Snow storms. Security breaches. An idiot with explosives in his underwear and a security response of comparable intelligence.
If past is prologue and the last few weeks are any indication, 2010 is shaping up to be an extremely turbulent year for travelers.
On Sunday, Terminal C at Newark Airport was shut down after a man was seen walking the wrong way through an exit toward the terminal’s secure area. Flights were grounded, seated passengers were hustled back to the terminal and thousands had to be rescreened.
The same day, TSA announced new directives that require passengers traveling to the U.S. from or through 14 countries deemed “state sponsors of terrorism” or “other countries of interest” to go through enhanced screening.
And on Monday, travelers woke up to what could be a new — and increasingly unpleasant — era in air travel.
Failed plot, flawed response
Ever since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day, it’s become increasingly clear that there’s more to making air travel safe than foiling a single attack. As the Nigerian jihadi has told the FBI, there are others just like him waiting to strike.
The problem, of course, is that with security personnel on alert for explosive powders, Abdulmutallab’s associates have no doubt already shifted their tactics. The next attack is as unlikely to involve underwear as it is shoes or liquid explosives disguised as energy drinks.
“The problem security personnel face is that they’re always chasing something that’s already happened,” says Douglas Laird, an industry consultant and former security director for Northwest Airlines. “They’re not prepared for something that happens in the future.”
Witness the immediate response to the Christmas Day incident, which was characterized by a randomly applied, crazy quilt of restrictions based on Abdulmutallab’s actions. No getting up from one’s seat within an hour of landing. No blankets, pillows or personal belongings on laps. No in-flight entertainment on international flights.
The Christmas Day plot has also renewed the call for more full-body scanning at screening stations, a technology that backers say would likely have revealed the explosives Abdulmutallab carried. With 40 such machines currently in use in 19 U.S. airports, TSA has purchased another 150 and recently announced plans to purchase 300 more over the next few years.
But such machines — which produce near-naked images of passengers — are no panacea. Privacy issues aside, the machines suffer the same shortcomings as their predecessors: Spending millions of dollars to target what terrorists have tried in the past will only hasten their efforts to try something else. It’s a sad fact, but even the newest screening machine won’t catch a committed terrorist with a suppository.
“Instead of looking for bad things — nail clippers and rogue bottles of shampoo — security systems need to focus on bad people,” says Giovanni Bisignani, director of the International Air Transport Association. “Adding new hardware to an old system will not deliver the results we need.”
Too frustrated to fly?
While the latest TSA directive on U.S.-bound passengers represents a focused, threat-based effort, much of what most travelers can expect to encounter flies in the face of two inescapable facts: There is simply no way to make flying 100 percent secure, and the odds of being involved in an onboard terrorism incident are infinitesimal.
Consider the numbers as crunched by Nate Silver, who operates the data-mining Web site FiveThirtyEight.com. Citing Bureau of Transportation Statistics for the last 10 years, he analyzed the data for domestic and international flights between October 1999 and September 2009 and came up with the following: The odds of being on a plane that is the subject of a terrorist attack is 1 in 10,408,947 over the last 10 years.
On the other hand, the government’s reflexive and reactionary response to such incidents all but guarantees that everyone who buys a plane ticket will be subjected to more scrutiny, more delays and more frustration. And while increased inconvenience in the furtherance of true security is a small price to pay, it’s a waste of time, energy and money just to enhance the appearance of it.
Especially when flying is already such a miserable experience. After two years of slashing flight schedules, cutting staff and eliminating services, the airline industry is stretched to the breaking point. Planes are packed full; issues over maintenance and air traffic control are mounting, and it’s only a matter of time before the next snafu brings the whole system screeching to a halt.
Adding even more “security theater” to the mix will only exacerbate the situation. No doubt the next Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is out there, but the prospect of another incident is no reason to stop flying. On the other hand, if the response to that prospect makes flying any more unpleasant than it already is, millions of travelers may end up doing just that.
Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, .