New TSA Rules Actually Make the Liquid Rule Look Rational

I’m back home from my holiday trip, and I have my trip report ready to go, but then someone tried to blow up a Northwest flight into Detroit and the TSA jumped into action. I tried to let my anger cool off for a couple days, but the more I stewed over the changes, the more angry I got. These rules are so absurd that they make the liquid rules look rational.

These rules originally only applied to international flights that are inbound to the US, though I’ve heard they may now also apply to flights going the other way. I’ve heard conflicting reports about how long these will be in place, but some reports have them expiring in the next week. We’ll see. There are really three basic parts to the rules here.

  1. Search the heck out of people before they fly
  2. Make sure people have no idea where they are
  3. Make sure people do nothing for the last hour of the flight


Now, I don’t mind the first part for a short time because it appears this guy was able to easily get onboard with a banned substance in a very small syringe that could have blown up the plane had it worked. So if you need to do full searches of everyone on international flights for a (very) short period, that’s fine. Just figure out a better way to detect it quickly or we’ll end up having to get to the airport 10 hours early. As it is, airlines have started to see massive delays and cancellations because of all the issues.

The second part is where I’m completely baffled. What good is it going to do to keep people from knowing exactly where they are? Airlines are now no longer allowed to show the moving map displays that show where your plane is, and the flight crew can’t let you know where you are during announcements.

What the hell?!? Some airlines have simply had to turn off their entire inflight entertainment system until they can figure out how to simply keep the moving map piece off. Hopefully that happens soon because there are reports of some very unhappy passengers. In short, people need to be completely cut off from the outside world.

The third part is seemingly dumb as well. You basically can’t move during the last hour of the flight. No New Airline Seat Prototypeelectronics, nothing on your lap, and you can’t get out of your seat. Sounds like the rules for flying into Washington/National right after September 11. Rumor has it that they’re going to install electric chairs onboard to keep people from doing anything dumb.

What good is this going to do? I would ask the TSA, but I can already tell you their response. “There is a threat that requires us to do this, but we can’t tell you about it.” So I won’t even bother trying to get an answer. They did finally issue a Q&A for travelers today, several days after the incident, but it is incredibly vague just saying that stuff will be changing and you should leave extra time.

I know that the guy on the Christmas Day flight tried to light the bomb as they began descending, but would he really not just take care of it earlier in the flight if he had everything onboard? Does it matter if you’re at 28,000 feet above Michigan or 34,000 feet above Maine? This rule is stupid, and it brings up a bigger issue.

How the heck did this guy get on an airplane?!? The reports I’ve read show that he was a person of interest, had been shown as having suspected ties to terrorists, and that’s not all. In the most unbelievable admission I can imagine, this guy’s father called the US Embassy in Nigeria a couple months ago to tell him that he was afraid he was going to try to do something bad.

I’ll ask it again. How the hell did he get on this plane?!?

The TSA is trying to get away from incorrect matches on the watch list, so they’ve now required birthdate and sex. How is it that while thousands of people have been incorrectly flagged, this jackass just walks right on the plane.

It’s not like he has a common name. It’s Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Why wasn’t this guy on the freakin’ no-fly list, or at least on the watch list?

There’s not much more to say here except that regular travelers will once again be punished with absurd rules because the TSA can’t do its job right. I try to be level-headed with these things, but this one is just too much.

Update 12/28 @ 341p: It’s my understanding that most of these rules have now been eased, including the “no moving for the last hour of the flight” piece. This tells me that a rudderless TSA made a rash decision that it walked away from pretty quickly. I may write more about this on BNET this week.

76 Responses to New TSA Rules Actually Make the Liquid Rule Look Rational

  1. Robert Post says:

    @ Dan:

    These stupid requirements just make everyone look incompetent (the TSA, the airlines and flyers who are willing to endure them). If this adminstration prides itself on “doing what works”, then ignore the whining and start to use the profile/interview system that El Al uses.

    So frustrating

  2. CF says:

    It does appear that some of these rules are now being softened. Sounds like the TSA realizes it overreacted and now has egg on its face. Lame. Anyway . . .

