US Eschews Sensible Risk-Based Security in Favor of Broad-Based Insanity


Nearly everyone is aware of the large electronics ban (aka the laptop ban) that went into place earlier this year for flights from several Middle Eastern countries to the US. At the time, the justification was said to be the imminent threat of bombs in large electronics. In fact, there were discussions to expand the ban to more places because of this threat. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, we’ve instead been gifted an absurdly burdensome new regulation that makes very little sense and is entirely impossible to implement as required. It makes you wonder who the heck is running the show at the Department of Homeland Security.

An announcement of the plan was made on June 28, and it was lacking any useful details. All that was made clear was that, as I understand it, there would be new regulations that would go into effect for all international departures that would arrive in the US.

Details slowly started to leak out, and they are strange indeed. In a memo that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) sent to airlines on the 28th, it outlined some of the procedures which would require compliance. Most notably, within 21 days of the announcement (that’s 13 days from today), “each location will be required to have explosive trace detection (ETD) technology in place at the central search and/or boarding gate applied in a continuous and random manner.” If they don’t, then a large electronics ban will go into place or flights will be suspended. Then within 120 days, “all foreign carriers with U.S. operations will be required to make security program changes in line with U.S. carrier standards. This will include training, passenger questioning, and oversight of aircraft security.”

Some of these changes likely do make sense… in limited quantities. And in fact, airlines do use ETD machines in higher risk locations today. That would explain why, once the rules were rolled out, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, and Turkish were able to get off the large electronics ban list almost immediately. I have no doubt those airlines are livid that this wasn’t the requirement in the first place. It could have saved a whole lot of pain to go down this road instead of the knee-jerk ban path that was taken.

Better late than never, right? Were this limited to the Middle East and other higher risk locations, then I probably wouldn’t have been compelled to write a post. But this wasn’t limited, and that’s where this starts to sound nutty.

Since these rules now apply to all international flights coming into the US, that Silver Airways Saab 340 flying from North Eleuthera to Ft Lauderdale must have explosive trace detection in North Eleuthera. That may not apply to you, but maybe you’re flying JetBlue from Aruba, or Southwest from Belize. The threat level on a flight like that compared to something coming out of the Middle East is far lower. Yet compliance in the next two weeks is mandatory… and impossible.

These machines cost thousands upon thousands of dollars to acquire, but it’s not like airlines can walk into Best Buy and just grab one off the shelf. To meet the new requirements, the companies that manufacture them will have to ramp up and it will take time. Further, once the machines are acquired, there is a need for training to be able to use them properly and effectively.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Who is acquiring them in the first place? Is it the airline? The airport? The government? No direction was given, so everyone has to figure that out on their own in a tiny 3 week period. That usually means that in most countries it’ll fall on the airline to lead the charge. Thanks to the liability issue, it’s asinine to think that this can be resolved in that period of time. Let’s say United buys a machine for Aruba. Can JetBlue use it? Well, there has to be some legal understanding that if JetBlue does use it and an airplane blows up, United has no liability. Airlines will be wary to let other carries use their machines without some kind of protection. And of course, how that protection works will vary country by country. It’s no simple issue.

Let’s say there’s a country that has decided it will buy the machines and just handle it for all airlines. There needs to be a location for the machines, and they have to be worked into the existing processes. It doesn’t happen overnight. Yet there are a mere 21 days given to make this happen worldwide. That’s completely impossible.

And remember, this requires us to actually believe that there’s an imminent threat coming out of Aruba. I find it hard to believe or there wouldn’t even be a 21 day grace period. Large electronics would have been banned immediately, at least until compliance could occur.

Regardless, this is happening. And that means there are three options:

  1. The large electronics ban goes into effect on a slew of international flights from airports that aren’t able to comply.
  2. Flights from locations that don’t comply must be canceled.
  3. DHS blinks and admits that what it has required is impossible, giving more time for compliance or, in a perfect world, scaling back to only airports where the threat is real.

The third is mostly likely (at least the part about giving more time) since it sounds like the feds have already said they’ll be open to discussions with airlines. But the fact that DHS would roll out such an ill-conceived and impossible to implement program in the first place really makes me wonder who is making decisions over there. Yes, let’s celebrate the end of the large electronics ban, at least on some airlines where it existed. But this is hardly the right way to replace it on a global scale. Now we just have to wait and see if there will be a significant disruption when many of these airports/airlines fail to comply across the board by the July 19 deadline.

