Over the last few days news has been emerging about a new security threat to aviation. It started with anonymous security sources in the United Kingdom, who claimed that terrorists had crafted bombs into modern electronics that could not be detected by conventional airport security screening.
Now the discussion has spread to the United States. National Public Radio has reported that American counter-terrorism officials were recently discussing the threat and how to respond to it.
In both cases, security officials have proposed banning carry-on bags from flights.
There are a couple angles to consider here. If this threat is indeed genuine, travelers have every incentive to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent the threat. By the time you’re cruising at 38,000 feet it’s too late to take corrective action.
Of course, banning all carry-on baggage (or even just electronic carry-ons) would be an extreme and draconian policy. Many travelers carry laptops, tablets and smartphones. Would these be safe in checked baggage? Historical data suggests otherwise. I won’t bother posting the links here, but a simple Google search would reveal hundreds of cases of valuable property stolen from checked luggage. If they ban carry-ons, will airlines or governments guarantee the value of the electronics we are forced to place in our checked baggage? That’s doubtful.
Most travelers – myself included – are pragmatists. Our laptops don’t do us any good if our flight explodes over the Atlantic. In this case the critical issue appears to be the depth of screening for electronic items. Security experts assert that checked luggage is screened more thoroughly than carry-on baggage, hence the proposed restrictions. If that’s the case, airports should open dedicated lanes for those of us who need our electronic items with us in the cabin. These lanes could screen electronic items with more scrutiny that is currently applied to them. In the face of a true and transient threat, most travelers would submit to temporary inconvenience in order to minimize the danger of stolen or damaged goods that would naturally result from being forced to check valuable electronic items.
Temporary measures like this – if they are imposed – cannot last forever. Security officials must apply good judgment to these situations, and rescind the onerous restrictions once intelligence indicates that the threat has passed. The failure to do this in several other areas (specifically shoes and liquids) has eroded the public’s trust in the effectiveness of the security establishment. Many of us would refer to the current airport security regime as “security theater.”
Frankly I don’t envy those in charge of deciding policy for airport security. I appreciate that they are caught between varying threats and a potentially angry traveling public. Even so, common sense and reason must be applied to these situations, which come and go. Rather than absolute bans in the face of the latest trending threat, create adaptable security that gives sophisticated travelers choices rather than dictates.