Six years after Richard Reid tried to blow up a flight from Paris to Miami by igniting plastic explosives in his sneakers, American travelers are still removing their shoes before walking through the metal detector at the airport. But as of last August, they are free from another rule inspired by Reid: the ban on lighters in airplane cabins. The “shoe bomber” reaction reflects the general pattern of airline security changes since 9/11: two barefoot steps forward, one back.
Congress did not impose the lighter ban until three years after Reid’s failed sabotage, and it neglected to cover matches, the ignition source he actually used. Soon the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was complaining that confiscating some 22,000 lighters a day was distracting its screeners from the more urgent job of stopping guns and bombs. Still, it took the TSA nearly a year to lift the lighter ban after Congress gave it permission to do so in October 2006.
Similar concerns about overburdened screeners led the TSA to rethink its blanket ban on “gels and liquids,” imposed in August 2006 after a British report of a thwarted scheme to blow up airplanes with liquid explosives. A month later, the TSA introduced its current “3-1-1” rule, which allows liquids and gels in containers holding three ounces or less, gathered together in a single one-quart plastic bag that is supposed to be removed from carry-on luggage and sent through the X-ray machine on its own. Enforcement of the rule is spotty, as any air traveler who has escaped notice after forgetting to remove toothpaste from his carry-on bag can testify.
With the threat from toiletries contained, the TSA has turned its attention to hats. Under a policy announced last summer, passengers who decline to remove their head coverings may be subject to discretionary “pat-downs.” In response to complaints from Sikhs who worried that their turbans would attract special scrutiny from screeners who can’t tell a Sikh from a Muslim, the TSA insisted it “does not conduct ethnic or religious profiling, and employs multiple checks and balances to ensure profiling does not happen.”
Speaking of checks, in March NBC’s Denver affiliate reported that screeners had overlooked 90 percent of fake guns and explosives in covert TSA tests at the Denver International Airport. In similar tests at the Albany International Airport last June, according to the Albany Times Union, screeners missed most of the fake weapons but caught every bottle of water.