Recently, the US put several foreign airlines with routes to the United States on notice that electronics such as laptops must be banned from the cabin. If this issue spreads and is not addressed immediately it will be a crushing blow to aviation, courtesy of a system that has failed to keep up with the evolving threats.

In the late 1980s, when laptops first entered the scene, those who carried them through security were required to turn them on to make sure they didn’t carry a bomb. You didn’t put them through an x-ray machine at the time because no one really knew if that would cause damage. By 9/11 all laptops were going through the x-ray machines and we assumed that any concealed device would be readily found – as long as we separated the laptop from the bag. Looks like that’s not entirely true but it seems it depends on where you’re at and the screening measures that are being applied.

In the US, carry-on bags are screened by standard dual-view x-ray machines, which are better than the pre 9/11 models, but still not where they should be. Checked bags are screened (in the US) by explosive detection systems (EDS) using a medical grade CAT scan machine that slices, dices and analyzes each bag as it comes through, and it can detect explosive elements. Thus, checked bag screening technology is better able to spot a bomb than carry-on screening technology. . . in the US.

Besides detection, what is the difference between a bomb in the cabin versus one in the cargo hold with checked baggage? The answer is that it’s easier to build and detonate a bomb sitting in your lap than one sitting in the cargo hold. In the hold, you have to either command detonate with a remote device that you hope works, or set a timing or barometric pressure-type switch, and then hope that works, and that the flight isn’t delayed and the thing goes off while you’re sitting on the ramp – or that some baggage handler doesn’t inadvertently detonate it while tossing your bag into the hold.

The challenge with many of the airlines that are being affected by the ban is that not everyone in the world uses the same types of x-ray and EDS machines that the US uses. Keep in mind, we used to really be bad at this but since 9/11, unbelievably, we’ve actually set a pretty good standard. That said, several years ago the industry looked at whether we should install the EDS machines at the passenger screening checkpoints but there are all sorts of footprint issues, power requirement problems, floor strength issues, and so forth that you don’t get with the x-ray machines. Seeing as the threat continues to change, perhaps its time to revisit that concept.

The fact here is that we have to make a security system that fits aviation, not an aviation system that fits security. Being forced to check your expensive electronics will mean there’s a higher chance you’ll have to go to eBay when you get to your destination to buy your own laptop back. Bag theft rates went up during the initial electronics ban (coinciding with the liquid ban in August 2006 in Great Britain), along with theft of intellectual property from the information on everyone’s stolen hard drives, along with identity theft. While passengers can put up with a lot of stupid human tricks at the checkpoint, they need the ability to continue to work once they are past it. Not only is the business traveler – who, incidentally, funds most of commercial aviation – losing time on the aircraft, they are losing the one to two hours of waiting for their flight to depart, or worse, losing one, three, or six hours or more of lost productivity during a layover. There is a lost opportunity cost, and lost real costs to that lost time.

The industry must fix this loophole quickly and effectively. TSA, under Neffenger, was headed the right direction – first by actually training their TSO’s in a professional manner, and second, by envisioning a future screening process that doesn’t look like yet another iteration of the old process. Technology has to step up. Training has to go to the next level so that TSA personnel understand how the entire system works, and TSA management has to make the effort to an integral part of the airport security team and not the step-children they are so often considered by the rest of the airport and airline security community.


To read more of my posts on aviation security, click HERE.

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