    Wandering Justin wrote:

    I agree that the TSA has trouble doing its job right, but shouldn’t authorities in Amsterdam share a fair amount of the responsibility?

    It’s pretty hard to detect this kind of stuff – you’ve got a minute amount of liquid in your underwear – how do you do it? The puffer might have worked if there were any residue, but if not, well, it’s just not possible without a full body scan – maybe the backscatter? The best way to have prevented this is to have better intelligence. This guy had red flags all over the place and never should have been allowed on that plane without a thorough search (break out the rubber gloves).

    JM wrote:

    And now the Secretary of Homeland Security said (on Meet the Press on Sunday) that, “the system worked.”?!!

    Today she said that she meant the system worked in terms of response when the incident happened. The system failed before. Gotta love political backtracking.

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    The last hour rule is stupid since the man was sitting in his seat at the time, and wasn’t that shoe bomber guy also sitting in his seat at the time?

    Yes, indeed. But this guy had to go to the lav to get everything set up. Granted, he could do that at 2 hours before arrival.

    Tommy wrote:

    The only thing I see; as usual, the fall guy in this will be flight attendants, as we are expected to be the on-board “enforcers” of these ridiculous rules, thereby giving the public even more reason to hold us in contempt (which we already know you personally have a lot of contempt for Brett) for upholding ludicrous rules that we didn’t make.

    Uh, I have contempt for flight attendants? I don’t think so. Please explain that statement.

    Average_Traveler wrote:

    Pardon my ignorance… Does TSA control aiport security in other countries? I’m not saying they don’t have some serious problems, but why is an American agency taking the flak for something that started in another country?

    No, but if the flight involves the US (and in this case, a US carrier), then US rules do apply. They will match passengers to watch lists and all that as well.

    Jay wrote:

    To play Devil’s advocate: although this guy got through, do you know for a fact that the policies in place (the ones before this incident) have not stopped or deterred others?

    I seem to recall a couple of times in the past where they’ve announced that they’ve thwarted something or other. The reality is that any serious plots should be caught long before there’s really anything to say they “stopped.” Good intelligence will catch these guys when they’re in the planning phase and not at the airport when they’re ready to get onboard. That’s the last line of defense. (Actually, passengers jumping the guy are the last line of defense, but you get the idea.)

    Irate Traveler wrote:

    None of this will ever change until Homeland Security is run by a professional instead of a political hack.

    The problem is likely more about TSA than DHS. Nobody is running TSA right now, and Obama’s nominee is being held up in the Senate. That’s where they really need leadership.

    Wonko Beeblebrox wrote:

    What about the windows? Can’t you tell that you are over land by merely looking outside?

    Shhh, don’t tell them!

    Al B wrote:

    Have you ever noticed that when liquids are found in security lines, TSA and pax just throw them into trash bins? Seems like a rather cavalier way of handling potential explosives.
    Shouldn’t bomb squads be on 24/7 call to dispose of these items?

    I believe that the issue back when this policy went into effect was that the liquids were dangerous when mixed together but harmless when kept separate. That’s probably why they’re not treating it more seriously.

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    Remember the movie ‘The 5th Element’? I’m sure TSA and Homeland Security are working on a way to do what they did in the movie, which was put passengers to sleep for their trip.

    It’s called Ambien, and I’m all for it. Please, knock me out.

    IFEGUY wrote:

    is there a path for 100% detection of explosives? or will kooks with lumpy underwear always have a shot of making it onboard?!

    Nah, I’d say 100% is impossible, but I’m sure we can do better. It’s not for lack of trying – they’ve used the puffer, the backscatter, etc. They’re looking for better technologies, but so far, they’re expensive and not fantastically accurate. That will certainly change.

    AStabAtEmpathy wrote:

    I hope this doesn’t mean United is required to turn off their Channel 9.

    I thought about that as well. It would seem that Channel 9 would be in serious trouble here, and that would just be awful, I agree.

    Yo wrote:

    Muslims from the Middle East like blowing things up and killing innocents, how about we extra screen them?

