So, I’ve been out of commission on the blog for a week and a half, and in the meantime people have been getting “complimentary gropings” at airports across America, aircraft engines have exploded and put the Airbus A380 program in jeopardy, stranded cruise ship passengers have been airlifted Spam and PopTarts, and people have mistaken aircraft contrails for missile launches. Clearly, a great week in human history.

But the most widespread travel discussions here in the US have been over the full-body screenings by TSA officials, and the opt-out option of a full-body groping, including breasts and genitalia.

Public polling of the American electorate still shows widespread support for the heightened screenings, but that support is in the abstract. Ask again in six months, when more passengers have flown and experienced it for themselves. Ask again when limiting the sample size to actual travelers. And ask yourself, why are we doing this in the first place?

Is the scan-or-grope policy leading to increased safety, or is it an instantly-obsolete defense that will easily and immediately be defeated?

I submit that, at this point, I actually think the TSA checkpoints themselves, and not the aircraft in the secure area, may be the riskiest spots in the airport. This isn’t a commentary on the radiation, the groping, or the searches and seizures, at least not directly. But don’t let it be a surprise to you if those TSA checkpoints are going to be the real targets soon.

I fear that checkpoints will be a viable target for both al Qaeda-esque “chaos villains” who want to disrupt the flow of normal travel life, and for anti-government McVeigh-esque self-styled patriots looking to make a statement against the perceived overreach of the government agency. Either depraved act would have a chilling effect on travel, and more importantly on an already fearful society.

As we harden the security perimeter, and as long as the motivations of terrorists persist, we increase the likelihood that an attack will be attempted in, say, the area prior to security, where crowds are dense and scanning hasn’t yet taken place. Or where cargo is stored (and barely checked). This is the fundamental weakness of the increased intrusiveness, spearheaded by expensive investments in equipment over intelligence. Technology and intrusive groping techniques won’t end up preventing attacks; they’ll just force the threat to move to another location, likely merely steps away.

It’s the Maginot Line of travel. After World War I, the French military built a series of fortified bunkers to protect themselves from the eventual next German invasion. The fortifications took a decade to build and cost a fortune. They were impressive, and indeed, the Germans didn’t attack the line head-on. Instead, they found a weakness and went around it, driving deep into France within five days. I see the constant escalation in airport security technology in the same way. Lots of fanfare, enormous spend, but easily circumvented by a dedicated attacker.

I don’t envy the TSA agents who do their jobs, as they face down the anger and frustration of a long stream of innocent people who are stripped of their dignity in order to be transported from point A to point B. Now it’s appropriate to worry about them becoming targets.

Categorized in: airport security, TSA

luggage tag Upgrades and Downgrades: Baggage check in, cellphone room keys, defending AirTran, TSA Downgraded: Checking in your bags at US airports
You’ve mastered the self-service check-in. You’ve printed your own boarding passes. Now, get ready to tag your own checked bags: “American Airlines(AMR) and Air Canada say they’re in talks with the Transportation Security Administration for a trial program in Boston likely later this year to let travelers tag their own checked bags for the first time in the U.S. Delta Air Lines (DAL) says it’s in talks with TSA for a trial at another airport.” Not a huge deal, frankly, and 32 airlines worldwide have already been testing this for some time at airports around the world, but it’s new to the United States. It’s another transfer of responsibility from the airline to you. Don’t expect to receive any discounts, vouchers, or thank-yous for doing someone else’s job, either.

Upgraded: Inflight wi-fi on Southwest
Southwest is (finally) getting on the inflight wifi train (err, or plane…) and their price will be a relatively low $5 per connection, regardless of flight duration/distance or device used to connect.

Upgraded: Passion for AirTran’s first class seats
Fans of AirTran, which is being taken over by Southwest, have set up a website devoted to saving the first class seats that AirTran frequent fliers have grown accustomed to. Join the resistance at

Upgraded: Your cellphone as a key
The Clarion Hotel in Stockholm is the first hotel to install a cellphone-based room lock/key system. It’s a limited rollout, for starters. In theory, you’ll be able to check in by phone and walk straight to your room, bypassing the front desk, and avoiding the need for a room key. Neat, if it works.

Upgraded: Back-channel efforts to change our security theater
If existing efforts to change TSA policy have failed — and if the policy itself has continuously gotten worse for travelers — then perhaps a back-channel effort to effect change may be in order. Reader Ed sends in this open letter to the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. The letter-writer, Arthur Krolman, argues that Disney is tacitly endorsing TSA policy, and is thereby supporting the “nude photography or inspection of private parts” of children. Ouch. Will Disney take the bait ?…


It’s November 1, 2010, and the TSA’s Secure Flight rules are now fully in effect. But the requirement that you provide your gender, birthdate, and precise name on your ID is nowhere near as notable as the TSA’s increased insistance on getting intimately familiar with your private parts.

Jeffrey Goldberg gets the lowdown. And I mean low down.

In part because of the back-scatter imager’s invasiveness (a TSA employee in Miami was arrested recently after he physically assaulted a colleague who had mocked his modestly sized penis, which was fully apparent in a captured back-scatter image), the TSA is allowing passengers to opt-out of the back-scatter and choose instead a pat-down. I’ve complained about TSA pat-downs in the past, because they, too, were more security theater than anything else. They are, as I would learn, becoming more serious, as well.

“[...] starting tomorrow, we’re going to start searching your crotchal area” — this is the word he used, “crotchal” — and you’re not going to like it.”

“What am I not going to like?” I asked.

“We have to search up your thighs and between your legs until we meet resistance,” he explained.

“Resistance?” I asked.

“Your testicles,” he explained.

