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November 24, 2009

Restoration Hardware et al. vs. the TSA
Posted by Teresa at 09:00 AM *

I was checking out the stocking-stuffer gadgets the other day at Restoration Hardware and found a nifty little object called a Utili-Key. Unfolded, it’s a combination screwdriver (phillips head, micro-flat, eyeglass), knife blade (partly serrated), and bottle opener. Which is useful. Folded, it looks like a key, which means it can lurk like a sleeper agent on your keychain. (There’s also an eight-tool version, but it doesn’t look as much like a key.)

The whole point of this artifact is that it’s invisible to TSA baggage screeners. That’s a known genre of objects. You can buy blades disguised as belt buckles, pens, lipsticks, key chains, combs and brushes, pendants (most of which are seriously ugly), and harmless-looking unidentifiable objects. Almost all of them fall prey to the Urge to Look Badass, which impairs their stealthiness. A few don’t. (I can vouch for the effectiveness of mild-mannered camouflage. I normally wear a folding Silver Leaf knife, which when closed looks like a leaf-shaped silver pendant. On the few occasions when I’ve forgotten to put it in my checked luggage, hastily stashing it with my jewelry in my carry-on has been enough to get it past security.*)

Anyway, it wasn’t the Utili-Key’s existence that surprised me; it was seeing it given prime display space by a mainstream retailer like Restoration Hardware. I expect to find stealthy camouflaged blades at “unleash your inner ninja” websites, not at upscale Midtown stores. I take this as a sign that the general public is getting tired of the TSA’s policies concerning dangerous implements, and is equally tired of being unable to cut string, open bottles, or get at the contents of plastic blisterpaks when traveling.

If so, I say yay. TSA policies are stupid beyond words. Here’s a demo: go to eBay and type NTSA lot or TSA lot -approved -buddha -buddhist into the general search box. What you’ll see is the everyday contraband TSA baggage screeners confiscate when they’re not busy removing the tiny files from fingernail clippers.* It includes about a zillion leatherman multi-tools, bitty Victorinox knives, folding corkscrews, carabiner-style Buck 759s, tiny cuticle scissors, and antique embroidery scissors shaped like storks. (Sometimes you also get to see what happened to those TSA-approved locks that were missing when you got your luggage back.)

What doesn’t show up in any quantity in TSA/NTSA resale lots: the camouflaged metal blades I mentioned earlier, and the more sophisticated camouflaged blades I assume must exist. TSA employees who spend their time staring at x-ray screens are looking for weapon-shaped weapons. Items traditionally made of metal (like belt buckles) that consist of a sharp metal blade fitted into a snug metal sheath are not going to reveal their inner structure. When they show up on the TSA’s screens, they’ll be shaped like the sheath—and that can look like anything.

Non-metallic objects are even more problematical, because you can walk them straight through the metal detector. As I’ve observed before, knapped stone and obsidian blades have been making quite a comeback, and some of those things are sharp enough for surgery. For those with less primal tastes, there are fiberglass-reinforced hard plastic knives, and ceramic blades—in this case, zirconium oxide with an all-rubber handle.

Last week, Bruce Schneier pointed out the exotic weapons issue in Stabbing People with Stuff You Can Get Through Airport Security:

Use of a pig model to demonstrate vulnerability of major neck vessels to inflicted trauma from common household items,” from the American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology.

Abstract. Commonly available items including a ball point pen, a plastic knife, a broken wine bottle, and a broken wine glass were used to inflict stab and incised wounds to the necks of 3 previously euthanized Large White pigs. With relative ease, these items could be inserted into the necks of the pigs next to the jugular veins and carotid arteries.

This will come as a blow to KZ, a firm which manufactures a line of specialized (and IMO very silly) self-defense pens.
Despite precautions against the carrying of metal objects such as knives and nail files on board domestic and international flights, objects are still available within aircraft cabins that could be used to inflict serious and potentially life-threatening injuries. If airport and aircraft security measures are to be consistently applied, then consideration should be given to removing items such as glass bottles and glass drinking vessels. However, given the results of a relatively uncomplicated modification of a plastic knife, it may not be possible to remove all dangerous objects from aircraft. Security systems may therefore need to focus on measures such as increased surveillance of passenger behavior, rather than on attempting to eliminate every object that may serve as a potential weapon.*
Great idea! Since they can’t very well ship us to our destinations naked and shrink-wrapped, the TSA should focus on real security, run by professionals, instead of a fiasco-prone system that spends an unbelievable amount of time, effort, and money making sure that no one can hijack a plane by threatening the flight attendants with tiny Victorinox folding scissors.

Addenda: I just double-checked my “find the TSA-confiscated resale items on eBay” search strings, and for the first time ever saw listings for wholesale lots of TSA-confiscated sunglasses and reading glasses. I have no idea what that’s about.

TChem points out a cognate technology: thread cutter pendants (also yarn cutter pendants and thread cutter rings):

In early ‘02 when they started confiscating tiny thread scissors, I started seeing these at a lot more craft shops. Like the key, its purpose was pretty obvious.
Comments on Restoration Hardware et al. vs. the TSA:
#1 ::: Ken Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 10:20 AM:

"TSA-confiscated sunglasses and reading glasses. I have no idea what that’s about."

Someone in TSA authority recently saw U.S. Marshals?

#2 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 10:56 AM:

listings for wholesale lots of TSA-confiscated sunglasses and reading glasses.

Being able to read makes Terrorists far more dangerous, as they can bring their Ninja Handbooks aboard and study how to take out the entire flight crew using an airline sleep mask as a garrotte.

#3 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 10:57 AM:

Thank the gods for the TSA, saving the traveling public from the dangers of Dangerous Weaponry such as CD openers. (I finally stopped bringing them with us on tour - it's less stressful for me to stand by the merch table manually unwrapping CDs than arguing with the TSA drones that the microscopic blade hidden within that solid plastic case can't possibly do more damage than the needles in the sewing kit they just blithely allowed through. Or the band pins attached to my backpack.)


