Thursday 11 September 2008

Secure the Hatches

I've become an unwitting radio star in the last month or so. A interview on light packing on behalf of Lonely Planet led to me reprising the topic to several local ABC radio stations.

And today, I did an interview on ABC North West Queensland, which broadcasts out of the desert mining town of Mount Isa. The topic? How travel has changed since the events of 11 September 2001.

As you can imagine, I spent the majority of the time complaining about excessive air travel security measures.

Like anyone, I've no problem with security measures that are clearly making flying safer. What I do object to are security measures that appear to be designed to make it seem that authorities are Doing Something.

What's particularly annoying is the arbitrary ways these policies are implemented. Here are a few personal experiences:

Liquid Ban. I did the right thing the first time I travelled under the rule banning carry-on liquids over 100 millilitres. I made sure every item was less than that amount, put them in a clear plastic bag, even cadged a couple of 60ml sample packs of contact lens fluid from my optometrist.

However, my brand new tube of toothpaste was labelled by weight: 110 grams. Now clearly 110g of a thick, semi-solid paste is going to occupy less than 110ml in volume, so I put it in the bag. And it was pulled out and thrown away at airport security, because they'd belatedly decided to equate 100g with 100ml. And for good measure they also confiscated my 6ml shoe shine, because it somehow didn't qualify as OK to take aboard in cabin luggage. Yes, that's six millilitres of liquid.

Geographically Selective Procedures. The liquid ban applies to international flights from Australia, but not domestic flights within Australia. Surely if the liquid explosives threat is for real, it should apply to every flight. Or do liquid explosives only activate on crossing international borders?

Laptop Opening. In recent years, security has usually asked travellers to take out laptop computers for separate screening, and often to turn them on. But when I passed through London Heathrow outbound in June, there was a sign up saying that this was no longer required. A miraculous new development in screening technology? Or just a decision that it was slowing the queues too much?

Security Overkill. As I've mentioned once before, on my last two Melbourne-London flights transiting in Singapore, we were required to take all cabin luggage off the aircraft and have it re-screened before reboarding, even though it had all been screened in Melbourne and we weren't changing planes. Very unnecessary, and tough on the Changi Airport shops - with eight kilos of cabin luggage to lug around, most passengers just walked straight from the aircraft into the departure lounge to wait for reboarding.

Crazy Sequencing. On a recent flight from the regional city of Wollongong to Melbourne, we went through the metal detector after the plane had landed in Melbourne. By which point a suicide bomber could have already blown up the aircraft. Cheap and convenient for an airline operating infrequent flights from a small airport, but surely security is either applied properly, or not at all?

Part of the problem is the difficulty of getting rid of excessive security measures at a later date, as no one wants to make such a decision and them be proven wrong. What I'd like to see is a clear sunset clause to new security measures, having them last a set number of years, at which point they lapse unless their necessity is reexamined and proven.

Have any inconsistent security stories of your own? Do share...

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