The War On Moisture Has Casualties

Posted on Wednesday 1 November 2006

In an article from today’s New Zealand Herald, we see that the “War on Moisture” has claimed at least one casualty. A diabetic man fell into a coma because he wasn’t allowed to bring his insulin aboard the plane.

Mr. Tui Peter Russell started feeling ill on the flight, and when he spoke to the flight attendant, he was asked where his insulin was. The cabin crew was upset that he wasn’t allowed to bring it on-board, and attempted to keep Russell conscious, administering oxygen until they landed.

Part of the problem is the variability in what is and isn’t allowed aboard a plane seems to be determined by the individual policies of the gate security personnel, rather than at some higher level. This has been my experience in my travels as well. Unless the enforcement is uniform, there is no real additional security to be gained by restricting what is allowed on board an aircraft. If the woman next to me is allowed to carry four or five bottles of cosmetics on-board, by what criteria is she allowed to do so…there is nothing to prevent her from being a terrorist.

The false sense of security that most of the ineffective post 9/11 security measures affords the public is very dangerous. When another terrorist attack does occur, the governments and the airlines will truly lose all credibility with the public, and the damage to the economy, when very few will be willing to fly again, will be enormous.

Mr. Russell said that Quantas, the airline carrier he had flown on, was offering him a free return flight, but had not offered to compensate him for the incurred hospital and medical bills, much less the two-weeks he spent comatose.

I see incidents like this increasing in the future unless something is done about the variability in the administration of the security policies at airlines and airports. Of course, it would help more if the governments could actually start identifying the actual terrorists and targeting them specifically, instead of using largely ineffective blanket security measures.

Another disturbing article is from The Star-Ledger out of New Jersey. The article reports that TSA security screeners at Newark International Airport missed 20 of 22 security tests conducted by last week—missing concealed bombs and guns.

The missed devices included fake explosives concealed under bottles of water in carry-on luggage, devices taped beneath clothing and under another concealed by a leg bandage. One airport security official was quoted saying, “We just totally missed everything.”

Steve Elson, a former member of the FAA “Red Team” who resigned before 9/11 says, “The failures of the TSA are failures at the basic level.” He also says that the problems are due to the top TSA officials having little aviation security experience and requiring the TSA screeners to do too many tedious and obvious checks.

Both Newark International and Boston’s Logan International airports have been plagued with poor security and were launching points for some of the 9/11 attacks back in September 2001.

The TSA uses screening methods that are designed to detect threat objects but are far more likely to fail than more advanced methods like the behavioral profiling methods used by Israeli aviation security forces. Part of the problem with current methods is the highly repetitive nature of the work, and the high probability of false positives.

Bogdan Dzakovic, an FAA “Red Team” member who testified before the 9/11 commission said that such poor results are predictable. He also said that the FAA “Red Teams” need to start thinking more like terrorists and less about the previous methods they’ve used in the past.

TSA spokesperson Ann Davis said, “Covert tests are conducted by security experts who expect significant fault rates commensurate with the tests’ high level of difficulty.” However, a failure rate of 91% is far too high in my opinion, especially given that the terrorists have proven themselves far more creative at thinking of novel methods to bring weapons and explosives aboard aircraft in the past.

Davis also said, “Those tests strengthen the screening system by challenging the work force and identifying factors that could lead to a breach, TSA then uses test results to adapt and improve upon our screening protocols and training regimens.”

However, it is unlikely that anyone who is doing highly monotonous and repetitive work, with a high incidence of false positives and low incidence of positive positives will generally yield a strong number of false negatives as a result.  There is little in the way of modifying screening protocols and training regimens that can truly address this problem.

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