Category Archives: airport/flight safety

Packing to pass muster at airport security

Here’s some of the less likely suspects – as tips go – from a recent NYTimes travel story to make it through security at the airport:

– Tie up loose headphones and cellphone cords packed in your luggage so they’re not mistaken, in an X-ray machine, for a jumble of wires (presumably that could be used for a bomb).

– If you’re worried something might trigger suspicion by a TSA security screener, be up front rather than seemingly nonchalant. Flag attention to it.

– Prepare your kids for the possibility they might get patted down and/or briefly separated from you so they don’t freak out if/when this happens. TSA even has produced a kids video about security measures at

– And my personal favorite, not included in the NYT list, be yourself – maybe a slightly more polite and patient version of yourself.


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Air security: a mind-reading machine?

And you thought a full-body scanner sounds invasive.  Now comes word that some security experts are  toying with the idea of using a device that scans our thoughts –  if such a device can be perfected. That sounds like a big “if,” judging from the two alleged mind-reading machines still under development, according to an AP story in today’s DM Register.

One gizmo comes from Israel (no surprise given its well-founded concern for air security and expertise) and has the creepy name “WeCU.” (Geddit?) It involves projecting images onto airport screens – such as symbols only a terrorist would recognize.  Would-be terrorists, it’s believed, could not help reacting physically when spotting this secret symbol exposed to the world and would react by: darting their eyes, twitching nervously, breathing faster or  have a racing heart beat. These suspicious physical signs – presumably produced by the distressed thoughts of an already-disturbed mind – would be picked up not only by trained human observers but by hidden cameras or sensors that detect a slight rise in body temp or heart rate. Really.

Then there’s the “Future Attribute Screening Technology” – the peculiar name for a sort of polygraph on steroids that subjects people pulled aside for extra screening to a scan searching for signs of deception – including suspicious facial movements, dilated pupils and fidgeting.  These tell-tale signs of a terrorist  apparently differ from the  tell-tale signs of, say, a stressed-out traveler who just arrived at O’Hare on a delayed flight from Des Moines and is racing to make a connecting flight. (Next time this happens to me, I must remember to check to see if my pupils are dilated.)

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Fly the El Al way?

All this talk about airport security has me wondering just what Israel’s El Al Airlines – which I last flew in 1982 – does that’s so effective. A  Boston Globe columnist pointed out in an interesting 2006 story that what El Al really does is focus on detecting “bad people” not “bad things”, i.e. the bad  people who might blow up planes – or hijack them (which seems, oddly, almost an old-fashioned threat) – not on bombs, knives, tweezers, etc.  Sure they use machines to look for bombs and guns but that’s the easy stuff. What the Israelis do that isn’t done in the U.S. to the same degree is use intelligence and intuition to ferret out terrorist passengers. They make no bones about profiling and call the airport folks who do this work “profilers.”  These profilers not only chat up passengers but are trained to be on the look out for suspicious behavior and clothing.  And yes, they do give Muslims special scrutiny. They are so confident of this approach that (at least in 2006) passengers who pass this review don’t need to take off their shoes before boarding – and can even carry a bottle of water through security.


Here’s a few other things that stand out about El Al  (from a list I found on Wikipedia):

– Passengers must arrive three hours before departures. Plain-clothes agents and fully armed police  or soldiers patrol the airport for explosives, suspicious behavior, and other threats.

– All passengers are interviewed individually before boarding – asked not just the now-standard U.S. question (“Did you pack your bags yourself?”) but where they’re coming from, why they’re traveling, etc.

– Passengers’ names are checked against information from the FBI, Scotland Yard, Shin Bet and Interpol.

– All luggage is put through a decompression chamber simulating pressures during flight that could trigger explosives.

–  Undercover agents carrying concealed guns are on every international flight. All El Al pilots were Israeli Air Force pilots. (I feel safer already.)

– El Al plane’s cockpits have double doors and a code is needed to get through them. There are reinforced steel floors between the passenger cabin and the luggage area (to strengthen the plane if there is an explosion).

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Strip Search Scanners: oh joy

Strip Search Scanners! What  fun. Not really, but if that’s what it takes to fly safely from Amsterdam to Detroit – or anywhere else, then I may be ready to subject myself and others, all others, to what, during another time, would be considered a humiliating process.  Certainly sounds better than a pat-down (which I’ve had the misfortune to experience occasionally, through the luck of the draw at airports.)

I get the privacy concerns with full-body scans but from what little I’ve read about them – and I’m sure I’ll be reading a lot more in the days to come – it sounds like faces will be blurred and there’s technology to prevent the scans from getting into the sweaty little hands of Gawkers and TMZers. (The image produced by the scan, I’ve read, is deleted after you pass through a scanner without incident.)  Here’s hoping. I”m also hoping the TSA folks will perfect their stone-cold emotionless gaze before they stare at my naked body and others in the airport.  Just thinking about that is creepy. (One story I read  said that to prevent this awkwardness, the image of my naked body will be viewed by an officer in a separate room who will never see me in the flesh – while the officer at the scanning machine will never see the image.)

One wonders what’s next – internal body scanners (MRI anyone?) to make sure the next generation of  terrorists don’t swallow capsules filled with plastic explosives? And speaking of MRI s and Cat-scans and X-rays – and the recent concern about possible radiation exposure  from this medical imaging stuff – not to be too paranoid, but is this an issue with full-body scanners that use low-energy X-rays?


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