Sunday, November 7. 2010
This week, in response to the Air Freight Bomb Plot, we've had the Home Secretary, Teresa May, announce that we're no longer allowed to take printer cartridges over 500g as hand luggage on aeroplanes. As a friend of mine said, "if this is the knee-jerk reaction of our current government, thank goodness they weren't in charge when the underpants bomber tried to set off his device, otherwise we'd all be flying naked by now". Of course, that's not to say it's not going to happen anyway, and if recent changes to pat-down searches in the USA are anything to go by, we're all going to want to go through the optional nude-imaging sensors unless we're particularly drawn to the security personel.
The absurdity of the restriction is hardly worthy of much comment: how often do you actually need a printer cartridge whilst flying, which weighs 500g or more? Personally I find the ones that weigh merely 376g more than sufficient for my airborne printing needs. The fact that I can take vast numbers of such cartridges on board, safe in the knowledge that they can't be rejected, even if they're full of undetectable explosive, is neither here nor there: I'm clearly utterly thwarted on this attack vector by these restrictions.
Late 2009, I flew to America from the UK, just a couple of days after the underpants bomber had tried to do his thing. There were secondary searches and everything was taking a fair bit longer. As usual, I had my French Horn with me. During the secondary search, I had one person search me (cavities excluded), whilst the other went through my coat and hand luggage. When they got to my horn case I explained it's a musical instrument and would it be okay if they allowed me to open the case? They said yes, and I did so. They pretty much took one look at it and decided it was just fine, which rather suited me. However, there's about 20 foot of tubing there. I suspect most musicians are going to be able to hide large amounts of PETN about their instruments as, indeed is anyone else: the ease with which one could adapt a laptop, iPod, iPad or mobile/cell phone is astonishing - halving the battery, or removing it completely, or taking out the CDROM drive and using the space there. It's really not challenging. But of course, governments aren't going ban laptops or phones or media players on aeroplanes: the uproar from business class would be deafening.
A week later, and we have Rolls Royce being assumed to be at fault for the engine failure which led to an A380 safely landing, albeit not at its intended destination. In reality, almost all failures on aeroplanes are due to maintenance failings (though I don't have much to cite on this, and to be honest, this is mainly informed through Crichton's Airframe novel, which whilst he probably did do substantial research for the novel, is hardly a sensible source from which to make such a claim) and there is already finger pointing going on at Lufthansa Technik who last serviced that engine and Rolls Royce who designed it, whilst the Australian aircraft engineering union points at the outsourcing of maintenance work.
Which really brings us to the central irony of the whole saga: whilst there have been several attempts to blow up aeroplanes since 2001, none (that I can think of, targetting western nations) have succeeded in detonating. However, aeroplanes continue to crash due to poor weather, poor decision making by the pilots, cost cutting in maintenance and maybe poor aircraft design. If the Qantas A380 had actually crashed, it would have very likely spelt the end for Rolls Royce, but corporate manslaughter cases are historically very tricky to prove (even assuming Rolls Royce are to blame here which is an unreasonable assumption at this stage). Whilst there may indeed by a backlash apparently growing against Rolls Royce there nevertheless always seems to be more outrage at the possibility of a terrorist taking lives rather than corporate irresponsibility. The former creates apparently endless thoughtless restrictions for travellers which are clearly ineffective (certainly there's been little evidence they've made any difference: the would-be bombers have been defeated either by tip-offs (as in the Air Freight case) or the passengers on board, not by the "increased security measures"). The later is shrugged off as cost of business, or an inherent risk of capitalism.
As ever, we are saved far more by the incompetence of terroists than by security measures. But the security measures increase in our consciousness fear of terrorists, fear which seems to be increasingly used for self-serving political means. The false reporting that goes on when covering such events merely contributes to the problem. This though, seems to be an increasingly well-covered issue: eventually, surely, people en masse will start to question some of the unverified claims they're being told. Won't they?
Unfortunately for some, the facts, rather than the conjecture, frequently admit far less hysteria than seems to be desired.
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