#4 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:02 AM:

They still make you take off your shoes at the airport. Your shoes. I know it's a clichéd thing to say, but I'm really glad that wannabe didn't try hiding explosives in his underwear. I have never seen them being proactive about searching, only reactive to threats already past. I can't imagine that a lot of the airports in other countries are particularly happy about having to block off a portion of their terminal so they can implement the US's inane liquids restriction either.

And I see on preview that I was already beaten to the US Marshals reference, so I'll just say instead that I wouldn't doubt that a glasses arm could be just as dangerous as a ballpoint pen, but I have no actual idea why they're confiscating glasses either.

Dealing with the TSA even on a take off your shoes and wait in line approach is annoying and degrading. I wouldn't be surprised if that's half the point. And then the US wonders why people don't think so highly of coming here for something like, say, the Olympics any more.

I think the fact that the US has not appropriated the best screening methods from countries that deal with actual terrorists regularly speaks volumes as to how seriously they really take this whole issue. Not that I'm saying they should, as I don't think we have a huge terrorist threat lurking in every shadow either. Just let me fly with my carry-on and let me wear my shoes!

As an aside on those TSA-approved locks: what person in their right mind thinks that a lock with an easily-accessible master key is any kind of security against anyone, TSA or not?

#5 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:03 AM:

Perhaps at some point I will be able to come up with a comment that isn't incoherent sputtering about the stupidity of the TSA and all its works, but not yet. So for now this will have to serve as a placeholder: DEATH TO THE TSA!!!!

And by 'death' of course I mean I want the organization disbanded, not that I want the people who work for it killed. Just to be clear.

#6 ::: Jacob ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:07 AM:

As an aside on those TSA-approved locks: what person in their right mind thinks that a lock with an easily-accessible master key is any kind of security against anyone, TSA or not?

Frankly, I don't think there's _any_ lock that can fit through luggage zippers that truly provides any kind of security - they should all be trivial to break. However, even the TSA lock will ensure that your bag doesn't accidentally unzip itself when a zipper catches on something.

#7 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:12 AM:

I know it's a clichéd thing to say, but I'm really glad that wannabe didn't try hiding explosives in his underwear.

Out of date - an AQ member tried to take out the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister last month with a suicide bomb that was, um, internally fitted. Fortunately airport security hasn't started taking action against this threat yet.

#8 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:14 AM:

I don't expect the TSA-approved lock to do anything but discourage baggage handlers from opening my suitcase, or, as Jacob said, prevent the zipper from being pulled open accidentally. I've now lost two of them while traveling -- presumably TSA is using their master to open them, and then not bothering to replace the locks when done rummaging through my possessions.

I suspect that the reading glasses and sunglasses are not being confiscated, but are being forgotten at the screening point. It's amazing what people will walk away from when they're annoyed or in a hurry.

It is nice to know that I could replace my confiscated Swiss Army knives so cheaply on Ebay.

#9 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:15 AM:

Thank you, Teresa, you've finally explained to me what the use of those Utilikeys is. Up until now my reaction has been, "but I already have a pocket-knife!" I'm not sure how I could have been so dense... I guess I just failed to think about the perception of the form, because I could tell that it was a knife. Given how much traveling I do, I should really look into getting one of those.

#10 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:18 AM:

Back around, I think 2002 or so, they confiscated my jeweler's screwdriver. (I.e., what I use to repair my eyeglasses.) If they thought that was lethal, I don't know why they didn't confiscate my mechanical pencil which is about as sturdy and has a sharper point. (I didn't volunteer this information though.)

On the same trip, they also scrutinized my car key. It turns out though that they just wanted to play with it. (I mean this literally. The key to a late '90s VW Jetta is a fob with a button you push that makes the key swing out. I guess it was kind of novel at the time.)


Yes, I know this isn't exactly the worst havoc TSA can wreck. Pre-9/11 when I lived near the Canadian border, getting into the US from Canada was a huge hassle, and I'm a US citizen. One would think a US citizen would be allowed free entry into the US. (Yes, I *always* had my passport with me. When I was a kid, my Dad insisted I get a passport precisely for this situation.) I can't imagine that's gotten easier.

Sometimes, I really want someone to establish Ninja Airlines. Cory Doctorow suggested it in some podcast a few years ago. They break into your bedroom while you're sleeping. You wake up the next morning having already finished your trip. (e.g., You're in your hotel room bed, already checked in, your luggage sitting by your side.)

#11 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:28 AM:

John Chu @ 10... They break into your bedroom while you're sleeping. You wake up the next morning

...on the wrong continent.

#12 ::: Janet Croft ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:30 AM:

Oh, Teresa, I have that same leaf knife. Haven't used it in years. Maybe I'll dig it out of the drawer for my next trip.

#13 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:31 AM:

First there was MST3K, which was fun. Then there was MST - Moronic Security Theater. Not so much fun. Maybe they hired Clayton Forrester to run the TSA.

#14 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:31 AM:

Shortly after the Lockerbie tragedy, I was returning to the States from France on a business trip where I had be demonstrating my (then) employer's products. Checking in for my flight, I had two luggage carts loaded with a suitcase, a briefcase, and various protective cases containing:
- 3 Optical Time Domain Reflectometers (look like oscilloscopes)
- 1 plotter
- 2 laptops
My briefcase contained a little toolbox with a large Swiss army knife, a ceramic blade for nicking optical fiber, a razor blade for cutting the Kevlar in optical cables, and bottle of isopropyl alcohol for cleaning optical connectors.

An airline employee asked me if I had any electronic equipment. I gestured at the carts full of equipment cases and began to recite the list. He interrupted me and asked if I had a blow dryer or a cassette player. I said no, and he waved me through.

