Why Don’t More Countries Enforce the Airport Security Rules That the TSA Says Are Essential?
“Mommy, do we need to take our shoes off again?” the little American girl asked as she stood in a security line at a German airport with her four younger siblings. Her mother said yes, prompting a more experienced American traveler to correct her: “Actually, here you do not.”
According to the bystander, who described the incident on FlyerTalk, a forum for frequent travelers, “Mommy ignored me. The little girl turned around, and I pointed out several people going through the [metal detector] without removing their shoes.” At this point another American in the line “removed his lace-ups and ordered his wife to do the same, even though security told him it wasn’t necessary.” His example “caused a chain reaction of shoe removal,” and “Mommy had the child help remove four other pairs of shoes.”
Notwithstanding that anecdote, Americans who travel to other countries are apt to notice that their airport security rituals often depart from the rules to which we have become accustomed in the United States since 9/11. Those differences call into question the judgment of American policy makers who insist that precautions much of the world does without are essential in preventing terrorist attacks. Here are a few of the more conspicuous examples.
Richard Reid, who unsuccessfully tried to ignite 50 grams of PETN explosive concealed in his shoes during an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami a few months after the 9/11 attacks, is serving a life sentence at the federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado. But travelers are reminded of him every time they board a flight in the United States, because his plot inspired the long-standing requirement that airline passengers remove their shoes at security checkpoints and place them in a bin that travels on a conveyor belt through an X-ray machine.
That did not happen right away. As late as August 9, 2006, nearly five years after Reid became notorious as a would-be Al Qaeda “shoe bomber,” the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was still advising air travelers that “you don’t have to remove your shoes before you enter the walk-through metal detector.” A week later, the TSA began saying “you are required to remove your shoes before you enter the walk-through metal detector.” The TSA says it changed the policy “based on intelligence pointing to a continuing threat” from shoe bombs.
How big a danger Reid himself posed is debatable. He attracted flight attendant Hermis Moutardier’s notice because he repeatedly lit matches while vainly attempting to ignite a fuse that ran through a sweat-dampened shoelace. Initially Moutardier told him smoking was prohibited, and he promised to comply. But when she found him leaning over in his seat, she asked what he was doing, at which point he reached to grab her, revealing a shoe in his lap and another lit match. Passengers subdued Reid before he could try yet again to set off the bomb.
John Mueller, a terrorism expert at the Ohio State University and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, notes that PETN “is fairly stable and difficult to detonate,” even when the fuse is dry. “The best detonators are metallic,” he writes, “and these are likely to be spotted by the metal detectors passengers and their carry-on baggage were subjected to well before 9/11.” Mueller also thinks it is unclear “whether Reid’s bomb would have downed the airplane if he had been able to detonate it.” He notes that “a similar bomb with 100 grams of the explosive”—twice as much as Reid had—that was “hidden on, or in, the body of a suicide bomber and detonated in 2009 in the presence of his intended victim, a Saudi prince, killed the bomber but only slightly wounded his target a few feet away.”
After thinking about it for more than four years, the TSA nevertheless decided that the possibility of Reid copycats was a serious enough threat to justify mandatory shoe removal, a policy that remains in force to this day. As international travelers can attest, the United States is nearly unique in imposing that requirement. In their 2017 book about aviation security, Are We Safe Enough?, Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Newcastle in Australia, note that European Union countries “do not require the removal of shoes at the screening checkpoint.” Australia, Canada, China, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, and the U.K. likewise do not routinely require shoe removal.
A discussion of the subject on FlyerTalk identified just two countries that copy the U.S. policy on shoes: Russia and the Philippines. Another thread on the same forum also mentioned Belize and Sri Lanka.
Of the countries that don’t require shoe removal, Israel is perhaps the most striking example, since it has always faced a relatively high risk of terrorist attacks and operates what is often described as the most secure airport in the world. “No flight leaving the [Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod] has ever been hijacked,” CNN notes, “and there has not been a terrorist attack at the airport since 1972.” In 2016, former TSA Administrator John S. Pistole estimated that Israel spends “about 10 times as much as we spend here in the U.S. per passenger.” Israeli security personnel, who tend to be much better training than your average TSA officer, rely heavily on selective grilling of passengers, which has frequently provoked complaints of racial profiling. Yet despite its intensive precautions, the Israeli government lets passengers keep their shoes on.
A decade ago, Janet Napolitano, who then oversaw the TSA as secretary of homeland security, predicted that the shoe removal policy would be phased out “in the months and years ahead” as a result of new screening technology. The Washington Post, which reported Napolitano’s comments, noted that “there hasn’t been another shoe bomb attempt” since Reid’s fiasco, and “aviation security experts question whether shoe removal is necessary.”
One of those experts was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Yossi Sheffi, who was born in Israel. “You don’t take your shoes off anywhere but in the U.S.—not in Israel, in Amsterdam, in London,” he told the Post. “We all know why we do it here, but this seems to be a make-everybody-feel-good thing rather than a necessity.”
Pistole, then head of the TSA, cited survey data indicating that “shoe removal was second only to the high price of tickets in passenger complaints.” He nevertheless defended the policy. “We have had over 5.5 [billion] people travel since Richard Reid,” he said, “and there have been no shoe bombs because we have people take their shoes off.”
A few months ago, Axios reported that Napolitano’s prediction could finally come true, thanks to floor-embedded electromagnetic shoe scanners developed by PNNL, the same company that produces the body-scanning booths used at airports. PNNL has licensed that technology to Liberty Defense Holdings.
“Removing shoes at the TSA checkpoint is one of the most inconvenient rituals of flying in the U.S.,” Axios said. “Adding the shoe scanner could speed up the screening process by 15 to 20 percent, according to Liberty CEO Bill Frain….Eventually, the goal is to screen passengers without stopping as they pass through a tunnel toward the airport gate.”
When might that happen? Axios said Liberty planned to start installing its machines at airports “in about 18 months.”
After British police foiled a terrorist plot to attack transatlantic flights with liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks in August 2006, the TSA initially prohibited passengers from carrying any liquids, gels, or aerosols, except for baby formula and prescription medicine, onto airplanes. A month later, it modified the rule, allowing up to 100 milliliters (3.4 fluid ounces) of liquid per container. All such containers (typically toiletries) are supposed to be placed in a single quart-sized plastic bag, which has to be removed from carry-on luggage and placed in a bin to be scanned at the security checkpoint. There is an exception for “medically required liquids,” including over-the-counter drugs and contact lens solution, which can exceed 3.4 ounces, don’t need to fit in the plastic bag, but are supposed to be announced when you go through security.
A year after the TSA imposed its liquid restrictions, then–TSA Administrator Kip Hawley told The New York Times the rules were aimed at limiting not just the total volume of liquid but also the size of each container, because “with certain explosives you need to have a certain critical diameter in order to achieve an explosion that will cause a certain amount of damage.” But since the TSA does not stop passengers from taking empty containers (such as water bottles) into the cabin, it seems like limiting the total amount of liquid would still be important.
Is the TSA actually managing to do that? Based on personal experience, I have my doubts (even leaving aside the exception for “medically required liquids,” which could cover, e.g., a 16-ounce bottle labeled as contact lens solution). Until recently, I did not realize that passengers officially are limited to just one bag of toiletries each. I had always used two, which was never a problem. I also frequently have forgotten about liquids and gels remaining in my carry-on bags (such as toothpaste, mouthwash, hand sanitizer, and eyeglass cleaner), and they have never been flagged by TSA screeners. Other American travelers report similar experiences.
One thing that caused me unexpected trouble: A couple of years after the restrictions took effect, for reasons too complicated to exp
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