On August 10, the Department of Homeland Security significantly tightened security rules in response to the thwarted attempt to destroy multiple airliners in transcontinental service between London and various US airports. Some of these changes have been made public and directly affect airline passengers.
These changes clearly have made air travel more cumbersome, difficult and expensive. But have they enhanced security?
A lot of relevant information about the terrorist attempt has not been (and probably should not be) publicly disclosed. For that reason, Neutral Source is wary of drawing inferences. Nevertheless, having personally experienced the heightened security while returning from the West Coast on August 12, Neutral Source managing editor Richard Belzer offers for discussion purposes a preliminary analysis of the new security provisions.
Here is the content of the memorandum we saw posted throughout Monterey Peninsular Airport (MRY), including on vending machines for beverages and ice cream (but not snacks and candy):
NO LIQUIDS OR GELS OF ANY KIND WILL BE PERMITTED IN CARRY-ON BAGGAGE. ITEMS MUST BE IN CHECKED BAGGAGE.
This includes all beverages, shampoo, suntan lotion, creams, tooth paste, hair gel, and other items of similar consistency.
Exception: Baby formula and breast milk if a baby or small child is traveling; prescription medicine with a name that matches the passenger’s ticket; and insulin and essential other non-prescription medicines
Beverages purchased in the sterile area must be consumed before boarding because they will not be permitted onboard the aircraft.
The ban on liquids and gels arose from intelligence showing that the terrorists arrested in Britain and Pakistan intended to smuggle onboard the ingredients necessary to manufacture, presumably in the lavatory, a liquid explosive powerful enough to destroy the aircraft. Whether this is technically feasible is beyond our scientific knowledge. However, there is precedent for such an attempt. GlobalSecurity.org describes triacetone triperoxide (TATP) as a new terrorist explosive that has recently appeared in the Middle East and which has been used by suicide bombers in Israel. TATP:
can be as or more powerful than military analogs. TATP is one of the most sensitive explosives known, being extremely sensitive to impact, temperature change and friction. Another peroxide-type explosive is hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD), which is less sensitive than TATP but still dangerous. HMTD is somewhat more sensitive to impact than TCPT [sic], but both are very sensitive explosives.
It is the sensitivity of these liquid explosives to shock and vibration, and others such as nitroglycerine, that heretofore has deterred their use in situations where shock or vibration are unavoidable, such as airline transit.
TATP was the explosive material that on December 22, 2001, shoe-bomber Richard Reid tried to detonate on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami. Somewhat ironically, Wikipedia claims that “Reid was eventually subdued by other passengers on the airliner, two of whom were doctors who injected him with sedative drugs.” Those drugs are now prohibited in carry-on baggage.
GlobalSecurity goes on to explain a bit more about how TATP can be manufactured:
TATP can be easily prepared in a basement lab using commercially available starting materials obtained from, e.g., hardware stores, pharmacies, and stores selling cosmetics. TATP is a fairly easy explosive to make, as far as explosives manufacturing goes. All it takes is acetone, hydrogen peroxide (3% medicinal peroxide is not concentrated enough), and a strong acid like hydrochloric or sulfuric acid..
Whether this could be done in an aircraft lavatory is an open question, but the earnestness that suicide bombers bring to their task is highly relevant. Even a failed manufacturing attempt that results in catastrophic explosion constitutes a success as far as they are concerned.
AMBIGUITY, AND THE INEVITABLE EXERCISE OF NON RISK-BASED ENFORCEMENT DISCRETION
Returning to the new list of prohibited items, despite its superficial clarity the haste with which the list was developed became readily apparent when TSA tried to implement it. For example, the term “essential nonprescription medicines” apparently excludes contact lens solution and eye drops —even new bottles still containing their FDA-approved tamper-evident seals. Passengers needing to re-wet their lenses due to the extremely dry conditions onboard are limited to liquids provided by the airline, or saliva. Alternatively, contact lens wearers can leave their lenses out and insert them upon arrival at their destination. The lens solutions they need must be packed in checked baggage.