    Um, this guy was Nigerian.

  3. LAFlyer says:

    @Robert Post

    I believe you are correct. The only way to realistically gain confidence in security is to adopt the El Al/Israel method, which involves hiring (and paying) competent people to actively profile passengers for any signs of suspicious behavior, including circumstancial evidence (e.g. paying for a one-way ticket in cash with no checked baggage), as well as nervous behavior, hesistancy or inconsistency in answer rapidly-asked questions, carefully screening all baggage before it’s checked in, as well as recognizing who is more likely to attempt to carry out an attack (e.g. a 30 year old single male versus a 70 year old man travelling with his family).

    Unfortunately, adopting this model in the US poses three significant issues:
    1) Israel only has one major international airport, while the US has dozens of big ones and hundreds of smaller ones, all of which are potential entry points for terrorists.
    2) In our PC culture, the lawyers would be tripping over each other racing to file lawsuits.
    3) This doesn’t take into account people travelling into the US from foreign airports, unless American security forces covered flights originating overseas.

    And for the record, you don’t have to take off your shoes in TLV.

  4. NM says:

    Can’t millimeter wave scanners detect non-metallic objects? If they can show a naked body they should be able to show everything worn on that body (like explosive underwear).

  5. Chaplin says:

    Napolitano should resign, that was a sad failure.
    The response is non-sensical, you can improvise a thousand such similar responses until you fess up that the risk factor is young male muslims and address the risk regardless of sensitivities. Be iy Nigerian or Major Hassan.

    The Nigerian was on a US list of muslims connected to terrorism with 550.000 names. This is not a small number, it is more than the size of the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Can we afford to ignore the common factor in that list?

  6. Stephen says:

    As a frequent (>monthly) visitor to the US it’s just getting ridiculous – occasionally more painful than surgery, frequently asinine, often simply burdensome and the spectre of repeated shoutings at by incompetent TSA officials and processes is getting wearing.

    Then this latest attack shows that what is happening is neither intelligent, smart, guilefull or deploying information and computing power to their best use.

    If the fact that someone is on a watch list, buys a ticket last minute with cash, travels for two weeks with no luggage, is reported by his family to US authorities, etc. (and yet still gets to keep his visa) cannot be linked together to at the very least warrant some additional investigation, then the whole process is shot. This is why the only dumb, blunt response is to make every passenger suffer. I mean, how many of those 550,000 people actually travel to the US per annum and how difficult is it to diver some resource to targetting them if they do with additional checks?

  7. garry says:

    New TSA rules seriously make burden on travelers and few of them comes as totally ridiculous

  8. myriam says:

    There’s been a lot written about how profiling can land you in unsafe situations because pyschologically, people can become blinded to any possibilities outside the profile. AKA, you come to rely on the profile too much. It’s not hard to strap some explosives to a woman travelling under an assumed name and voila, you are under the radar.

    The French learned this the hard way when women started blowing up cafes and things in Algeria during their war for independence. If you are seriously intent on committing suicide in the name of a cause greater than yourself, you will do it even if you are a middle-aged mom travelling with your child. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again.

    The best defense is surely tracking / monitoring in advance by the FBI combined with the very best, and most thorough, screening techniques.

  9. Ron says:

    @ LAFlyer:

    A few comments on Israeli-style profiling: it’s not performed only at TLV, but also for all incoming El-Al flights wherever they originate. I believe the Israeli government pays for 80% of security with El-Al footing the bill for the remaining 20%, though this may have changed. As for hiring competent people to do the profiling/questioning, I’ve encountered incompetent ones as well; at least the lower-level screeners are trained to bring in their supervisors whenever they feel they can’t handle the situation.

    @ myriam:

    “It’s not hard to strap some explosives to a woman travelling under an assumed” — remember, it was questioning/profiling that discovered the bomb in the Hindawi affair (carried by his unsuspecting girlfriend), after intelligence and technology failed. The point is not doing a physical search of people who fit a predetermined profile, but interviewing everybody in a manner that takes into account various risk factors. Interviews don’t replace intelligence and technology but provide an additional layer that’s more effective than current TSA screening procedures.

