Failing The Toilet Test

The New York Times is reporting that researchers have examined the presence of germs and viruses on airport security trays and have (surprise!) made some findings that will undoubtedly alarm any germaphobe.  The scientific team swabbed surfaces at the Helsinki Airport and found traces of rhinovirus, which is associated with the so-called “common cold,” and influenza A on half of those plastic bins that travelers regularly handle in dropping off and then retrieving their shoes, belts, purses, laptops, and other belongings as they pass through security.

cc168b22f8cb28c4d95df2d6b73510a8What’s more, the researchers compared the presence of the viruses on the security trays with results from swabs they took of the Helsinki Airport toilets — because toilets always seem to be the crucial baseline comparison in studies of this nature.  They determined that none of the viruses were found on the the toilet surfaces at the airport, which means the security trays at the Helsinki Airport failed the time-honored “toilet test.”  (It also probably means that the toilets at the Helsinki Airport are regularly and carefully cleaned, thankfully, whereas nobody is cleaning airport security trays, but that no doubt will be the subject of another study.)

I read the Times article, which is just the latest in a never-ending flood of reports about the prevalence of germs and viruses and other troublesome microorganisms in modern society, and thought about how tough it must be to be a germaphobe these days.  Any surface that is regularly touched by the unwashed masses — ATM machine buttons, subway train poles, turnstiles, the moving rubber handrails on escalators, and the list goes on and on — are likely to be teeming with all kinds of nastiness, especially during the “cold and flu season.”

Some people, like me, simply accept that exposure to germs carried by random strangers is part of modern life.  We’re fatalists about it, and figure that if a virus has your name on it, you’re just out of luck.  But what’s an ardent germaphobe to do?  Wear gloves and face masks, as you see from time to time when you travel?  Up the ante by wearing hazmat suits?  Pay for the TSA pre-check status so you don’t need to take off your shoes and belt and touch those germy security tubs?

Or maybe airports should take the “toilet test” data to heart, and establish special seating areas for germaphobes in every airport restroom, because that always seems to be the cleanest place around.

The TSA And The Teddy Bear

Let’s face it:  a lot of people really don’t like the Transportation Security Administration.  They don’t like waiting in lines to go through security, they don’t like the uniformed officers telling them to take their laptops out of bags and to remove their shoes, and belts, and overcoats before they go through screening, and they don’t like having to madly scramble around to reassemble their attire and gather their things after they come rolling out of the x-ray machine.

https3a2f2fblueprint-api-production-s3-amazonaws-com2fuploads2fcard2fimage2f3196242f0a03fd4a-0903-4e30-921d-6a63a0fb3fd8So when people heard about TSA officers taking steps that kept a gigantic teddy bear off a plane, and then posting, on Instagram, a sad photo of the bear, slumped over next to a trash can, people were quick to label the TSA this year’s Grinch.  They assumed the bear was a gift for a kid and thought the TSA was heartless.

The real story, though, is that the TSA was just doing its job — and the bear wasn’t a gift for a kid at all, it was part of an effort by an adult man to make a YouTube video.  After the outcry about the pathetic abandoned bear, the TSA explained that even though the YouTuber had a ticket for the bear, the bear was simply too large and too dense to be effectively screened.  In fact, the TSA has previously found a disassembled gun and ammunition hidden in stuffed animals.  If the TSA can’t effectively screen a carry-on item, then obviously that item shouldn’t go onto a plane.  And the airline also determined that the bear was too big to go into the cabin of the airplane, anyway.

So I’m with the TSA on this one.  Going through security at airports is a pain, but the vast majority of the TSA officers I’ve encountered in my travels are friendly, professional, and just trying to do their job.  If anybody deserves the blame for the pathetic Teddy Bear Tale, it’s the guy who thought it would be a good idea to create a potential problem for the TSA and an airline just to make a YouTube video.  It’s totally inconsiderate — toward the TSA, toward the airline, and toward other travelers who might have found themselves on a plane with a guy who’s trying to carry an oversized teddy bear down the crowded aisle and then seat the bear next to some unsuspecting traveler who’s just trying to get home.

