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Security as necessary as comfort

May 20,2014 - Last updated at May 20,2014

The joy of travel, whether for business or for pleasure, is often lost by airport security complications. But only when we consider the number of lives strict security measures taken at all airports save, we tend to be more tolerant with the inconvenience most passengers have to put up with while on the go.

For decades, passenger planes were very vulnerable targets that tempted terrorists. The dangerous phenomenon was only curbed by the very security measures that most passengers fail to accept.

The simultaneous terrorist attacks on four American passenger planes on September 11, 2001, marked a turning point in airport security requirements. 

It should be remembered, however, that security precautions like those currently in place were already observed at most airports worldwide when the September 11 hijackings took place, including at the airports from where the four hijacked American planes took off.

Despite massive investigations and voluminous reports, it remains unclear how the September 11 hijackers managed to board the planes with the tools of their heinous crime.

This raised questions then and still does now, as to how secure the aviation security is.

In fact, there were near successful attempts — the shoe bomber, is one — well after September 11, reflecting serious flaws in some airport security measures.

As a frequent flyer, I am a firm believer in the need for the strictest security measures at airports, no matter how much time that may take, and even if that involves annoying inconvenience.

However, I strongly feel that there are unnecessary exaggerations, useless complications and sometimes mindless carelessness on the part of the employees who handle travellers.

Last week, I was checking in at Istanbul Ataturk airport, a very busy airport normally, but exceptionally crowded at this peak tourist season.

To be fair, the security checking line which was very long moved reasonably well, as the three electronic monitors for hand luggage and passengers were functioning efficiently.

Next was the passport control — not the only one at that airport — and that is where I was stuck almost motionless.

The very long line was folded in five layers in between the usual circuitous line, and since the movement was exceptionally slow, the line kept building up.

But my concern, to the point of panic that I might miss my late night flight, was mainly about the size of the line ahead of me, clearly.

At some point, a man started shouting angrily in a language I did not understand, but he was clearly protesting the unusual delay. He was instantly joined by others who cheered and clapped.

Apparently the protesters noted that only few of the many police booths ahead were manned, which was the obvious cause of the slow movement.

The protests did indeed help, although after some pride-related procrastination. It took exactly 39 minutes to pass through passport control, which is too long by any standard.

I thought I was then free to move straight to the gate, until I found myself before another security check, a full repeat of the one I had to go through about 50 minutes earlier.

It was the standard procedure of removing watch and belt, emptying pockets, taking off coat, removing computer from hand luggage (not taking shoes off this time), putting all stuff in separate trays for pushing them through the monitor, and then stepping into the human monitor for additional checking before being cleared to collect my stuff and reassemble.

But it is not always like that, I mean as relatively easy.

At some airports, the requirements are much more severe, and include not only placing metal items in the tray, but everything else, including paper cash and credit cards, in addition to taking shoes off. 

That is often disturbing because the human monitor detects anything, with shoes on or off.

And if removing shoes is a valid security requirement, why does it not apply in all cases? 

And why should travellers need to take their overcoats and coats off when they can pass with them through the monitor?

That time consuming, and quite annoying, practice remains unexplainable.

All airports, on the other hand, continue to ban liquids on board despite the fact that this myth was proven false years ago.

It started when it was alleged, at London Heathrow Airport many years ago, that a number of separate passengers were caught trying to smuggle on board various liquids alleged to be components for making a bomb while flying. The people who were arrested were all set free later.

Scientists, on their part, ridiculed the claim as fantasy.

Geov Parrish’s article on August 10, 2006, “Airline terror plot disrupted or cooked up”, available on Google and commenting on that episode, offered undisputed analysis that the accusation was absolutely baseless. But the ban on liquids continues.

Once at the gate, security personnel at most airports confiscate drinks, perfumes and any other liquid, no matter how expensive or clearly safe. Later on, baby milk was exempted.

They also confiscate scissors, pen knives and other small, sharp, personal tools when on board passengers are provided with metal cutlery for their meals, which can be more dangerous in case of ill intent.

That also is odd.

Nevertheless, and despite all that has been said, aviation safety and security remain a top priority under all circumstances, and no matter how much inconvenience is involved, or how much additional time is needed to ensure passengers’ safety, such a vital requirement should never be compromised.

But that does not justify exaggerations. Neither should it tolerate meaningless security complications.

And if in the face of the rising volume of air travel security requirements need extra time, that should be countered by upgrading and enlarging the security systems to cope with increasing traffic.

Apparently, many airports hire private companies to handle security and that is becoming a thriving business. 

It is not in the interest of such businesses to see the threat disappear.

That may explain the need to perpetuate the danger and justify the extended need for security countermeasures.

Here is where the authorities should step in, to monitor exaggerations and curb unnecessary checks.

There should be a carefully calculated balance between security, passenger comfort and reasonable business interests. The balance should remain under continuous official scrutiny.

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