The ban on “creams” and “gels” might seem easy to understand, but in practice it isn’t. In Monterey, lipstick was permitted in carry-on luggage but lip gloss was not. Because it is liquid before application, mascara was prohibited. Readers can sort through their purses at leisure to contemplate the classification difficulties involved, as Mrs. Neutral Source did in Monterey..
According to the Transportation Security Administration, “Bringing a prohibited item to a security checkpoint – even accidentally – is illegal.” This means that innocent conduct by innocent travelers constitutes a criminal act. We are unaware of any effort by TSA to enforce penalties for such “criminal acts” as innocently transporting onboard prohibited items not generally associated with terrorism, such as Neutral Source’s prized Ah-So, much less lip gloss or mascara. Nor do we think it’s plausible that any adjudicatory body would take such a charge seriously. Any attempt by TSA to treat innocent travelers as criminals would expose it to even more public ridicule than it now experiences.
The problem for TSA (and for air travel security in general) is that overbearing and senseless restrictions are risk communication failures. When TSA imposes rules that appear ridiculous on their face, it causes travelers to discount real risks and doubt TSA’s legitimacy and competence. After all, if TSA is unable or unwilling to distinguish real from phantom risks, why should travelers make such distinctions, or have confidence in TSA?
As a risk management matter, appearing ridiculousness undermines the effectiveness of those elements of the security regime that are fully justified, whether on benefit-cost grounds or as prudent exercises of precaution. This inevitably misallocates scarce resources. This problem is severely exacerbated by TSA’s unwillingness to allocate its passenger screening resources based on risk-based criteria. No one believes that all airline passengers pose the same threat, yet it is TSA’s policy to treat all travelers as if they do.
It is theoretically possible (but extraordinarily unlikely) that TSA achieves the same level of security that it would if it practiced risk-based screening of both carry-on items and the people carrying them on. That would mean, however, that substantial TSA expenditures have no security value and constitute pure deadweight loss. More likely, TSA achieves much less security than promised at much greater cost — not even including the opportunity cost of the inconvenience they cause and passenger time they waste by devoting scarce resources to minutiae.
Significant resources have been devoted to passenger profiling over many decades, much of it by El-Al, which chooses to be unmoved by complaints alleging discrimination. Attempts to hold El Al liable for inflicting severe emotional distress associated with its highly intrusive security practices also have failed. The American Civil Liberties Union has opposed risk-based profiling, but support for it increases whenever an incident makes the risk of terrorism seem more real and the illogic of passenger screening procedures more obvious..
HOW STERILE IS THE “STERILE AREA”?
Under the new rules, banned articles such as bottled water may be purchased in the “sterile area” but are not allowed onboard. The “sterile area” is TSA-speak for the portion of the terminal within the security zone for which TSA already exercises total access control. Within this zone TSA already forbids anything sharper than a plastic spork and, it has been assumed, prevents the admission of hazardous chemicals such as the ingredients for making TATP and other liquid explosives.
The new policy means the following illogical statements are true:
- It a criminal act to pass through security with items that are inherently safe because they can be freely purchased within the sterile area.
- It is perfectly legal to purchase inherently safe items within the sterile area that are illegal to possess elsewhere in the terminal.
- It is a criminal act to board an aircraft with inherently safe items legally purchased in the sterile area.
Neither TSA nor the airlines screen passengers prior to boarding to ensure that they are not carrying inherently safe but prohibited items purchased within the sterile area. The policy relies on voluntary compliance, and for the first few days this might happen. But voluntary compliance is destined to be short-lived because the policy is fundamentally illogical, and thus will soon be recognized as ridiculous. We observed discreet violations on August 12, just two days after the policy was enacted. Violations can be expected to be more frequent and less discreet, at which time we predict TSA will abandon the policy stating that it is no longer necessary but never admitting that it was illogical in the first place.
We can think of only one sound, risk-based reason for prohibiting passengers from taking onboard inherently safe items purchased in the sterile area, but that reason should dismay all airline travelers. In short, the policy makes sense if the “sterile area” isn’t really sterile and it’s comparatively easy to bring in the ingredients to make liquid explosives. But if that were true, then TSA should be screening passengers as thoroughly right before they board as they did at the security gates, if not more so.