Wednesday, May 26, 2010

(No.94) Airport security & political theatre

It is axiomatic among frequent flyers that it is unwise when passing through airport security for a passenger to say anything negative (or indeed humorous) about the level of passenger screening one must accept in order to fly from A to B within Canada much less to the U.S. -- even as those with criminal records work on the tarmac proximate to one's plane and as unscreened parcels and mail are being loaded onto that plane. This 'rule of silence' should be in effect as one tolerates the excesses of airport passenger screening -- although some of us do slip occasionally (see "Street theatre in the sky ", column No.84 on ).

What irritates me more than the ostentatiously elaborate (and, when tested, often ineffective) level of passenger screening that helps make flying into the ordeal it has become is the knowledge that governments including our own have spent huge amounts of money on passenger screening, mandating reinforced cockpit doors and the like while the planes themselves are loaded up with cargo that could contain explosives. Why? Because the bulk of the money spent on -- and the focus of attention in -- airport/airline security in Canada as well as in the U.S. has (partly for political reasons) gone into what the travelling public sees and experiences. The message is: "see what we're spending all the tax money on for your safety".

Canadian Senator Colin Kenny was for several years the chair of the Senate's Committee on National Security and Defence. He repeatedly warned the federal government about important gaps in Canadian airport security. These warnings included the fact that much of the commercial cargo and mailbags being loaded on passenger planes was unscreened for security purposes.

In a 2007 report Senator Kenny's Committee made recommendations to address the risk posed by the fact that airmail transported on passenger planes flying from Canadian airports has never been properly and systematically inspected. Similar warnings had been given to the feds in a 2003 report. Result to date: very little. Senator Kenny says current security measures for cargo and airmail are still "non-existent".

Meanwhile the federal government is spending millions of dollars to buy electronic 'naked' (full body view) scanners to put in airports to increase the already silly level of screening of passengers. What else but silly could one call an airport security charade which sees long lines of the shoeless and beltless being 'wanded' and patted down in order to be allowed to board aircraft whose holds are, even as the passengers' private parts are scanned or even fingered, in the process of being filled with uninspected cargo.

But you may say: " Aren't you glad to have tight security for your own protection when you fly?"

I recognize the need for effective security within reason but (a) what we have is only the appearance of tight security, and (b) the way we are going at security is unnecessarily excessive and incomplete. For proof one need only consider how the Israelis and their El Al airline handle security and do so with complete success while facing very real terrorism threats on a daily basis.

What happens in North America? When some loser gets on an American airplane in Europe and tries unsuccessfully to ignite his shoe or the crotch of his pants U.S. Homeland Security and American cable news networks join in a public swoon over the 'failure' in airline security and of course Canada must then 'tighten up' the frisking of its airline passengers, especially those flying to U.S. destinations. As for cargo loaded on the same planes that does not originate with passengers on the flight, well never mind ....

Of course one is meant to feel ever so much safer even though nothing comprehensive has been done by Ottawa, for example, to address the fact that Canada's airports are -- as the Senate's report stated -- "riddled with organized crime" including many who have criminal records working daily in airports and on the tarmacs.

All of this is by way of preamble to action announced by the federal government. It is interesting to note that this announcement was made on the Victoria Day holiday Monday when both critical reaction and the reporters to seek it out would be in shorter than normal supply.

And what was this news? Improvements are to be made in behind-the-scenes airport security involving cargo.

Why move now after all this time? The feds are trying to get out in front of the forthcoming release of Mr. Justice Major's inquiry into the Air India bombing. One of the report's five volumes will deal with aviation security and it would hardly be surprising if it makes some critical comments about Canadian security.

The federal 'initiative' announced on May 24 amounts to a program funded with only $19 million a year for 5 years to be spent on trying to ensure that thousands of Canadian companies don't ship bombs in their cargo yet still places the onus on shippers and air carriers to ensure safety. As a program to significantly enhance air travel security it is not really addressing the air cargo security deficiency -- nor will it until cargo is routinely inspected and its origins verified. Is that a realistic objective? Perhaps not but if not then let's also quit pretending that such activities as examining 'carry on' baby seats is of any real value in terms of passenger security any more than is the seizing of a passenger's nail file.

Given that this 'new' federal approach is funded with just a comparative trickle of new federal dollars allowed to leak out from the annual flood of revenue to Ottawa generated by airport rentals and passenger-paid 'security' fees, many may doubt both the effectiveness and the motive for this initiative. Then again, perhaps one should take the view that something is better than nothing.

In view of this new federal program will you, fellow flyers, now feel reassured about the safety of your flight when next you pass through airport security and your toothpaste is confiscated or you are ordered to remove your belt and shoes or you are subjected to a physical search?

I won't be reassured but I will be working hard at not saying so while standing in the security line.

Alastair Rickard