Does everybody have to make YouTube videos about everything these days?  We’ve got enough to worry about without self-absorbed people trying to get a few minutes of internet attention coming up with stunts that inconvenience the rest of the world.

A Dubious Ad Spend

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Microsoft shelled out some amount of money — who knows exactly how much? — to have inserts placed in the plastics security lines tubs at LaGuardia Terminal C marketing its OneDrive cloud-based storage product. The insert even has a supposed-to-be-funny reference to not being able to take more than 3.2 ounce bottles through security.

Ha ha! Hey, that’s frigging hilarious! Having just taken off my belt and shoes and emptied my pockets, been shouted at, scanned, and patted down by TSA guys, and then having to hastily gather my stuff in an antiquated and overheated terminal, I’m perfectly situated to look favorably on an ad pitch at the bottom of one of those hated plastic tubs.

Who decides Microsoft’s ad spend? Are they human, or from Mars?

Pre-Checked

When I printed out my boarding pass yesterday, I noticed a new legend at the top that indicated I had been “pre-checked” by the Transportation Security Administration.

IMG_5094I didn’t know what it meant, so when I got to the airport I got in the standard line to show my boarding pass and driver’s license.  The TSA officer who checked me explained that the “pre-check” program meant I didn’t need to wait in the normal line and could go through security without removing my shoes, belt, bag of toothpaste, and laptop.  He gave me a pre-printed card that explains the program, which also is described here.  It appears that, because I’m a frequent traveler, the TSA thinks they have sufficient information about me to waive certain of the security protocols.

So, I dropped my keys, cellphone, and other electronic gizmos in the plastic bin and put it on the conveyor belt and went through the scanner belt, shoes, suit coat, and all.  It was a whiff of the heady old days, before the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber and other would-be terrorists added new rules and new steps to the security process.

Going through security took about two minutes.  I enjoyed not having to partially disrobe, and I particular appreciated not having to hurriedly belt up, don shoes, fish out keys, and reinsert laptop in the scrum of passengers who’ve passed through the scanner, as bag after bin after bag come slamming off the conveyor.

I’m all for the pre-check program.

TSA Roulette

This week I was in St. Louis overnight, so I went through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Port Columbus on Thursday and the TSA checkpoint at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Friday.  I therefore must ask:  why are the checkpoint procedures so different from airport to airport?

In Columbus there are separate lines for “expert travelers,” casual travelers, and families in order to improve the flow through security.  In St. Louis everyone gets in the same, slow-moving line.  In St. Louis you can’t put your shoes in the plastic tub, you need to put them on the belt separately.  In Columbus, shoes can go in the tub with everything else.  In some airports you seem to need to hold your boarding pass as you go through the scanner, in others you don’t.  In some airports laptops need to be placed in their own bin, in others that is not the case.

Maybe the TSA procedures are ever-changing and that is the reason for the discrepancies, but I doubt it.  It seems like every airport has its own special procedures, and I think that is a mistake.  The TSA is a federal agency, and as a federal agency should enforce uniform procedures on a nationwide basis.  Having different, seemingly weird procedures — like placing your shoes directly on the belt in St. Louis — just slows down the security check-through process.  Passengers are already on edge because of the slowness of the process and the prospect of missing their plane, and it just makes them mad when they get yelled at by a TSA officer for not following a completely unknown requirement.

Is it too much to ask for some consistency in what is supposed to be an important security process?

The U-Trou Bomber (Cont.)

Time has published a pretty good wrap-up of the various failings of security that allowed the U-Trou Bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, to board the flight from Amersterdam to Detroit with enough high explosive to bring down a loaded airplane sewn into his underwear — notwithstanding the warnings from his father and the other circumstances that should have tipped off our security agencies.  The Time article makes clear that, at minimum, we need to improve our cumbersome system for identifying potential terrorists and sharing information about them.

