An Examination of Airport
from Michael Z. Williamson
September 16, 2001
We now face a discussion on airport and air carrier security. Naturally, the "if it's less efficient and has more regulations it makes us safer" crowd are speaking up. The FAA has offered
a variety of feelgood measures, none of which would have mattered worth a damn as far as the events of September 11, 2001.
I will compare the security of different airports on a trip I took 3 years ago. Let's see what we can learn from it.
We started in Indianapolis, where they insisted on searching every bag with drug detection gear, after the formality of asking us if they could. I would normally object to such on privacy grounds, but the fact is, they ARE a private carrier and have the right to ask. I'll leave the moralizing over the use of such findings for later.
One of our party beeped as he went through the detector. A guard with a search wand checked him, checked to be sure that the metal in his boots was safety caps, pulled back his sleeve to confirm it was an actual watch and not a weapon taped to the wrist. This is the first and ONLY time in a US airport I have seen a guard make even that much effort.
We had no additional security steps in O'Hare, as we stayed in the secure area. Still, it wouldn't hurt to check everyone again.
Landing in Heathrow was a security nightmare. I'm amazed the airport hasn't been stolen, never mind attacked. "Childishly pathetic" comes to mind.
Because they are short of terminal space, the plane stayed on the apron and we took a bus to the terminal, where we boarded a train. We passed a door marked, "AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY."
The door was unlocked. People came and went, in blue coveralls. Anyone could have carried coveralls on the flight, changed into them, thrown a jacket over, and walked through that door. If they then lost the jacket, they'd be a faceless blue-collar in coveralls. What about badges, you ask? My experience is that no one would notice. And really, how hard is it to fake a badge with a color printer and laminator?
We entered the terminal, and went through "security" again. First, we had to wait for them to deal with a far Eastern gentleman who didn't speak English. It took much pantomime to help him understand to empty his pockets…of keys, change, a camera, paperclips and more change. While they did this, we waited. I thought at first that was a measure to prevent them from being distracted by a potential decoy, but it was, in fact, incompetence. They could have taken care of more us with their joke of security.
Finally, with the gentleman in question still beeping as he walked through, they gestured for him to hold up his arms, made a token pat of his wrists and ankles, and waved him on. One of our NCOs stepped through, carrying his trench coat. He beeped.
They hung up his coat, patted his belt, wrists and ankles, and handed him back the coat, unsearched. Pistol? Couple of grenades? Sure. Anything he wanted could have been in that coat, had he been a terrorist.
Note that they had no wand detectors. They're made by Garrett among others, I believe. Get some, you miserly fools.
In the ticket area, we had to wait in line with our bags. Now, I learned growing up in Britain that you NEVER leave your bag unattended, or it will be treated as a bomb. I reminded my compatriots of this, and we stood by our bags in line. Ahead of us, a Middle Eastern family had a large pile of luggage. The parents, one by one, sat down a few feet away, with the infants. The children stayed near the bags, but began to horseplay. In a few moments, they were all several feet away. I said loudly, "WHO'S BAGS ARE THESE?" and the father came running over to stand by them. In Europe, one does NOT leave bags unattended. Of course, it was another couple of minutes before a security guard ambled over and checked their passports. For what, I'm not sure. He didn't check the bags.
I felt better at the Kuwait Airlines lounge. Their ticket staff are contracted by Aer Lingus, out of Ireland. There were only two Kuwaitis there, one male, one female, strictly as security.
This is how a good search is done:
I was required to produce my passport--a military ID in this case. It was held to identify me. My bag was searched by hand, including my toiletries kit and CD case. I had to demonstrate my CD player. Then I was searched.
Fingers around the collar, down the back, around inside the belt, along the arms, under the arms, down the sides, down each pant leg and into the boot tops, back up the legs and closely enough I could have asked for a date. THAT is how a search is done. At that point, I was handed back my ID. If a terrorist runs from the search, they are easier to identify with the passport in hand.
This whole process took barely a few minutes. With the tension always present in the Middle East, I was happy to comply.
Now, departing Kuwait was a lesson in how security is run. Please take notes:
At the airport, the door is protected by concrete pillars to prevent a vehicle driving in. It is also fronted by a tubular steel barricade one must go around…about 50 feet around. At the door, there's a metal detector and X-ray. It's manned by Kuwaiti soldiers with guns. You are also patted down and your bag tagged. If a bag is later found untagged, it is identified to a passenger, searched and tagged. The color-coded tags change regularly.
If you have a ticket, you surrender it for a boarding pass. If you buy a ticket or have one on hold, it is stamped, filed, and you are handed a boarding pass. You must show this boarding pass and a passport to another soldier at a turnstile, move 10 feet to the right in a small area glazed with bulletproof Lexan, and repeat the procedure with ANOTHER soldier. This gets you into the terminal proper.
All doors marked "Authorized Personnel Only" (in English and Arabic) are locked, relocked after use, and checked every few minutes by roving security. They carry guns.
At the departure lounge, there is another X-ray, another metal detector, and another search. One of our group was even required to prove his collection of souvenir coins from deployments, stored in his kit, was in fact change.
How long did this take? Not much longer than it takes to read about it. How good was it? I've never felt safer in an airport, and this was technically a war zone. How expensive was it? Not very, and certainly cheaper than replacing the World Trade Center.
Would this have stopped the attack? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Would it stop many other incidents? Yes. Does it intrude on American privacy? Not much.
It is efficient, it is polite, it is secure. For those reasons, the FAA obviously won't embrace it.
As to how to stop terrorists in the air after the fact…we used to arm our pilots. We used to have roving skymarshals. It is Pollyanic, it is insane, to pretend that if guns don't exist, terrorists won't be able to hijack a plane.
Arm the crews now. If it saves even one life…or twenty thousand lives…isn't it worth it?
Copyright 2001 by Michael Z. Williamson. Permission is granted to copy in whole or part for non-profit purposes, provided due credit is given. Please inform the author directly at
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