Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Airport Security: No Empty Bottles, Please

Yesterday afternoon I returned to Oslo from a short trip to Flanders. These days, airport security is mostly focused on preventing people from bringing any potentially liquid substances on the plane, so I emptied the little bottle of water I had before I proceeded to security control. I didn't help though: the empty bottle was confiscated, because as it happens, empty bottles are on the black list too. I'm not sure whether it were the remaining drops of water inside the bottle, or the possibility that I would fill the bottle up with water again afterwards, but I certainly wasn't allowed to take it with me.

The present airport security measures can be best described as systemized nonsense. One thing is that it is very well possible that the result of the current «war on liquids» is that it now has become easier than ever to smuggle solid explosives onto a plane. Another one is that the metal detectors currently seem to react at such a low threshold that you don't need much more than a simple watch to be taken out of the line for an extra check. Much time to watch how people are behaving during security control can't be left, even though that's how the real terrorists will have to be stopped.

As to the liquids, my impression from a few hours of reading on the Internet is that one can, with large certainty, exclude that it would be practically possible to blow up a plane using liquid explosives. Basically these kinds of explosives can be divided into two classes: either they're so unstable that you need half a chemical laboratory to bring them onto the plane in a safe way, or they're so stable that you need such a detonator to start the explosion that it would be noticed at the security control. Conclusion: the present security measures have been motivated more by incompetence and panic –always a bad combination– then by anything else. That some British would be terrorists had absolutely no sense for practical chemistry doesn't seem to be a good enough reason to me to confiscate tubes of toothpaste and bottles of water at airports all over the world.

But let's say though, for the sake of the argument, that there would be a case to screen for all sorts of liquids, would it then still make sense to confiscate empty bottles of water? None of the people involved yesterday afternoon doubted that my bottle really was empty, i.e. that there was no liquid in it and that I couldn't do anything dangerous with it on the plane. Actually, you can buy lots of bottles full of water a few yards from the security control. The message I got was that empty bottles were on the list, and therefore I couldn't take it with me. I wonder who put it on the list in the first place. The only thing I can imagine is that empty bottles are forbidden by association: liquids are dangerous, liquids can be transported in bottles, therefore bottles are dangerous too. What will be next? Am I still allowed to carry empty boxes with me? You never know there's a terrorist out there planning to smuggle explosives onto a plane using a box…