Why Not Pat Down the Cargo? That's the Real Security Threat

Last Updated Nov 19, 2010 7:07 PM EST

If you're as frequent (and jaded) a traveler as I am, the recent headlines about letter bombs in cargo holds were hardly news. You're sadly aware that that while airport security folks are patting down nuns to ferret out tweezers, they pay almost no attention to more threatening items carried in the bellies of the very planes on which we are paying passengers. Not to mention that not one item of U.S. mail carried on commercial passenger jets was being screened until just a few weeks ago.

True, immediately after that first incident -- letter bombs intercepted on their way to American synagogues from Yemen -- the government announced that it was tightening air cargo security. But that applied only to certain items being shipped from certain countries.

If past experience is any guide, don't count on much improvement.

Remember "positive bag matching"? Right after 9/11 the feds issued a strict new rule: If you checked a bag on a plane but didn't board the plane, it would be held at the gate and that luggage would be removed. And, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that's exactly what happened. It was enforced as strict policy on both domestic and international flights. Well, guess what? the airlines won't acknowledge this, but with just a few exceptions--high-profile commercial flights to sensitive destinations in the Middle and Near East--that policy is essentially history.

Nor have security officials anywhere learned what seem like obvious lessons. You have to laugh at the absurd, redundant and inane security procedures at check-in counters and boarding gates.

"Did You Pack Your Bags Yourself?" Gee, Let Me Think...
First, the famously predictable three check-in questions asked at foreign checkpoints for U.S.-bound flights. The answers are Yes, Yes, and No. The questions: Did you pack your bags yourself? Have they been with you at all times? Did anyone give you anything to bring with you? Duh. You know the script by heart because it never changes. And any would-be bomber--even with extremely limited English--can rest assured he or she can handle the inquisition.

The stupid dance continues at the boarding gates. Here, as any frequent flier knows, you don't want to be first to board. Why? Security guards positioned with large card tables next to jetways are standing at the ready. When they announce the plane is about to board, surprise surprise, they always stop the first passenger-invariably a frequent traveler-for further inspection. So smart travelers queue up behind the first eager passenger. The security patterns never change.

Airlines are Hitting the "Snooze" Button
So the Yemen incident was a wake-up call. So, by definition, that means we're been asleep. And now comes the hard part, for airlines, cargo carriers and post offices. Who wants to pay the money to inspect cargo and package shipments and the mail? (Or pass the costs along to already fed up customers?)

Earlier this year, when deadlines loomed for airlines to reach 100% compliance for cargo inspection on passenger jets, they lobbied for a delay. Offically, they've now met the deadline. But the definition of "inspection" leaves a lot to be desired, since security now relies on "trusted shippers" or "third-party designated cargo inspector."

It would help if they could model airplane security on the brilliant port security plans put in place after 9/11--except that there aren't any. After nearly nine years with no change, freight companies last year were fighting to delay a 2012 deadline for having 100 percent of sea containers scanned.

We dodged the bullet (or the airborne explosive device) this time. I'm only surprised this kind of attempt with cargo/mail didn't happen sooner. And that's more about luck, or al Qaeda strategy, than intelligent, smartly executed security plan.

Let's stop this wasteful and ineffective game of charades by government security forces around the world. There's plenty of good technology currently available that can scan or inspect 100% of cargo, courier packages and mail. You (passengers, corporate travel departments? Death and dismemberment insurers?) should be lobbying your elected representatives to accelerate the deadlines--and enforce them.

How about some basic common sense? Now that would be news.

Related: Spend Less Time At Security; Airline Overload?
  • Peter Greenberg

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