Monday, December 28, 2009

New, and unpredictable, security measures

In the wake of the weekend's attempted destruction of a plane en route to Detroit, governments are imposing new security measures at airports and on board internationally bound aircraft.

Details from the Transportation Security Administration are sketchy, because one of the TSA's stated goals is to make security less predictable. However, reports from non-U.S. governments, airlines, and passengers suggest these among other measures may be put in place:
  • Double-screening, with initial security checkpoints supplemented by pre-boarding screening at the gate;

  • Pat-downs, paying particular attention to the upper thigh and groin areas, something that the TSA has always had authority to do but has rarely done out of concern for privacy, but which have taken on new importance since the weekend attack apparently involved explosive powder taped to the would-be bomber's thigh;

  • Restroom monitoring, looking to limit the amount of time that someone onboard an aircraft might be removed from visibility and thereby having time to assemble an explosive device from components smuggled onboard; and

  • Last-hour restrictions on carry-on items and movement within the cabin, aimed at keeping people from carrying out plots during a landing sequence.

The last bullet, keeping passengers in their seats, strikes me as quite unnecessary. Collecting blankets and making people put away laptops for a whole hour is unlikely to do much more than result in bored, chilly passengers.

Remember, the weekend plot was focused on destroying a plane, not hijacking it in the style of Setpember 11; should we feel better if terrorists start blowing up planes 90 minutes before landing rather than waiting for the last hour? I doubt it.

I do, however, strongly support the other measures, which make good sense. I think it's also time that we stop whining about privacy issues relating to backscatter machines that can see through clothes. Prudish Americans doubtless imagine that everyone is desperate to see them naked, but as any nudist will tell you, absent sexual context, nudity simply isn't that exciting -- and seeing whatever someone is concealing beneath clothing will really make it hard to smuggle things onto planes.

It's time that we start taking security seriously, demanding results rather than assurances. These are good steps in that direction.

Looking critically at the TSA

Most of you are aware that, on Christmas Day, a Nigerian citizen on a flight en route to Detroit tried to detonate an explosive device made from powder and liquid components smuggled aboard the aircraft.

You know that the plot did not work, because the would-be bomb failed to detonate, instead burning the would-be bomber.

You know that passengers apprehended the would-be bomber and held him until the plane landed, then turned him over to U.S. authorities.

You probably also know that Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's claim that "the system worked" is ridiculous and insulting to the intelligence of every American.

The system did not work. No security screener or device anywhere along the line picked up the threat. The plot failed because of quick passenger reactions, but mostly it failed because of bad luck: the explosive didn't detonate.

Governments in general like to pretend they are all-powerful. The U.S. government in particular has pretended for nearly a decade since September 11 that the massive make-work program called the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has made us safer. These are lies; study after study and test after test have shown that TSA is almost entirely ineffective.

Whatever your politics, be aware that the TSA is not a failure because it was created by the Bush administration, and it is not a failure because it is currently under the Obama administration. It is a failure because it is a huge government bureaucracy, and like most government bureaucracies, it is far more focused on looking effective than being effective.

Today, Napolitano is backtracking from her earlier claims and admitting that the system failed. But we already knew that: she is changing the system, which would not be necessary if it had actually worked.

Monday, December 21, 2009

For passengers, at last the right to fair treatment

Throughout the years of the Bush administration, airline passengers filed complaint after complaint. In response, the Department of Transportation asked airlines to agree to some voluntary rules. Few did.

Change is coming. Beginning this spring, when DOT-OST-2007-0022 takes effect, airline passengers will finally have some actual rights -- backed by hefty penalties for airlines that fail to comply.

Under the new rule, airlines will be required to:
  • Provide food and beverages to passengers waiting on a tarmac for more than two hours; and

  • Return planes to terminals and allow passengers to disembark after delays of more than three hours.
Airlines failing to comply will be fined $175,000 per passenger, or more than three million dollars for a 20-seat regional jet.

That's big money, and it's getting the airlines' attention -- so much so that, according to the New York Times, even regional jets that typically don't serve snacks are going to be stocking up on peanuts and pretzels to meet the snack requirements "just in case."

For now, the rule applies to domestic flights only. In the future, it may b e expanded to include international flights as well.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

When will the Acela get wireless Internet?

I was at a Washington Wizards game a few days ago, and an Amtrak advertisement came up promoting Acela service between Washington and New York.

The Acela, as many of you know, is Amtrak's flagship offering. Having been introduced in 2000, Acela is new -- by American standards. Reaching speeds of up to 150 mph for about ten miles of its trip between New York and Boston, it's fast -- by American standards.

And with a ticket price more than double the cost of an equivalent-route Northeast Regional train, it's expensive -- by any standard -- and that brings me back to that Wizards advertisement.

The advertisement encouraged people to "Go online." In October, Amtrak committed to getting Acela Wi-Fi in place by mid-2010. But what's the delay?

Next-generation northeast Corridor bus services like BoltBus and MegaBus already have free Wi-Fi for all of their passengers, as well as comfortable seats and power outlets -- and ticket prices of $25 for WAS-NYC.

Why is it so hard for Amtrak's flagship line to meet the level of service provided by buses?