Welcome to the era of the naked traveller
Last Updated: Monday, January 25, 2010 | 4:20 PM ET
By David Common CBC News
Experienced travellers know the rules: Don't get behind families with children or obvious first-time passengers in the airport security line.
Ideally, you can untie your shoelaces, take off your belt and remove your laptop from your bag in one continuous motion. Now, though, it may just be simpler to show up in a Speedo.
In the wake of the near-bombing on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day, airports across Canada, the U.S. and (once those nagging privacy concerns are dealt with) Europe will deploy full-body scanners.Transport Minister John Baird inspects a full-body scanner at an Ottawa press conference in January 2010. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)
I can't wait. Nothing adds to the existing pleasure of air travel than posing, hands up, for a centerfold.
Don't get me wrong. I want flying to be safe. But I also recognize that it never will be. At least not 100 per cent. And these new machines won't change the situation very much.
As Canada's own minister of transport said, in perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, there is "no silver bullet" when it comes to air safety.
You wouldn't know that listening to Michael Chertoff, the former (Bush-era) chief of Homeland Security.
He has been making the rounds of the Washington media, including the CBC bureau here, expounding the benefits of full-body scanners, which peer through a person's clothes, revealing what's underneath in extraordinary detail.
No surprise there. He is, after all, paid by the principle manufacturer of these machines, which have really only become technically reliable in the last couple of years, to advocate on their behalf.
The machines would have shown that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to set off a bomb on the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, had something odd sewn into his underpants.
But that doesn't necessarily mean he would have been stopped.
The human factor is often considered by air travel analysts to be the real point of weakness in the system. Even if Abdulmutallab had been scanned, there's no guarantee the operator of the machine would have caught it.
The human factor
For an example of this human factor at work, take a look at the panic-filled days after the attempted bombing.
At Newark Airport in New Jersey, one of the busiest in the country, a man walked from an exit door by the baggage claim through to where planes are boarded.
He did not pass through the X-ray machines or face a pat-down. He simply walked past a security guard who did nothing.A bomb-sniffing dog goes through the luggage at Los Angeles airport where body-imaging scanners are being introduced. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)
Were it not for a skittish passenger who later reported what he'd seen, no one might have known.
Two and a half hours after the man walked through the door, the terminal was evacuated. The man was never found.
One big loophole
Now, I'm not opposed to full-body scanners.
Ignoring for the moment the very real privacy concerns, they are a giant step up from the magnetometers in use today.
These look only for metal, not whether someone has something liquid hidden next to their genitals. Or anywhere else for that matter.
But back to those privacy concerns. Some lawyers believe having a young traveller pass through the full-body scanners could violate child pornography laws. As a result, Canada is exempting passengers under-18 from the new measures.
While that solves the immediate problem, it also permits a loophole — the very thing all these new measures are trying to plug. Especially when you are talking about terror groups with a track record for preying on susceptible young minds.
So what's it all mean. Same as it did before all this mess, it seems. Air travel isn't perfectly safe. Never was.
Being a passenger today is still dangerous, yet most of us continue to do it.
In the meantime, I'm off to buy my new Speedo. To my fellow travellers, please accept my apologies.
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