    The downside to this is that the interview process is often unpleasant, especially to people who fit certain risk profiles. Then again, the current process is also very unpleasant to some.

    Incidentally, when El-Al interviews do find something suspicious, it is typically not explosives but rather narcotics. I guess drug traffickers display similar behaviors to terrorists, and are much more common.

    At any rate, it seems fairly clear that the recent incident should have been caught at the intelligence layer, so the most important reaction should be to figure out what went wrong there and how that can be fixed.

  10. MeanMeosh says:

    For everyone who’s advocating profiling – if you’re going to profile, it needs to be done intelligently, using a combination of factors and behavior detection. Got someone who bought a ticket in cash, isn’t checking bags for a 2 weeks trip, and who has recently traveled extensively in Yemen and Pakistan? Absolutely, send them for a cavity search.

    But remember, this is the TSA we’re talking about. Do you really think an agency where competence is in shockingly short supply is going to be able to implement an intelligent profiling system? What you’re more likely to get is something like “send anyone with an Arabic sounding name or that looks Middle Eastern for a cavity search”, which won’t work and will just unnecessarily antagonize a large segment of folks wrongly identified because the average TSA screener can’t tell their elbow from their rear end.

  11. dan powers says:

    The EL AL 80/20 system works well….no incidents in 20 yrs….spend 80% of the time looking for terrorists, 20% looking for IED’s/guns/knives. The TSA system seems to be fliped = they spend 80% of the effort looking for devices, and 20% looking for terrorists….to let a 23 yr old male, on a watch list, on a plane who bought a 1-way international ticket with cash, is simply criminal.

  12. Lets bite the bullet. Simply ban all International flights to the USA.Isolationists will love it.

  13. texassweetpea says:

    What does the TSA have to do with a flight that came from Nigeria anyway? That country has it’s own security, but TSA isn’t it. So stop slamming TSA!!

  14. mark says:

    What I say may come across as callous or indifferent. However, I don’t accept the idea that spending billions of dollars per year and forcing millions of people to endure what is more than minimal inconvenience can be justified by saving one airplane from a terrorist attack.

    I’m fifty years old and I can remember when it was normal for one or two commercial jet airliners per year to crash with all on board being killed primarily because of pilot error. No one suggested than that the whole system of passenger transport had to be radically changed. It was simply a situation where society looked at the benefits of jet travel and concluded that the cost of losing a planeload of people per year in an accident was worth the cost.

    Over 40,000 people die every year in car accidents. No one is advocating greatly restricting automobile travel because of it. Far from it, we simply accept the notion again that these costs are more than offset by the widespread availability of transportation for millions of people.

    I am little sick of the attitude that because one or two terrorist events have happened since 9/11 that we have to keep making it tougher to fly. I have had all kinds of things confiscated from me by TSA. I’ve had to tolerate lengthy waits in airport security lines. Flying is no longer a pleasure for anyone that I know. Its simply an inconvenience that has to be dealt with to travel.

    I wish people would get it through their heads that there is no way to give us a 100% guarantee against a terrorist attack short of ending commercial air transportation. Sadly, this crap is going to continue to go on until a large percentage us do give up flying.

  15. flyguy says:

    Flying is getting back to normal. and security is tighter. I hope we adopt the Canadian system of not allowing any carry on luggage on the aircraft except for a book or meds or baby meals. Could you only imagine what a pleasant experience flying would be then. No boarding hassels, no luggage delays. pleanty of room in the aircraft. Air Canada does provide free checked bags as well. A system we should concider for our airlines. The Canadians are on to something….

  16. Thomas Edward Parody says:

    I agree completely with Mark. As there is for other rules mandated by the Federal government, there should be some cost/benefit analysis conducted. In particular, for the provisions being used for flying, how much is being spent to save 1 life? Knowing this answer, one can make a comparison to other safety programs. For example, how much is being spent on smoking prevention to save 1 life; how much is being spent on roadways to save 1 life, etc. If nothing else, such an unbiased set of calculations can help one ascertain where to spend the next dollar to get the most bang for the buck. Maybe it’s airline screening, but who knows without doing the calculations.