[Oscar Flowers [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

32 comments on “US Eschews Sensible Risk-Based Security in Favor of Broad-Based Insanity

  1. Great article. The stupidity of Homeland Security versus security processes that really work like El Al. I blame the politicians who are inept at just about everything. A House full of chimpanzees and a Senate full of Pee Wee Hermans would do a better job.

    1. But….. El Al has a total of 43 airplanes in their entire fleet – 23 of them are B737’s which leaves 20 planes for long-haul routes. How much easier is it to secure a fleet that size, flying a much smaller route map?

      1. Significantly easier, as it the bulk of the security measures Israel implements in what is an amazingly much smaller market. It is also salient that the bulk of airports where an individual would be originating that would cause problems for Israel are from countries that don’t recognize Israel and don’t have flights to and from there.

  2. This has kickback written over it. Who stands to make the most money off the machines? Does the person(s) writing these laws have any ties to them?

    1. Agreed. The security-industrial complex seems to be as powerful these days as the military-industrial complex was during the Cold War (and arguably still is). One could probably throw the prison-industrial complex in there as well…

    2. Matt – I don’t know enough to know all the manufacturers and people who might be connected, but it’s Washington, so… seems likely there are some dots connected somewhere. Still, remember that this wasn’t the first choice. The first choice was a knee-jerk laptop ban.

  3. The security theater just keeps getting worse, and the “security” [sic] – industrial complex just keeps getting stronger.

    Let’s not forgot both the inconvenience of the “large electronics ban” to those with necessary but banned electronic devices (e.g., an external transformer for a power wheelchair might fall under the ban, probably depending on the local airport security supervisor’s discretion), as well as the potential “threat” [again, sic] that allowed medical devices such as CPAP machines pose.

    To me this is similar to allowing cell phones on airplanes but banning pax from using cell phone service in flight. If the threat were truly dire, all cell phones and large electronics would be banned entirely. Given that they are not, one can only conclude that it is for another reason.

  4. You were too polite to say (or wanted to maintain a kind of journalistic neutrality) that it really looks like the ban is politically motivated. If anything, the time for a “laptop bomb” was 10-15 years ago, when machines were commonly 1.5″-2″ thick and weighed over 5 lbs, not today, when they’re a lot thinner and lighter, and have a lot less room for a bomb (plus, it’s not like you couldn’t make a wireless switch to set off a bomb in a cargo hold). The timing – after Trump’s Muslim ban was stopped in the courts – is just too suspicious to make me think this is about security.

    Having said that, however: If there WAS a real threat from laptops, Homeland Security’s doing the right thing by making the geographical scope global. If you really wanted to use a laptop bomb to blow up a plane and you knew you’d get caught in say, US airports or a couple dozen airports in the Middle East considered “high threat,” you’d just start your journey from a lower-threat place.

    In 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Argentina was bombed by Islamic terrorists, which caught the Israelis (and everyone else) by surprise: Argentina wasn’t considered a high-threat place, so the Israelis had an embassy that was less secure (older building, facade on the street rather than set behind a bombproof barrier, etc). Same principle applies here, and after that, the US started making sure new embassies were secure, even in places where we thought the threat was low (Canada and the UK, and also small, out-of-the-way countries that most people can’t locate on a map).

    Still, though: It just seems so highly unlikely that a new “laptop bomb” threat has emerged in the past 6 months, so the whole thing just reeks of bad security/political theater.

    1. Exactly what Tim said. We currently have a government that is, somewhat arbitrarily, using top-down decision making and retroactively cleaning this up. It’s happened for quite a few regulations. There’s no other reason why only a small subset of airports were included in the initial ban, given that it wouldn’t have actually stopped determined attackers, just changing their stopovers.

    2. Now there’s something I never understood. Laptops were banned from the cabin but were O.K. in the belly. Really? Cab anybody explain that one?

      1. Yeah, I don’t understand it either, because its even less safe in the hold. If a laptop fire breaks out in the cabin, it’ll be noticed fairly quickly, and it can be fought. (How cabin fires are fought is a different matter. All airlines have fire extinguishers, Some airlines have bags to put the laptop in that prevent the fire from spreading, and seriously if push comes to shove, get the plane below 10,000 feet, open a door and shove the burning laptop out of it.)

