Uh-oh! Air travel just got a lot more dangerous

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By Christopher Elliott

It pains me to write this, but when it comes to air travel, I think the terrorists may have won. No, they didn’t bring down another plane. But as of this morning, they know exactly how to do it. I’ll get to the details in a minute.

The bad guys have won in another important respect: They’ve succeeded in making air travel a transportation mode of last resort for many Americans. Readers are telling me they’d sooner walk to their destination than fly, thanks to the Transportation Security Administration’s invasive body scans and pat-downs.

The latest example is Lisa Daidone’s disturbing account of being scanned, frisked and mistreated by agents in Tampa on Dec. 3.

“Next time I travel, I’ll drive before I even consider flying,” she wrote. “The time saved is not worth feeling the way I still do about what was done to me.”

Are we giving terrorist a roadmap?

But that pales in comparison with the roadmap we’ve offered the terrorists for blowing up our planes.

Let’s start with the information our government has already offered the villains. Last month, TSA Administrator John Pistole told the terrorists where to hide explosive devices, with the help of the mainstream media.

Asked by the Christian Science Monitor if his agency planned to check body cavities for dangerous items, he said, “We’re not going to get in the business of doing body cavities.”

Today, thanks our friends at BoingBoing, we learned that the controversial full-body scanners don’t work, either. Or, more precisely, that the machines are easily fooled. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

Citing an article in the latest issue of the Journal of Transportation Security by Leon Kaufman and Joseph W. Carlson’s, the blog concluded that the scanners were “trivially defeated” with a simple trick.

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The article notes

It is very likely that a large (15-20 cm in diameter), irregularly-shaped, cm-thick pancake with beveled edges, taped to the abdomen, would be invisible to this technology, ironically, because of its large volume, since it is easily confused with normal anatomy.

Thus, a third of a kilo of PETN, easily picked up in a competent pat down, would be missed by backscatter “high technology”. Forty grams of PETN, a purportedly dangerous amount, would fit in a 1.25 mm-thick pancake of the dimensions simulated here and be virtually invisible. Packed in a compact mode, say, a 1 cm×4 cm×5 cm brick, it would be detected.

(PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate, is a high-power plastic explosive preferred by terrorists.)

Well, that’s just great.

It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which TSA has mismanaged security, particularly since overreacting to the underwear bomber incident. The protests against the agency’s practices are only just beginning. There was another one yesterday in Salt Lake City.

This isn’t just an airport thing. The Department of Homeland Security’s Orwellian “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign which is being expanded to shopping centers and federal buildings, doesn’t make anyone safer. Instead, it makes Americans feel as if they are living in a police state.

Why are we letting this happen?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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