#15 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:33 AM:

janetl @ 14... You should have said that one of the devices was an interrocitor.

#16 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:44 AM:

BTW, I have a perfectly nice neighbor who works for the TSA. He heaves the luggage through the x-ray machine. For years, he worked as a field service technician on minicomputers like the VAX. He was laid off back in 2002 or so, and never managed to find another job in the industry. He served in the military as a young man, and this federal job dovetails with that to get him some retirement benefits in a few years.

When I'm waiting in line for someone to do a visual inspection of an x-ray of my bag, knowing that this is an approach that doesn't work worth a damn, I try to remind myself that the person staring at the screen isn't responsible for the nonsensical process.

#17 ::: TChem ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:54 AM:

Less useful, but somewhat less ugly and created for essentially the same purpose: Thread Cutter Pendant. In early '02 when they started confiscating tiny thread scissors, I started seeing these at a lot more craft shops. Like the key, its purpose was pretty obvious.

#18 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:56 AM:

I travel for a living. It pains me to note that by far the airports with the most lax security are EWR, LGA, and JFK.

Stupid Security Tricks aren't limited to the US, though. Re key fobs (John Chu #10): several years ago, I believe it was shortly pre-9/11, someone I know had his Audi key fob confiscated at the Halifax airport. The best explanation he could get was "you just never know exactly what that button is supposed to do". So he had to call his dealership in SoCal and arrange for someone to meet him at LAX with a backup key for his car, so he could get home.

Meanwhile, I travel through Heathrow at least once a year. I never have to take off my shoes or remove my laptop from its case. They are still hung up on the silly liquids thing, but at least it's faster to go through the line.

#19 ::: Karen Kay ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 12:02 PM:

You can bring blades up to 2" on board now--I regularly carry small sewing scissors with me without a problem.

#20 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 12:06 PM:

meredith, that sounds like a note of pride for the New York Metropolitan Area! I'm supposing that by "lax" you mean "least inclined to follow the mindless idiotic TSA rules."

Of course, if you really want LAX security, we all know what airport has that...

#21 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 12:24 PM:

I've actually had the TSA put a lock onto a suitcase that didn't have one when I started out. Fortunately, they only put it through one zipper hole.

#22 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 12:29 PM:

When the TSA confiscates your property, what happens when you call 911 to report the theft?

#23 ::: Annalee Flower Horne ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 12:29 PM:

I had a variation of your leaf knife on my keychain for years, and got it onto more airplanes than I care to count (including four international flights). I honestly didn't even think about it being a "weapon," so I just left it on my keychain, stashed it in my carry-on or in a change bin, and walked on through.

Then on a domestic flight from DC, I noticed my single-serving friend giving me nervous glances during the pre-take-off safety spiel. I glanced down to find myself fidgeting with my knife. Oops. I put it away, of course, but it broke before my next flight.

#24 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 12:38 PM:

The first time I ever saw a Utili-Key (or something similar; might not have been that exact brand) was over a decade ago at a regular hardware store.

When we flew to Denver last year we didn't want to have to check luggage, so I left my Leatherman at home. I carry a credit card-sized multi-tool in my wallet. Since my wallet has a chain, I had to take it off and run it through the x-ray machine; apparently the card-tool's x-ray silhouette didn't look weaponish.

I think most of these devices aren't so much for your inner ninja as for the person who finds it useful to carry a multi-tool, but doesn't want to clutter up their pockets or belt, or keep track of yet another loose item.

#25 ::: oliviacw ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 12:44 PM:

Instead of TSA-approved locks, my husband (who travels a lot) uses wire ties. They are quick and easy to attach, prevent accidental opening of zippers, can quickly be cut off by any bladed item (he carries a small pair of scissors in small outer unlocked pocket of the checked bag, but nail clippers do fine in a pinch), and can be reused several times if you don't zip them tight (they gradually get shorter as you trim off bits, so they don't last forever - but they are cheap).

I've occasionally brought knitting on a plane, and had people wonder that they let the needles through. If the person looks like a sensible type, I will point out that a regular pencil or ball point pen could do more damage than my dinky 6" bamboo #2 or #3 double-pointed needles.

#26 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 01:16 PM:

Two notes: I've flown several times in the last decade, and it seems to me that the smaller the airport, the better and more intelligent the security. Plus the ones at the small airports make jokes about confiscating the home-baked cookies you have in your carry-on.

Second note: Before September 11th, Evil Rob would slap his lockblade knife into the key basket at screening, they'd look at it, and wave him through. (He was a warehouse guy for many years and found a lockblade much easier to cope with for opening boxes.)

Anyway, I prefer the "pack not a herd" theory of flying, which is basically to say that passengers who have an eye to their own safety can be far more effective than idiotic screening processes, as shown by cases in recent years where passengers have restrained other passengers who have gone berserk on flights.

#27 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 01:23 PM:

B. Durbin @ 26: On the topic of passengers having an eye on their own safety -- I vaguely recall someone (Al Franken?) saying that after 9/11 he'd carry a couple of baseballs in his carry-on bag. He'd been a pitcher, and can drill in a fastball, which he figured would be a very suitable weapon for taking down a hijacker.

#28 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 02:09 PM:

Instead of the locks, TSA-approved or not, what I do is buy some small (4-6") colored cable ties and lock the zippers. (Carry the cable ties in your hand luggage - and don't carry ones long enough that you're going to scare TSA into thinking you want to use them to handcuff someone...)

No lock will stop anyone who wants to get into your bag; the only purpose of them is to, 1) keep your bag's zipper from getting pulled open by accident, and 2) notify you that someone has been in your bag.

The TSA-approved locks fail purpose 2) miserably so they're pointless. However, a colored zip tie has to be cut off and cannot be replaced on the spot, so it serves both purposes pretty well.

