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The airline security emperors have no clothes

Passengers go through security checks in the departure hall at Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv.


What a time for airline security.

First, British Airways chairman Martin Broughton did the unthinkable at a United Kingdom airport operators conference, publicly questioning what he called "redundant airport security measures," such as the need to unpack laptops and take off shoes. By taking aim at this historically taboo subject, Broughton crystallized a growing discontent among fliers. His comments, calling for a rethink on security protocols, received wide applause.

Days later, cargo bombs were unearthed aboard flights destined for the United States, and Broughton's comments were suddenly forgotten in the kerfuffle. Several countries - Canada included - reacted by banning

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all cargo and direct flights from Yemen and warned travellers to expect tightened security in the weeks ahead.

Which raises the question: Did the announced security clampdown make you think, "Oh good, I'll be safer," or "Oh no, things can't possibly get any worse?"

I suspect many a frazzled passenger would choose the latter, which exposes a flaw in our current security measures. Whether effective or not, they are losing flier confidence, and are believed by many to increase the stress rather than safety of modern flight.

Take the case of Richard Reid, the infamous shoe bomber, who exhibited all the classic signs of suspicious behaviour. He flew into Paris, and immediately bought a one-way ticket for Florida, departing the next day. With cash. He arrived at the airport without luggage, and then walked onto a plane with the heel of one shoe packed with plastic explosives.

What did airline security learn from this? Have everyone take their shoes off. Which appears to be a slightly pathetic and reactionary patch, entirely missing the key shortcomings that allowed Reid aboard the plane.

Then there is Umar Farouk, the so-called Christmas Bomber, a young Nigerian man with known ties to al-Qaeda, whose father contacted U.S. authorities only days earlier voicing concerns over his son's fanaticism. The security response? Ban all carry-on liquids (over 100 millilitres), and begin confiscating barrels full of toothpaste, hair gel and perfume from grandmothers, children and other frustrated fliers.

It seems that it's a political imperative to at least appear to be defending against the latest terrorist tactics - whether or not the newest measures makes any security sense. And a growing number - including Broughton - aren't convinced they do.

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Making things worse is the tendency for security personnel to appear disinterested and disengaged at best, or sullen and surly at worst. There are plenty of refreshingly professional airport security agents out there, but the phenomenon is widespread, and appears to be related to the size of the hub. The bigger the airport, the less engaged the security staff are with passengers. I've been scanned several times this fall by agents in discussions with co-workers in other lines, who take only a small break from chatting to ask for shoes off or belt undone. Most never look me in the eye.

Contrast this with Israel's national carrier, El Al, which ensures that every passenger is interviewed by a well-trained agent before check-in. The airline is renowned for never having suffered a hijacking or act of terrorism, despite the tense arena within which it operates. El Al believes that while technology can help, it can't replace the well-trained human.

Ultimately, as fliers, we are paying for security screening, so if it is going to take place, we have the right to expect a good job.

What is the solution?

First, the performance of security personnel needs to improve. They deserve better pay and more respect, and simultaneously need to earn it. The challenge they face is formidable; vigilantly searching for an event likely never to occur (the vast majority will never intercept a terrorist in their lifetime) but aware that a moment of inattention could lead to horrific results.

More important, our leaders need to better handle the politics of security, including the issues of reactionary protocols (shoes off? laptops out?), flier privacy (body scanners) and passenger profiling (is it time?). We need clarity on what's being done and confidence that it is being done right. Not simply "kowtowing," as Broughton pointed out, to ever-increasing U.S. demands.

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Security is never perfect. No matter what deterrents are put in place, a dedicated individual will eventually slip through. The fundamental question we need to ask is: How can we tighten security and increase its efficiency, without unduly clogging air travel?

Broughton was the first individual of stature within the airline industry to tackle the once-unassailable security industry, to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Or perhaps needs new ones.

Bruce Kirkby is a bestselling author.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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