Sunday, September 10, 2006

Should all carry-on luggage be banned?

An editorial in the NY Times entitled "A Ban on Carry-On Luggage" and suggests that "For now, the surest way to keep dangerous materials out of the cabin is to keep virtually all materials out of the cabin." Maybe, or maybe not, and is it really worth the effort and hassle and loss of peace of mind.

Materials might also be implanted or ingested and I can't imagine a ban on shoes, belts, padded bras, hairpieces/wigs, stuffed animals and dolls, etc.

Let us also keep in mind a basic concept of security measures: For every measure there is a countermeasure, and for every countermeasure there is a counter-countermeasure, and so on ad infinitum. If you set zero risk as your required goal, you will never get there and will always have failed at your goal.

I prefer the concept from the nuclear industry called ALARA: As Low As Reasonably Achievable. The emphasis is twofold: continuously reviewing processes and technologies to upgrade them as developments unfold, but only as the upgraded technologies and processes would be reasonable.

My basic response is that we should always avoid extreme measures, and The Times seems committed to the wrong-headed concept of minimizing risk at all costs, but I would argue that we employ measures that impose no more than reasonable costs, and accept the simple fact that life is always full of risks, even if we do not acknowledge them every day. So, let's limit air travel security to only reasonable measures, and accept that just like with plane crashes and accidents, sometimes things happen. Sure, we seek to minimize dangers, but let us not sign up for cures that are fare worse than the disease.

That said, I would certainly love to see a lot less carry-on luggage. I myself am more of a minimalist, with everything in my small backpack.

How far can you go? Well, I attended some of the 9/11 Commission hearings in Washington, D.C., and at one hearing, on Tuesday, January 27, 2004, commissioner Bob Kerrey, former U.S. Senator  from Nebraska, also a former Navy SEAL, noted in discussion with an aviation security executive that anyone with special ops training could walk on a plane naked and still accomplish their mission. Here's an abbreviated excerpt from the official transcript of the 9/11 Commission of that exchange between Kerrey and Edmund Soliday, a former security executive for United Airlines:

MR. SOLIDAY: ... Senator Kerrey, in honesty with you, you are a trained spec ops person. You know as well as I, sir, that these people could have gotten on that airplane stark naked and done what they did.

MR. KERREY: Yes, they could have.

MR. SOLIDAY: So all of this discussion, you and I both know if we were taking knives away, they would have planned the spec op around those knives not being there.

MR. KERREY: ... These 19 guys who knocked us over just as easy as could be, they exploited every visible weakness. And you're exactly right, once they were on that plane their chances of failure were practically zero. ... And by the way, I'm a customer, and when this commission finishes this work today, I'm taking the train back to New York and no small measure because I find the security procedures not only to be a nuisance, but I think they're largely ineffective.

I mean, you're exactly right, buck naked I sit on that plane and I say, well, I hope they've got this thing figured out because -- well, first of all, they'd never let me on, that would really be obnoxious, let me on buck naked, but you -- yeah, you're not anxious to see that. I mean, I hope that you'll help us by being as honest as you possibly can and as frank and as detailed as you possibly can about what we aren't doing that we ought to be doing to prevent this in the future.

Armored cockpit doors -- plus rules requiring that they never be permitted to be opened during flight -- would prevent the suicide attacks that were employed on 9/11.

Smuggling bombs or bomb-making materials into the main cabin or in checked baggage is certainly a possibility, but the number of times it has been successfully employed is so small as to suggest that severe or extreme countermeasures are wholly unwarranted. Yes, let us take measures, but only those that are reasonable and reasonably unobtrusive. Sure, "experts" (and politicians and critics) can make all manner of claims about potential effects, but rarely do these "experts" inform us of the very real side effects of taking extreme measures.

To answer the question: Should all carry-on luggage be banned? My answer: No.

-- Jack Krupansky


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