#29 ::: Adina ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 02:12 PM:

When I went through airport security in Boston a few days ago, they were scrutinizing my key ring closely, so I wonder if someone's heard about the Utili-key. Alternatively, they may have just been concerned about the large mass of metal at the bottom of my purse, from all of the coins that have fallen out of my wallet.

#30 ::: Jacob Davies ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 02:17 PM:

Um. D'oh. I missed oliviacw's comment at #25 which says virtually the same thing I just did. (Actually I might've just had the page open for a while and not reloaded before posting...) Sorry!

#31 ::: emm ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 02:31 PM:

Lately (at SFO, but not at JFK, DEN, or ORD) I have been pulled aside for a pat-down search ... because I was wearing a full skirt. We're talking at least ten flights in the last year.

Needless to say, guys in extremely baggy pants are not getting the same treatment. I have no idea why this is only happening at SFO.

#32 ::: meredith ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 02:44 PM:

Karen Kay (#19) -- while that might be the officially revised policy on paper, in reality it depends upon the airport and the particular TSA agent. I have had to mail my teeny keychain Leatherman (blade length = smaller than 2") back to myself on more than one occasion since the rules supposedly changed. I don't even bother trying any more.

Xopher (#20) -- I don't know if the NYC airports are simply ignoring the stupid rules, or just plain don't care. I suspect more of the latter. (I try to avoid the Los Angeles airport at all costs, so I can't speak to the security there.)

#33 ::: Q. Pheevr ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 03:09 PM:

Restoration Hardware? Is that like steampunk, only for people who find the Victorian era a couple hundred years too recent for their taste?

#34 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 03:10 PM:

The one time I went through secondary screening at SFO (I was flying on a ticket that had been bought with someone else's mile-credits the day before -- suspicious behavior, actually, and I don't fault them for it!), the screener joked with me about confiscating the fresh bread I was carrying as a present in my carryon ("Well, it was liquid a few hours ago, right?"). So it's not just small airports that can make a joke.

#35 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 03:23 PM:

ajay @ 7:

Right, so make sure I don't eat beans the night before a flight. Got it.

janetl @ 14:

Oooh, fancy test equipment.

meredith @ 32:

The last time I was flying out from LAX it was still pretty obnoxious, but that was a year ago. I try to avoid that airport as much as possible, too. The smaller, local airport is much nicer.

LAX was also the airport where I got to watch a TSA goon gleefully throw people's luggage onto the X-ray machine, then slam it onto the floor at the other end, in full view of everyone. After all, what can you do about it?

#36 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 03:28 PM:

Avram: Orientation? What's that about?

#37 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 03:40 PM:

B. Durbin @26 and Tom Whitmore @34.

I really dislike it when TSA officials make jokes like that with me. There are signs all over the place about how, if passengers make jokes about bombs or terrorism or whatever, the TSA will take them serious and treat them as a threat.

Why should I feel less threatened when they joke with me?

Jokes only work when the joking relationship is reciprocal.

#38 ::: Sarah S. ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 03:42 PM:

SeriousLY, confound it.

Nothing mars a good taking of umbrage like a typo.

#39 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 03:42 PM:

I am always hand-searched when I fly. This is because I have artificial knees, and I always set off the metal detectors. Plus I'm carrying insulin and gel packs to keep it cool. I've found that a pleasant attitude toward the TSA screeners makes it all a lot faster and less annoying. They do sometimes decide to look through my carry-on, but not all that often.

I try to remember that these people get yelled at all day long, and it's not their fault that they have these incredibly stupid rules to follow.

I only got really irritated once. That was when my knees did NOT set off a metal detector. I tried to tell them that there was something wrong with their equipment, and they really really did not want to hear it. I was threatened with arrest if I kept talking about it.

#40 ::: Tazistan Jen ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 04:01 PM:

I would forgive everything else - even the shoes - if they would drop the liquids nonsense. As my mom put it, that wasn't even a plot. That was a rumor.

#41 ::: Jordin Kare ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 04:02 PM:

I've also seen the Utili-key around for many, many years, so it clearly wasn't created in response to TSA. However, the 8-function one (with no knife blade) may have been.

The only risk from carrying the Utili-key and other not-easily-spotted knives is that if some alert scanner does happen to spot it (and I'm pretty sure they do get shown pictures of the more common "concealed" knives in training, though I can't recall where I saw that info) you *could* be accused of deliberately trying to carry a weapon onto a plane. But the chances of that are tiny, unless of course you start shouting "Death to infidels!" when they confiscate it.

#42 ::: Nicholas Waller ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 04:22 PM:

Tazistan Jen @40 - for a "rumour" about liquids there was a surprisingly big trial complete with convictions and jail sentences up to 36 years.

#43 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 04:24 PM:

Have had the Utili-Key on my ring for years. Passed screening and flown with it with nary a raised eyebrow from the X-ray screener.

During residency interview season, I filled a small generic bottle with shampoo from my large bottle at home, which was promptly confiscated by TSA "because we don't know what could be in the bottle without writing."

This prompted me to buy a small bottle of My Little Pony Body Glitter or some other girly thing with unicorns and crap on it, dump out the contents and fill it with shampoo.

The next time I went through screening, I presented my Freedom Baggie and waited for the response. Two back and forths between the baggie and me of the screener's eyes and I passed without a problem.

I guess it's okay to put unknown liquids in bottles so long as they have print on them.

#44 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 04:48 PM:

KeithS @ 4: I can't imagine that a lot of the airports in other countries are particularly happy about having to block off a portion of their terminal so they can implement the US's inane liquids restriction either.

We have that restriction in Europe as well. Even on domestic flights.

