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August 04, 2007

History Lesson: A Reminder About Air Travel [Gabriel Malor]

I travel by air so often it feels like the norm to me, but I have just been reminded that itís only been a year since the foiling of the UK-US airline terror plot which resulted in restrictions on passengers with liquids in their carry-on luggage. After deciding that a threat was posed by unmonitored liquids in flight, the TSA banned liquids, aerosols, and gels on flights into and out of the country.

Is the liquid ban really necessary? Has the TSA or others actually studied whether a liquid bomb constitutes a threat? Have we just become habituated to the whole thing?


The TSA last adjusted the ban on September 26, 2006, deciding that:

Travelers may now carry through security checkpoints travel-size toiletries (3 ounces or less) that fit comfortably in ONE, QUART-SIZE, clear plastic, zip-top bag.
After clearing security, travelers can now bring beverages and other items purchased in the secure boarding area on-board aircraft.

Itís about time, I think, to question whether these restrictions are necessary. Right from the outset, we should recognize two things when setting air travel security policy: (1) airplanes are for a variety of reasons likely targets for terrorism; and (2) there is some acceptable level of risk of a terrorist incident onboard one.

At the time of the final ban announcement, just a month and a half after the plot was made public, the TSA assured the flying public that it had made a thorough study of the danger:

Please keep in mind that these rules were developed after extensive research and understanding of current threats.

I donít suppose anyone has seen this ďextensive research.Ē Iím curious to know just what threat the TSA has identified. I see only two options: (1) mixing of chemicals mid-flight to create a bomb; and (2) carrying on already-mixed liquid explosives.

The first possibility has been widely criticized as not only implausible, but so improbable as to be no credible threat. Even ignoring the difficulties in actually mixing the compounds in such a way as to produce explosives without asphyxiating oneself or creating a messy but non-threatening stain in the lavatory, the first possibility requires good conditions and time in which to work, time in which the passengers and crew would almost certainly become aware of unusual activity in the lavatory.

The second has me a bit more worried, because I can see how it would be possible to simply carry already-mixed explosives in a soda bottle through the security checkpoint. But is it any more difficult to put some already-mixed explosives in any of the numerous items that can currently be carried onto an airplane? How is it an acceptable level of risk to allow all manner of consumer electronics onto airplanes, all of which contain compartments suitable for covertly storing liquids, but an unacceptable risk to allow bottles of soda?

Finally, as clichť as it now is to suggest, I cannot help but think that the liquid ban simply endures because we would like to think that it makes us safer. Of course, itís also easier to maintain the status quo than reevaluate the situation. But I think itís about time, one year after the situation first came to our attention, to take a look at the liquids ban and decide if it is really necessary.

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posted by xgenghisx at 04:04 AM

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