Is Aviation Security Mostly for Show?

Yes. I think Bruce coined the term “security theater”. This recent CNN column sums it up nicely:

Last week’s attempted terror attack on an airplane heading from Amsterdam to Detroit has given rise to a bunch of familiar questions.

(…) Reviewing what happened is important, but a lot of the discussion is off-base, a reflection of the fundamentally wrong conception most people have of terrorism and how to combat it.

(…) The best defenses against terrorism are largely invisible: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response. But even these are less effective at keeping us safe than our social and political policies, both at home and abroad. However, our elected leaders don’t think this way: They are far more likely to implement security theater against movie-plot threats.

(…) “Security theater” refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards.

(…) When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn’t truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense.

Often, this “something” is directly related to the details of a recent event. We confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on airplanes. We tell people they can’t use an airplane restroom in the last 90 minutes of an international flight. But it’s not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. These measures are only effective if we happen to guess what the next terrorists are planning.

If we spend billions defending our rail systems, and the terrorists bomb a shopping mall instead, we’ve wasted our money. If we concentrate airport security on screening shoes and confiscating liquids, and the terrorists hide explosives in their brassieres and use solids, we’ve wasted our money. Terrorists don’t care what they blow up and it shouldn’t be our goal merely to force the terrorists to make a minor change in their tactics or targets.

Read the whole thing »

Bruce also linked to the not-surprising statement by British Airways chairman Martin Broughton:

Britain should stop “kowtowing” to US demands over airport security, the chairman of British Airways, Martin Broughton, has said, adding that American airports did not implement some checks on their own internal flights.

He suggested the practice of forcing passengers on US-bound flights to take off their shoes and to have their laptops checked separately in security lines should be dropped, during a conference of UK airport operators in London.

There was no need to “kowtow to the Americans every time they wanted something done”, said Broughton. “America does not do internally a lot of the things they demand that we do. We shouldn’t stand for that. We should say ‘we’ll only do things which we consider to be essential and that you Americans also consider essential’.”