My trip to the Montreal Worldcon involved two plane changes each way and passing through the security check ...a total of five times. First at the home airport (Haugesund), then, perhaps surprisingly not in Oslo. Then the check at Heathrow. Going home, first the check when boarding at Montreal, then when changing planes in Munich and then again when changing in Oslo for the last leg home. Yeah, you go through this shit every time even though you never went out of the "secure" part of the airports.

The only people who's ever terrorized me are my elected officials and their henchmen.

#45 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 05:00 PM:

I may have to get the "Utili-Key" - I hate not being able to carry my Leatherman Supertool with me when I fly; this would be at least a partial replacement.

Back in 2005 I was uncertain whether I'd have my embroidery needle confiscated and I really needed the flying time (London-Toronto-Calgary-Toronto-London) to get my wedding stole finished. I hid a spare alongside the metal cap of my ballpoint pen. The needle wasn't confiscated (although I was glad of the spare when the first one snapped). I did think of getting on of those thread-cutting pendants, because of the absurdity of not being able to take a tiny pair of scissors to cut the thread.

My tiny Victorinox knife lives in my coinpurse and has gone through security several time. If I think about it, I make sure the coinpurse and keys are all together in a pocket, to further confuse the outline.

#46 ::: Russell Coker ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 05:03 PM:

How is patting you down supposed to do any good? If they followed the usual procedure of not going near your genitals then it seems that you could hide whatever you want with no risk of it being found by a pat-down search.

I can't imagine how any personal search could be successful without inspecting people after they have removed all undergarments.

As for the metal implants, if a passenger is just trusted when they say "I've got an implant" then surely a terrorist with a knife in their pocket would say the same. If they registered people who have metal implants then a terrorist could get a genuine implant and then wear a knife in the same area.

The only effective way to deal with metal implants would be to use a hand-held metal detector to scan the area while there are no clothes obscuring it.

Of course this is all moot given the availability of knives that don't show up on metal detectors.

#47 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 05:08 PM:

dcb, there are needle threaders that have built-in thread cutters (advantage: the exposed blade is small enough that it's not obvious). Mill Hill sells them; I don't know about others.

#48 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 05:41 PM:

Russell, I don't know where you've been patted down, but I have a hip implant, and at least at EWR they do NOT avoid touching genitals at all. They give you a good solid groping, trust me on this. This is why they make you wait until they have someone of your same gender to do it (as if someone of your same gender couldn't use the patdown as an excuse for sexual abuse, but never mind).

They also give me a very thorough going-over with a metal detector. So I think they have that base covered, mod the plastic knives etc.

#49 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 05:46 PM:

beth @39: My mother has to be wanded and hand searched due to knee replacements. Those people tend to be nice I have found. I'd not want their job but these rules are such theater and a bureaucrats wet dream.

#50 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 06:11 PM:

I agree the restrictions on liquids and the requirement that you must take off your shoes are dumb and dumber, but I have found that courtesy and a smile gets you through the procedure in reasonable time. I recently had to call the TSA to ascertain if there would be any problem carrying a white noise generator in my hand luggage. A very courteous gentleman assured me it would be fine. Now to find out if he was right...

#51 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 06:12 PM:

The two consistent rules of TSA behaviour are "We can do anything we feel like and you can't argue" and "[whatever arbitrary behaviour they've just started doing or only do at this one airport] has ALWAYS been the rule, and you should know that, citizen-unit!" The latter one especially annoys me, since I've been flying longer than half of the TSA thugs have been alive and have seen the rules evolving; remember the Twilight Zone episode where Shatner shoots the gremlin out on the airplane wing?

The shoe business started after 9/11 but before the Shoe Bomber; originally they were asking people to remove shoes to keep the lines moving, because a lot of shoes have metal parts that set off the metal detectors. I'd often deal with that by wearing Tevas; with some airports it wasn't a problem, with others I told them "they're non-metallic" and they were fine with it, and others went into bully mode because by then the sheep were supposed to know to take their shoes off. I got much more annoyed by them making me take my hat off - as a Quaker we had traditional issues with that a couple centuries back, even though I actually just wear one to keep my head warm. In San Jose most of the other people who wear hats are Mexicans with cowboy hats; if they'd tried a policy like that in LaGuardia before making it US-wide somebody'd have gotten fired or at least educated about Orthodox Jews quickly.

At least the TSA has gradually acquired some ethnic diversity - when they first replaced the previous airport screeners, it was really strange having a bunch of white-uniformed white men who looked like they were there to intimidate foreigners. I saw maybe one black women there, but SFO and SJC had mainly been staffed by Indians and Filipinos. And recently they switched to blue uniforms to look more like cops, but the version they use in Hawaii (with shorts instead of long pants) makes them look more like postal workers.

#52 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 06:13 PM:

I'm not going into TSA land, everyone has already spoken to that.

Restoration Hardware is full of pr0n for hardware junkies. As in: I could buy really cool, authentic-looking pulls and knobs for the built-in breakfront in our dining room. If I could come up with about a $grand. (I have a 1912 house.)

Sigh. I don't let myself go in there often.

#53 ::: Kevin Riggle ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 06:40 PM:

Tae Kim @43: Odd. I've never had a problem traveling with unmarked bottles of under 3oz. each, which I do for similar reasons. It is possible I managed to hit on magic TSA-approved(tm) bottles, but I'd wager it's just the airport.

#54 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 07:09 PM:

One of the biggest problems with TSA screening is that they enforce different rules at every airport. This makes it difficult for passengers to know in advance what's verboten, and also makes it difficult for anyone to claim incompetence when something obviously dangerous gets through ("We were never told that wasn't allowed!"). A win-win for entrenched bureaucracy.

#55 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 07:17 PM:

As I remember from Dave Grossman's book, On Killing (which has been ref'd here before on this subject), a person scary enough to kill you with a 2-inch blade or a ball-point pen is scary enough to kill you with their bare hands, and there aren't many people with that personality type. The TSA rigmarole is meant to intimidate the rest of us.