  17. JM says:

    texassweetpea wrote:

    What does the TSA have to do with a flight that came from Nigeria anyway? That country has it’s own security, but TSA isn’t it. So stop slamming TSA!!

    Good question.

    To quote from TSA’s own website: “So while securing U.S. aviation security is critically important, equally important for TSA is working with international partners to secure the global transportation network.”

    http://www.tsa.gov/approach/harmonization.shtm

    Thus, this is a TSA failure, too.

    Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Transportation Security Administration’s work with its global partners is ineffective too, given the TSA’s incompetence here in the USA.

    Let’s start over!

  18. Nick says:

    In regards to who’s responsible for what – the Dutch have just announced that millimetre wave body scanners will be installed and operating in about three weeks time.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/article6971582.ece

  19. Michael says:

    Where were the air marshalls on this flight? I did not hear of any marhsall involvement in the news coverage, but maybe that was edited out for security reasons or something? (Though I would think you would WANT terrorists to know that an air marshall was on a given flight.)

  20. COLUMBO says:

    @ Michael:
    IF AIR MARSHALLS WERE ON BOARD DON’T YOU THINK THEY \WOULD HAVE BEEN THE ONE THAT TOOK TERRORIST UNDER CONTROLL OR ARE THEY AS INEFFICENT AS TSA.

  21. Allen says:

    @ Tommy:

    These rules do not accomplish anything except paper pushing.

    The problem with rule 3 is that by it’s very nature it breaks rule 2. If you’re an hour or less from landing, you have a decent idea of where you are both in terms of location and altitude.

    As for rule 3, I’m curious if there is an official exception in place for getting out of your seat during the last hour of the flight in case of an emergency, like the plane has to land on water or you’re trying to subdue someone who’s attempting to detonate an explosive. I wouldn’t put it past the TSA to fail to make such exceptions.

  22. Allen says:

    flyguy wrote:

    . I hope we adopt the Canadian system of not allowing any carry on luggage on the aircraft except for a book or meds or baby meals. Could you only imagine what a pleasant experience flying would be then. No boarding hassels, no luggage delays. pleanty of room in the aircraft.

    Why would this make flying pleasant? For example, I’ve had several late night arrivals in Denver where I have had to wait over 30 minutes for my baggage to arrive? And of course, if the baggage is lost then you’re really screwed. At least with carry on even for a long trip I know have a fresh change of clothes onboard with me that won’t get lost. And for short 2 or 3 day trips I won’t have to check in a bag at all and not piss away another 30 – hour wait to pick up the bag, waiting to check the bag in, et al.

    And a lack of carry on doesn’t mean plenty of room on the aircraft. It only means plenty of room in the overhead bins. It doesn’t change seat pitch or width or anything else. And it does mean more baggage under the aircraft. And that could make for marginal decreases in cargo which could affect ticket prices.

    And a lack of carry on does not mean boarding will be without hassels. People will still sit in the wrong seats. And there will still be some carry on items. It just means that someone flying with a baby gets to drag a bag on board where those of use without such a thing, get stuck killing even more time in the airport.

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  24. Ed Kelty says:

    Look at the positive side. After the “shoe bomber,” we had to take off our shoes. Now, logically, we should take off our underware. Due to the recession, sales of underware have been significantly down. Now, people will not want to be caught with old underware. This will be a boon for the garment industry.

  25. David SFeastbay says:

    Ed Kelty wrote:

    Look at the positive side. After the “shoe bomber,” we had to take off our shoes. Now, logically, we should take off our underware. Due to the recession, sales of underware have been significantly down. Now, people will not want to be caught with old underware. This will be a boon for the garment industry.

    How funny I just read something like that over the last couple of weeks. A sure sign the economy is getting better is when the sale of mens underwear increases……lol

  26. silvia says:

    These new TSA rules are making unhappy to air travelers including the “no moving for the last hour of the flight”. It is ridiculous. Now how one will spend time in plane.

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