“That’s funny,” I said, “because ‘The Resistance’ is the actual name I’ve given to my testicles.”

Go read the whole thing. And the sequel. Then you can make a more informed decision as to whether or not to opt out of the backscatter.

Categorized in: airport security, TSA

Upgraded: Free rental cars for electric vehicle owners
If you live outside the United States and spring for a Nissan Leaf, the forthcoming mass-production battery electric vehicle, Nissan will cover your car rentals for long-distance travels. This is interesting. The Leaf only covers 100 miles or so on a single charge, so it’s not necessarily practical for road trips. Nissan’s offer bridges that gap. For now, though, it’s not available to customers in the U.S. No details yet on frequency of rental, distances covered, or other limitations.

Upgraded: Canada’s Via Rail
Via, the Canadian national railway, is updating its cars, with the first new-and-improved sleeping cars and dining cars going into service between Toronto and Vancouver. More comfort on long-haul trains is always a plus.

Upgraded: Your ears
Your ears may soon be a part of your security screening. You read that right: Ears are a biologically unique marker, and as such, may be included in your biometric profile for international travel. If researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK convince global governments, you too, may soon be identified at passport control by way of your ears. (via @elliottdotorg)

Upgraded: Burnin’ rubber
Reader Jeff sends in a video of an Airbus A340-600 brake test. It’s not quite riveting at first, but in the second half of the video, overheated brakes and tires start blowing up, catching on fire, and creating general havoc. I’m not sure if the video is comforting or not. On the one hand, there’s a lot of time between the time the time the brakes are hit and the time the flames start spewing out, meaning there’s a lot of time to evacuate. On the other hand, what the hell are these Airbus staffers doing!? The repeated expressions of “Merde!” aren’t exactly the sign of a plan coming together:

(Thanks Jeff! via the Presurfer)


Some encouraging news for those who like to travel with liquids and gels in quantities greater than 3 ounces/100 ml in carry-on luggage: The International Civil Aviation Organization has predicted an end to the restrictions within the next two years.

“In the next two years (the ban) will end,” ICAO Secretary General Raymond Benjamin told AFP ahead of the UN organization’s 37th general assembly, which kicks off in Montreal on Tuesday.

New equipment capable of detecting explosives in water bottles, makeup kits or toothpaste tubes, for example, would be installed at most airport security checkpoints by 2012, he explained.

This timeframe is more aggressive than the timeline the European Union has set for the lifting of the ban, the very-specific date of April 29, 2013:

By 29 April 2013 at the latest, all liquids will be allowed in cabin baggage and will be screened. By that date, the current restrictions on the carriage of liquids in cabin baggage will end. The transition period until 2013 is necessary to allow for a roll-out of liquids screening equipment at all EU airports.

As a preliminary step in phasing out the restrictions on liquids, as from 29 April 2011 at the latest, duty-free liquids purchased at third country airports or on board third country airlines and carried in tamper evident bags will be allowed as cabin baggage and will be screened. Today, these liquids are only allowed in cabin baggage if they come from selected third countries (United States, Canada, Singapore and Croatia).

Unfortunately, it will apparently take a little more convincing (or lobbying) to get the DHS and TSA on board with that timetable:

[U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano told The Associated Press she’s surprised by International Civil Aviation Organization Secretary General Raymond Benjamin’s remarks that security equipment in most airports will allow for the ban to be lifted soon.

Napolitano said the technology isn’t ready.

“I think that’s premature,” Napolitano said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Sigh. It feels like we’ve made so little progress in the world since 2006. Back in 2008, there were liquid bomb testers in Japanese airports, and we still don’t see them in the US or Europe.

However, the fact that the ICAO is publicly making statements pertaining to a timeline for phase-out is strangely encouraging. I know the ICAO has no jurisdiction over the screening of passengers at airports, but the transportation and security leaders of forty governments attended their last conference. This isn’t a bunch of crackpots, and the leaders didn’t fall off the turnip truck.

Let’s revisit this in two years, to see if we’re really any closer to lifting the ban. Until then, continue using your 3-1-1 freedom baggies.

Categorized in: airport security, TSA

Upgraded: Delta’s regional jets
Delta announced today that they would put first-class seats on all domestic flights of more than 750 miles. That means many RJs which thusfar had been single-cabin will be revamped to two-class service. Let the upgrades begin!

Upgraded?: The Concorde
The return of the supersonic airliner? Perhaps. But alas, only one of them. And you won’t be earning any miles to fly on this one. A team of French and British engineers are trying to resuscitate a mothballed plane, for a flyover at the 2012 London Olympic games.

Still Downgraded: American credit cards abroad
Chip-and-PIN. Still the nemesis of the American traveler, as I’ve been posting here since 2006. But every few months, the print media picks up the issue again. It’s USA Today’s turn this month. The U.S. credit card industry isn’t interested in joining the rest of the planet in adopting the chip-and-PIN standard, so American travelers will continue to face hassles and the inability to use their cards at vending machines. 2006… 2010… no change.

Downgraded: The science of airport security
A long but interesting read: A detailed history and critique in the journal Nature of the use of airport deception detection — the effort to find the bad guys at security checkpoints by examining their facial tics and behavior. (Turns out, it’s based on the highly controversial and disputed research by Paul Ekman, on whom the TV show “Lie to Me” is based. Wacky!)

Upgraded: Colorful reasons for flight delays
If you were flying into or out of Washington National on Tuesday morning, here’s why: A biplane crashed on the runway. And it’s caught on tape, filmed by a Washington Post journalist who was onboard as part of a film promotion. (I’m sure that film review will be super-positive now, eh?)

Categorized in: chip-and-PIN