There are more possible humiliations, but they're met with in prisons and mental health wards. I have never been an inmate in the former but I have in the latter (once), and they go to lengths to get rid of sharps and anything that you could conceivably hang yourself with.

#56 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 08:34 PM:

Kip, I think there's a way of rigging it into some kind of direction-finder if you know how.

#57 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 08:34 PM:

Of course, you could just have a scarf with an antique coin weighting one end (though that detail may be unreliable).

#58 ::: Marian ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 08:39 PM:

Thank you, thank you for the idea of the zip ties. I am so tired of the TSA stealing my locks. And the idea that they are turning around and reselling them is infuriating.

Also, I can't believe that no one posted the link to this video that someone sent me

#59 ::: Ed ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 08:50 PM:

Nicholas @ 42: Maybe she shouldn't have used the word "rumour" but still, the whole notion of the grave threat of liquids is highly iffy. Here's a nice sane article about the whole notion:

#60 ::: Dichroic ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 09:09 PM:

Sorry, but I'm pretty sure Restoration Hardware was selling stuff like that before 9/11.

#61 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 09:13 PM:

Bill Stewart #51: The two consistent rules of TSA behaviour are "We can do anything we feel like and you can't argue" and "[whatever arbitrary behaviour they've just started doing or only do at this one airport] has ALWAYS been the rule, and you should know that, citizen-unit!"

So, you think trying to get a TSA employee arrested for theft under color of law wouldn't work?

#62 ::: Juli Thompson ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 09:18 PM:

So, given that we all know that security theater is a bad thing, how do we get rid of it? What organizations are lobbying to roll back the nonsense? Does Bruce Schneier have a PAC? Are there any sane politicians overseeing TSA? What are some action steps beyond spreading the word and complaining?

#63 ::: miriam beetle ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 09:25 PM:


Lately (at SFO, but not at JFK, DEN, or ORD) I have been pulled aside for a pat-down search ... because I was wearing a full skirt. We're talking at least ten flights in the last year.

Needless to say, guys in extremely baggy pants are not getting the same treatment.

my partner wears a utilikilt like 90% of the time. he also happens to be solidly built, asian, & sometimes mohawked (allright, so i can't help showing off). guess who gets "randomly selected for a personal search" every time? (we fly a dozen times a year, including through sfo.)

even though it's a rivet-filled garment, it never sets off metal detectors, & you know, more of his body is visible than the average male traveler's. it seems more about punishing nonconformity, like with your skirt.

#64 ::: Tazistan Jen ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2009, 11:15 PM:

#42 ::: Nicholas Waller:

Oh the plot was real. It was the liquid explosives that were a rumor:

We're told that the suspects were planning to use TATP, or triacetone triperoxide, a high explosive that supposedly can be made from common household chemicals unlikely to be caught by airport screeners. A little hair dye, drain cleaner, and paint thinner - all easily concealed in drinks bottles - and the forces of evil have effectively smuggled a deadly bomb onboard your plane.

Or at least that's what we're hearing, and loudly, through the mainstream media and its legions of so-called "terrorism experts." But what do these experts know about chemistry? Less than they know about lobbying for Homeland Security pork, which is what most of them do for a living. But they've seen the same movies that you and I have seen, and so the myth of binary liquid explosives dies hard.

#65 ::: Allen Baum ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 12:04 AM:

Last month I tossed a bunch of stuff I usually carry around into a suitcase and tried to board a flight to NYC. I had forgotten the outside pocket of my pack had both a Utilikey and a Swiss Army knife. They spotted the knife (which I was able to mail back to myself from the kiosk they installed nearby) but never saw - or cared about - the Utilikey.

London is worse. Last time we passed through, no liquids (even though this was a transfer). I dumped my half-used toothpaste. Donya opted for forgiveness rather than permission and just stuck it in her carry-on & no one noticed.

Oh, and only one carry-on per person. Have both a handbag/purse and a laptop? Choose which one you leave at security....

But, the crowning bit of bureaucracy was them telling us that rules would change on Monday & then we'd be allowed to carryon 100ml bottles of liquids!

#66 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 12:29 AM:

I have an old Minolta camera from the 1960's. It weighs about five pounds, has a metal body, and has a nice sturdy strap. It'd be a heck of a weapon if I ever wanted to clock someone with it. Never had even one comment about carrying it with me, naturally.

The last time I went through an airport checkpoint was about five years ago. They let me keep my camera, of course, along with the glass filters that could easily have been broken to make sharp edges.

I also had a lunch that included cheese and crackers and a plastic picnic knife to cut the cheese. They took the plastic knife.

#67 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 12:39 AM:

I get to carry my meds in my carryon, which includes inhalers (liquids) and a cream. I've had one guy look at me like I was taking up his time and he looked at the case carefully, but everybody else has just passed it through.

#68 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 02:13 AM:

Allen, #65: That's one advantage I've found to abandoning the purse for a belt-pack. Because you're wearing the belt-pack, it seems not to count as a carry-on item.

(The other advantage is that it forces me to keep the stuff in it pared down to what's genuinely necessary. My purse always ended up weighing 10 pounds or more. And I didn't believe in carrying huge purses!)

#69 ::: Russell Coker ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 03:00 AM:


When flying out of European airports (which I did a lot a few years ago) I generally avoided being searched. The way things worked was that there was one male and one female assigned to pat people down and they were right behind the two ticket checking machines. So if the male security person wasn't busy I would futz with my ticket until some other guy was being searched...

I was searched once, I'm not sure whether the security guy intended to feel me up. If it had been a cold day I would probably have got through unscathed in that regard (it was only the briefest touch down low). In any case I'm certain that I could have concealed something in my underpants and not had it discovered. That was at Amsterdam airport, but I could have taken a flight to the US and had the same people doing the searching.