        The problem with putting laptops, and their batteries in the hold is that even with automatic fire detection systems in the hold, there isn’t a guarantee that the fire will be extinguished. (Lithium batteries fires fuel themselves and don’t require oxygen to burn, so most cargo fire suppression systems are ineffective against them.)

        Bottom line is, I’d rather have the laptops in the cabin, where you can watch them.

        1. A few years ago, I remember airport security asking me to turn my laptop, handheld games, and cellphone on to verify that it was a working electronic rather than something hollowed out for nefarious purposes. I had nothing to hide, I turned them on and went on my way once the staff were satisfied.

          If there really was a threat from laptops and if somebody managed to sneak one aboard, with the abundance of wireless communications like wifi or bluetooth connections on laptops and cellphones these days, it probably wouldn’t matter if it was in the cargo hold or in the overhead compartment. Somebody will find some (high tech) way to set it off.

          It does get me thinking though, how much explosive can you stuff inside a (modern) laptop case and still make it work in addition to being remotely or time triggered.. and how much damage could something like that do to an airplane.

    3. While I’m not defending this silly policy, there is no reason a terrorist couldn’t pack a bomb in a 10 year old laptop. It’s not like he has to use a Surface Pro.

    4. |Having said that, however: If there WAS a real threat from laptops, Homeland Security’s doing the right thing by making the geographical scope global

      If that were true, this would apply to domestic flights as well

    5. TimH – From what I hear, there is a real threat behind this. I couldn’t tell you any details about it, because I have no clue, but I’m told there is some substance. That still doesn’t make this the right response.

  5. Would there be terrorism to secure against in the west if western countries stopped meddling, bombing, and droning other countries? Maybe the US could eschew a broad-based insane foreign policy in favor of actual security by not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

  6. I’m trying to get my head around the term “continuous and random.” Can a thing be both?

    1. Sure it can. The detection regime must be running all the time the security facility is open. During that time, passengers should be randomly selected, perhaps by using a random number generator or something of the sort.

  7. I have to disagree with your premise that the location matters. If airports in the middle east are subject to higher requirements, what is to stop a terrorist from first flying to Canada or Mexico or Aruba and then entering the US with explosives from there? Come to think of it, why are domestic flights exempt? Can a terrorist not arrive in the US and then carry out an incident on a domestic flight? That’s what happened on 9/11, for what it’s worth.

    I would like to know who owns the companies that make these expensive machines, and how much money they donated to congressional campaigns.

    1. Jim – It’s just a lot harder to do something like that. The easiest and most common way for terrorists is likely to involve the Middle East or Europe, because those are the paths of least resistance. For a terrorist to get to a place like North Eleuthera or Aruba, they’d either have to go through the US or another country which would likely cause more flagging behind the scenes. It’s just less likely to occur. Nothing is impossible, but you have to play the odds and focus your efforts where you’re most likely to have an impact.

  8. It’s been a long time since I have thought that the Department of Homeland Security has come up with something that is practical and logical. Even when they do find that rare idea that is practical and logical, they come up with several other bad ideas.

  9. I’m for privatized security screening and an approach more like the Israeli model that profiles, instead of making everyone a selectee, would be my preference. Let’s face it Civil Aviation is a sexy target and electronics are the perfect disguise.

  10. excellent article and highlights the frustration which many have had with the US’ aviation security mindset since 9/11.
    Within the past week, I was the subject of the domestic version of random electronics check and it was the most thorough I have ever experienced. I fully expect the same thing to occur on international flights.

    CF’s point is particularly valid that US airlines operate from very separate gates at foreign airports and alongside airlines that do not have to meet these US requirements so logistically this whole thing will be very difficult to implement. I expect there will be many exceptions including extensions.

    I hope CF follows up on the implementation and others add their perspective on how this is being implemented in specific airports.

  11. and those machines cost 15 000, used ones… so it an airline flies to 60 destinations, al little less than a half of them are outside of US, who’s going to pay for it? Customers :(

  12. As seems to be all too frequently the case these days, I find myself thinking, “I don’t think these guys are very good at this.”  It looks like a policy developed by a bunch of conspiracy theorists who have no idea whatsoever about airline operations.  Maybe it’s a clever security innovation that has totally fooled me.  Maybe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier