Bringing some sanity to airport security

The former head of U.S. airport security is calling for an end to the check-in nightmare

Line up. Liquids in a baggie. Toss your water. Wait. Stuff your jacket in a bin. Empty your pockets. Take off your belt. Wait some more. Walk through slowly. Raise your arms. Stand still.

Is there any modern activity more frustrating, time-consuming and humiliating than the airport security line? Improved vigilance against terrorism may be a necessity in our post-9/11 world. But does it have to be so awkward? And is that bottle of water really a threat to global security?

In what might be considered a welcome breath of fresh air for air travellers, the former head of U.S. airport security is calling for an end to many of the most outrageous and bothersome aspects of airport check-in: liquid of all sizes should be allowed as carry-on, bans on non-weapons such as lighters should be relaxed and, in the name of improved security, airlines should be forbidden from charging checked baggage fees. Could it really be possible to fly like it’s 1999?

Kip Hawley was administrator of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from 2005 to 2009. During that time he was responsible for many of the decisions that turned air travel into such a grind, including restrictions on liquids. And that made him a frequent target of public outrage. In 2006, a Milwaukee man was detained by TSA staff when he wrote “Kip Hawley is an idiot” on the baggie holding his miniature vials of liquids at a security check. Hawley now appears to be trying to make amends.

Hawley’s new book Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security, released this week, provides an insider’s perspective on how to make airport security a less irritating experience without increasing overall risk. Given the high degree of co-operation between the TSA and the Canadian Air Transportation Security Authority, what Hawley says should resonate with put-upon Canadian flyers as well.

His most refreshing idea: allow passengers to bring liquids of all sizes in their carry-on luggage. Carry-on liquids and gels are currently limited to 100 ml in Canada and the U.S. But Hawley reports that airport scanners now have the ability to determine if a liquid is an explosive. He suggests specially designated lanes for passengers with “snow globes, beauty products, booze” or any other fluids they might wish to carry on. If you’d rather not buy a microscopic flask of mouthwash for every trip, you could simply pick the “liquids lane” at pre-boarding and bring your bottle from home.

Airline baggage fees should be outlawed as an impediment to security, argues Hawley. Charging for each piece of checked luggage has become commonplace among airlines eager for extra revenue. But this measure encourages passengers to stuff as much as physically possible into their carry-on bags, which are still free. This inevitably slows down pre-boarding inspections. While airlines would have to find other ways to squeeze money out of travellers, the result would be quicker and more thorough inspections.

And Hawley would eliminate the list of forbidden items, beyond the most obvious weapons such as knives and bombs. “Banning certain items gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack,” he explains in a recent Wall Street Journal column promoting his book. “Lighters are banned? The next attack will use an electric trigger.” Both the Shoe Bomber and Underwear Bomber provide evidence of evolving terrorist ingenuity.

Finally, Hawley suggests wholesale reform of the philosophy behind airport security. Instead of rigid protocols, he would give individual officers greater flexibility and discretion to search for possible threats. He would also randomize detailed inspections and institute more interviews to keep terrorists off-balance.

Savvy travellers will recognize Hawley’s last point as a modified version of the vaunted Israeli approach to air terrorism, which focuses on the risk posed by individual ticket holders through targeted behaviour recognition. The North American method of obsessing over each and every bag for potential terrorism paraphernalia, on the other hand, wastes everyone’s time equally. While this may strike some as equitable, it’s wholly illogical and represents a vast waste of resources. It’s also worth noting that both the Shoe and Underwear Bombers were thwarted, not by security measures, but by the courageous and spontaneous reactions of passengers and crew. “In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare,” says Hawley. “Terrorists are adaptive, we need to be adaptive too.”

Without much difficulty, and without endangering security, we could return air travel to the modestly pleasurable activity it was 20 years ago. But getting there will require a whole new way of thinking about airport security.

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