As for US airports, they don't even bother to properly search my luggage. I've taken a Cobalt Qube (30cm cube with solid steel on all sides) in my carry-on luggage from airports such as Boston and LA without any problems. I once had the TSA ask me what it was (obviously their X-rays couldn't get a good look inside) but didn't ask me to open it. When you can take a steel box on a flight without having to open it first then you can forget about most other checks.

#70 ::: VictorS ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 03:08 AM:

Thanks for the comments on full skirts and utilikilts -- it explains why my wife has invariably gotten special screening domestically for about the last two years.

To the poster above who thinks screeners avoid the crotch region -- not true. The zipper on my blue jeans set off an oversensitive detector in Boston a few years ago, and I got a manual zipper examination while my wife looked on. There was a lot of announce-then-perform stuff, but no avoidance at all.

Unfortunately, the screener tried to ease the moment by making small talk. "So, what do you do? Computers, really? I used to be a web designer, myself."

The overall effect was like being chatted up by a frotteur with police powers.

#71 ::: Harry Payne ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 07:38 AM:

Tazistan Jen @64: Here's a more recent article, the liquid explosives (or at least a very serious attempt to make the same) were not fiction:

Three men have been found guilty of plotting to kill thousands of people by blowing up planes flying from London to America with home-made liquid bombs.

...the men put together a special home-made mixture of chemicals that they planned to take onto planes in ordinary sports drinks bottles stored within hand luggage. Ahmed Ali, of Walthamstow, Hussain, of Leyton, east London, and Sarwar had been found guilty previously of a conspiracy to murder involving liquid bombs.

The jury in that first trial could not decide whether their plans extended to detonating the devices on planes. But a second jury was convinced.

Full article at

#72 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 10:32 AM:

Regarding the liquid bombers:

Reading a newer article that gets into more detail, it might indeed be plausible. However, the bombers were busted by good, old-fashioned police work, not by being relieved of nail clippers. The system as it stands now is so full of inconsistencies and holes that it only inconveniences honest people.

VictorS @ 70:

That sounds distinctly uncomfortable. There are some situations where small talk just doesn't work.

#73 ::: Nick Brooke ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 10:42 AM:

Or if you prefer your updates from the Register:

Cheers, Nick

#74 ::: John L ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 10:57 AM:

Back in February 2002, when my wife and I flew to Hawaii, she was the one who always got the search treatment while I never did. Of course, her purse was stuffed full of electronic gadgets (phone, CD player, batteries, wires, etc), so the X-ray operator probably saw all that and figured he might have a really messy terrorist on his hands...

#75 ::: Calton Bolick ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 11:23 AM:

I've actually got one of those Utili-Keys, and I'm pretty sure I got it at Restoration Hardware years ago on one of my stateside trips (I love browsing the counter for those little gadgets). In my case, I got it because it's a compact little emergency tool which fits neatly on my keychain a lot more conveniently than a Swiss Army Knife bouncing around in my pocket would. And yeah, it's come in handy multiple times, including fixing my eyeglasses (that alone made it worth double the cost). And yes, it's gone through airport security multiple times on 2 or 3 continents.

(I'm not sure airport security is up to snuff, generally, though: I went through Newark a few years ago and at the metal detector I dumped my heavy-duty solid-steel 2-oz nail clippers into the tray (because I had absent-mindedly left it in my jacket pocket) with the expectation that it would be confiscated. So I left it in the tray after pocketing all my other stuff and walked away. "Excuse me, sir, you forgot this," said the TSA agent, thrusting the tray in my direction and causing the clippers to hit the inside wall of the tray with a loud THUNK. So I thanked the agent, picked up my nail clippers, put them back in my pocket, and caught my flight.)

#76 ::: Essi ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 11:41 AM:

This is not stricly speaking about airport security, but the reason I no longer want to visit the USA is because I would be forced to give my fingerprints at the passport check-in. Like some criminal! The thought of the US government having my fingerprint information for all eternity is not a comforting thought.

#77 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 11:56 AM:

Is restoration hardware like restoration comedy? The kind you're allowed to have again after it's been banned?

#78 ::: Tazistan Jen ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 11:57 AM:

Rats, regarding the new liquid bomb articles. I can give up on ever bringing reasonable amounts of Cetaphil or lotion anywhere unless I want to pay $20 to check my bag.

#79 ::: beth meacham ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 12:47 PM:

Tazistan Jen, it's much less expensive to hit a drug store upon arrival and buy a small quantity of whatever you need.

#80 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 02:16 PM:

Flying to the Bay Area tomorrow morning.

I have a bag of stocking stuff type gifts I picked up at Goodwill. Cute little voice-memory records. They come with batteries. I'm trying to imagine what the TSA people will make of them.

Or of THIS.

#81 ::: John Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 02:24 PM:

Tazistan Jen:
Ask your pharmacist for the bottles they use to mix medicines. Create a pharmacy label. Apply same. Put it in a bag and declare the bag as "medical necessities" (which is what you are supposed to do with drugs and appliances etc. These are excluded from carry on limitations and TSA (in theory: people have had the TSA insist that they open the transparent sterile packaging for their urinary catheter and subsequently got a UTI)).

I expect that people undergoing peritoneal dialysis* need lots of extra time at the airport since they need to have multiple liters of dialysate with them. The medical suppliers are very good about getting supplies to wherever you are traveling to, but some is needed onboard for long trips or possible delays.

*Peritoneal dialysis involves filling and draining special fluid in and out of the abdominal cavity to filter the blood in people without functioning kidneys. Our dear departed Mike Ford did this before his kidney transplant.

