at airports. His most recent article is http://www.schneier.com/essay-304.html

    …from where you can read his other pieces on the subject.

  6. Troika21
    11/01/2010 at 5:39 pm

    Travel security has been an utter farce.

    We’re not safer, all we have done is divorce ourselves from our liberties. I think the term ‘Security Theater’ sums up what has taken place quite well. Our whole approach to terrorism seems to be predicated on the idea that terrorists are committed to destroying airplanes only.

    Frankly, I think that the Islamists have won. None of them could seriously have believed that their actions (whatever it was) were going to ‘destroy’ this country, America or ‘the West’; but they did want to make us fear them, and they have done that very well.

    The announcement by the PM that body-scanners would be introduced to the UK was an excelent example of how security has been mishandled. What amounts to an invasive search on every passanger, when so very few are suspects, is an expensive removal of civil liberties, not to mention waste of time.

    The politics of fear win again, I suppose.

  7. Bedd Gelert
    11/01/2010 at 6:10 pm

    An interesting blog post on how debate on this [and I guess many other topics] is polluted by rumours and speculation that are ‘flat wrong’.

    http://tpmmuckraker.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/01/the_flight_253_one-way_ticket_meme_a_media-propaga.php?ref=fpblg

    This ‘one-way-ticket’ rumour was quoted on Any Questions, as an example.

  8. 11/01/2010 at 7:40 pm

    I contemplated the image conjured up by the comedian Sean Lock’s suggestion that travellers should have a quid pro quo peek of those operating body scanners. I moved on.

    This body image thing does smack of one-up-manship on the burka.

  9. Carl.H
    11/01/2010 at 9:29 pm

    The carcinogens and genotoxins in aviation fuel possibly kill more than any terrorist attempt. However I do believe strict security is a psychological benefit to the less than frequent flyer. It also has another major benefit, it saves the public billions. How ? Well it means we don`t have to go invading another Country on the pretence of WDM (or not) and taking years to rebuild it only to see it finally ruled by another unfair dictatorship (it will happen in Iraq).

    I think we should stop all aviation to stop the carcinogens, get people to spend their money at home to get out of the recession and stop our Parliamentary members getting snowed in in Tuscany unable to vote .

    I live near an airport, I hate the things and if I go abroad I swim. ;-)

  10. Baronessmurphy
    12/01/2010 at 7:09 pm

    What a calm measured lot you are. Some good points and a good pointer Matthew to Bruce Scheier, with whom I agree.

  11. Senex
    14/01/2010 at 10:29 pm

    You said: “Since I am about to embark on a journey from Pisa to Stansted airport where travel time will be doubled as a result of security provisions that will make me feel not one wit safer I am happy to oblige.” I guess you made it without incident?

    This cannot be said for Joan Rivers:

    http://www.mediaite.com/tv/joan-rivers-airport-nightmare-larry-king-live/

    A stranger drove her to another airport six and a half hours away, presumably on another ticket, where she embarked without problem. She could quite easily have been earmarked as a security risk as a result of the confusion? Her problem now is that she can never find out because such information is restricted and she would have no way of challenging or changing it.

    Ref: Elaine Murphy aka Baroness Murphy
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elaine_Murphy,_Baroness_Murphy

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