The U-Trou Bomber (Cont.)

The U-Trou Bomber

The U-Trou Bomber (Cont.)

The continuing story about the failed effort by the U-Trou Bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit will be interesting to follow in the next few days.  It is pretty clear that it was mostly due to luck and faulty detonation that we avoided another deadly terrorist attack that would have killed hundreds,  It also is clear that the unsuccessful attack exposed some serious flaws in our air travel security and some ambiguous standards that, in this case, seemed to operate in a way that made us less secure.  Finally, we also have been warned that there are many other suicide bombers ready to try to succeed where the U-Trou Bomber failed.  We should take that warning to heart and act promptly to shore up our security apparatus.

President Obama has ordered a thorough review of our air travel security, which I think is the right first step.  (It certainly is a more reassuring approach than Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano’s absurd initial statements that the “system worked,” despite the obvious failings that allow Abdulmutallab to go forward with his plot.)  Although it would have been better if our systems had foiled this attempt in the first instance, it is crucial that we not allow recriminations about the current deficiencies in our systems to prevent us from fixing the problems.  From what I’ve read, I think we need to make sure that the State Department and its embassies, which received the warning about the potential danger from Abdulmutallab’s father, share such information with the Department of Homeland Security.  We also need to communicate more effectively with our allies; in this case, Great Britain apparently had Abdulmutallab on some kind of watch list, yet he nevertheless was able to board a plane to the United States.  I also think that, as a rule of thumb, if someone’s father makes the effort to warn us that his son or daughter may be a dangerous potential terrorist, we should accept that as “reasonable grounds” to put the individual on a no-fly list and revoke any visas they may have.  Let’s also not be afraid to give a meaningful pat-down search to someone who buys their ticket with cash and doesn’t seem to be carrying luggage consistent with their announced travel plans.

It appears that this particular incident was made possible only because multiple “red flags” were disregarded.  It’s time to start paying attention to those red flags, and acting on them.

The U-Trou Bomber

The recent story about the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit can’t help but send a collective shudder through the minds of holiday travelers.  The would-be terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to detonate some high explosives strapped to his leg.  Fortunately, his device failed, and our country was spared the trauma of a Christmas Day attack that likely would have killed hundreds.  Credit also should be given to the brave fellow passengers who subdued the terrorist and put out the fire started by his device before he was able to do any further damage.

The terrorist’s backstory is, by now, disturbingly familiar.  Abdulmutallab comes from a privileged background and had been living in a fancy apartment and attending college in London.  Somewhere, somehow, he was introduced to radical Islamic views, joined al Qaeda, and received the training and device needed to carry out the plot.  He became disengaged from his family, which noticed the change in his personality and his religious and political views.  Indeed, his own father warned authorities that his son was a potential terrorist. His story should remind all of us that there still are people out there who want to harm the United States and kill innocent Americans and don’t mind dying in the attempt.

This incident should cause the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and other American authorities to immediately revisit and tighten air travel security procedures.  Abdulmutallab apparently was on some kind of security watch list.  It is mind-boggling that he was able to carry a syringe and some form of high explosives through security.  It also appears that no one noticed other telltale signs of potential terrorist activity.  Abdulmutallab bought his ticket with cash.  Although he supposedly planned a two-week stay in Detroit, he did not check any luggage and had only a carry-on bag.  How was this guy not an obvious candidate for a careful physical search before he was allowed to board a plane to the United States?

The next time we travel by plane we no doubt will be inconvenienced by some new security procedures designed to prevent a similar attempt.  I don’t mind being inconvenienced if there is a realistic chance that the new procedures will foil the next terrorist plot.  And when I am in the TSA line, waiting, I may think of Abdulmutallab and smile at the thought that, when the explosive device strapped to his leg caught fire, he likely was badly burned in some tender areas.  Allah must have a sense of humor.