A former TSA boss wants to bring down the curtain on "security theatre"
"FLYING isn't fun any more," is a popular refrain among travellers. They recall wistfully a golden age when flying was glamorous, not an ordeal of long lines and intrusive pat-downs.
In America these are inflicted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which was set up after the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. It is now one of the country's most hated institutions. Many passengers scorn its pettifogging rules. Many complain of ineffectual "security theatre ". In an Economist online debate last month, a crushing 87% of respondents agreed that the changes to airport security since 2001 had "done more harm than good".
The man given the impossible task of opposing the motion was Kip Hawley, a former TSA boss. Even he readily admitted that airport security needed reforming. And on April 14th, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mr Hawley offered some sensible proposals on how to do it.
One idea the airlines will not like is to stop them charging for checked bags. Mr Hawley says this would speed things up by discouraging flyers from dragging all their stuff through security. But carriers have come to rely on such fees, which rake in billions. IATA , their lobby group, argues that, in any case, checkpoint delays were already lengthy in the mid-2000s, before most airlines charged bag fees.
Mr Hawley would also allow all liquids on flights, though those choosing to carry them might have to join a queue to have them scanned (something the European Union intends to start doing next year). He would also lift the bans on such things as knives and lighters. Stronger cockpit doors have made it much harder to use weapons to bring down a flight. And tests run by the TSA found that officers were so busy hunting for lighters and other fairly trivial banned items that they overlooked dummy bomb parts placed nearby.
In general, says Mr Hawley, predictable and rigid checks help terrorists: they design plots around them. So instead of subjecting everyone to the same checks, security should be randomised. However, he does not back one reform that the airlines are keen on: a "trusted traveller" scheme in which flyers who have been vetted are spared most checks. Mr Hawley, who once liked the idea, now worries that terror groups are recruiting "clean" agents who would pass such vetting.
IATA thinks that if vetting were thorough, and a few trusted travellers were checked at random, this problem could be overcome. The airlines also propose merging check-in, security, passport control and customs inspection into a seamless "checkpoint of the future". But getting government agencies to agree to such a move will be like asking hyenas to share a steak .
Even if all these reforms were introduced, far more would have to be done to make flying fun once more. Airlines would need to bring back wide seats and generous meals and drinks. Tedious safety drills and strict seat-belt rules would have to go, as would rowdy stag parties and wailing children. One can but dream.