#82 ::: Tanya NT ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 02:31 PM:

I make jewelry – wire-wrapped gemstone earrings and necklaces. It’s wonderfully portable work, but having to check in the tools defeated the purpose of having something to do while waiting in the terminal. So when it was announced that “small tools” would be allowed, I took them at their word – small jeweler’s tray about the size of a laptop with a snap lid, I open the lid in the screener bin and call over an agent before it goes through the machine. None of the airports – JFK, O’Hare, LAX, SFO, Sea-Tac, and others – has ever given me a problem, after being shown the strings and baggies of various gemstones, coil of 28-gauge 14K wire, and an example of the finished goods (earrings actually in my ears), even though the tools are very fine-pointed round-nose pliers and wire-cutters (also with sharp points). The polite upfront explanation probably doesn’t hurt.

Granted, I travel with my cheaper tool set, just in case.

So, no problem with sharp six-inch tools going through. But me in my long skirts or maxi-dresses, must be inspected as others mention. Thankfully at SFO they’re very blasé about piercings. But they don’t like the bracelet that can’t be removed without a screwdriver. Why the metal piercings that can't be removed without pliers are different from the metal bracelet that can't be removed without a screwdriver, I don't know.

#83 ::: Ursula L ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 02:57 PM:

The whole bit about liquid explosives always struck me as strange.

Given the enclosed nature of a plane cabin, when I heard about the plot, I wondered why they didn't just use ammonia and bleach. Cheap, easily available, and the "instructions" are everywhere in the form of warnings not to mix the two, and why.

#84 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 03:54 PM:

Stefan Jones @ 80... Would you by chance be planning to be there on December 19-20?

#85 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 04:43 PM:

#84: Nope, just down there for Thanksgiving. Christmas is back east.

#86 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 05:34 PM:

Stefan Jones @ 85... Drat!

#87 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 06:30 PM:

I flew with a utilikey for about a year, but stopped. Reason: they're pathetically bad as multitools, and while the screeners never spotted the thing (even when examining my key ring) the risk of being singled out for the third degree if they realized what it was finally convinced me it wasn't worth it.

These days I always fly with a Swiss army knife in my checked baggage. Reason: I'm unlikely to need a multitool while in flight -- the only practical purpose is cutting into something I've bought in the airport duty-free, and it's easier just to ask the sales clerk "can you open this for me if I buy it?" But if I'm away from home for a week, the odds are high that I'll need the tool sooner or later.

Current experience suggests that the TSA and their opposite numbers are not interested in stealing elderly Swiss army knives from suitcases. They're far more interested in damaging the luggage itself, which costs a damn sight more to replace.

#88 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 06:44 PM:

Allen @65: I live in the UK, so consequently I get to deal with the extra helping of shit served up at British airports on a regular basis. My current hand luggage solution is: a maximum-permissible-size rolling carry-on, and a man bag (which holds the in-flight necessities: mobile phone, PDA, meds, ipod, headphones, travel documents, and so on). The catch is that the man-bag must go through X-ray screening inside the rolling carry-on. So I shove it inside before approaching security, and unstow it once I'm on the other side.

I suspect they're only limiting the number of bags per passenger to cut down on the number of screeners they need.

Second tip: instead of fluids, carry cash. (If in the UK, make sure to take pound coins. Euro zone: take euro coins. USA: take one dollar bills.) There will be concession stands/vending machines after security where you can buy as much drinking water/cola/etc as you need for the flight, but only if you've got the wherewithal to pay for it. Alternatively: take an empty drinking bottle -- they'll let it through security as long as it's clearly empty -- and fill from a drinking fountain. (Doesn't work in the UK: no drinking fountains.)

(This doesn't work in Paris CDG or Schiphol, where the security screening is at the departure gate and there are no toilets, never mind vending machines, after you go there -- but it works at most other airports I've used lately.)

#89 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 07:01 PM:

Just a general note, for those of you who do travel with medications, do make sure they're in their original bottles or a bottle with a prescription label. Regardless of what it is, if you don't have a label or appropriate bottle for it, the TSA may seize it. This includes things like inhalers, insulin, nitroglycerin*, etc.

There's a certain degree of WTFery in the TSA's enforcement of the rules. I'm pretty sure they're not supposed to take grandma's insulin, but they do.

*For obvious reasons, nitroglycerin may get the attention of sniffer dogs, also. Shouldn't be a problem once they figure out why the dog's decided you're interesting, but it's worth bearing in mind that this could get you or your bag the extra-thorough search.

#90 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 07:19 PM:

Erik Nelson @ 77:
Is restoration hardware like restoration comedy?

TSA security theater reminds me of a Jacobin revenge play.

#91 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 07:34 PM:

I wonder if the TSA has become a bit less Ruritanian this year. On our way back from Philadelphia to Atlanta this year, a flying picket from the TSA turned up at the departure gate, yet I was not singled out for a "random" check.

In the past I've been approached by TSA officals for "casual conversation" since I fit the "Muslim" profile (light brown skin, wavy hair, beard).

#92 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 07:44 PM:

... and as of my last pass through the airport, I now need a new one *sigh*

#93 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 07:48 PM:

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) #90: A Jacobin Revenge Play, eh? Written by Danton, perhaps?

#94 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 07:53 PM:

Have things calmed down a bit in TSAland? My flight a week ago was the first I can recall in quite some time in which I didn't see or hear anything like "The current threat level is CHARTREUSE, or moderately elevated" at any of the airports I went through.

#95 ::: Clark E Myers ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 11:26 PM:

The Silver Leaf is specifically mentioned by name in training manuals - this from a California training manual.

Closed, this knife looks like a leaf. When opened, it converts into a knife with a two-inch long blade. This knife can easily be attached to a key ring where it appears to be a silver leaf.

There are some useful tools that look right at home in manicure sets as well. Rumor has it fair success at getting tools through checkpoints comes with saying it's not as nice as it looks; it's an imitation from Harbor Freight.

Obs SF - Gordon Dickson's Hilifter

#96 ::: Tae Kim ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2009, 11:54 PM:

I still fly with the Utili-Key because since I use zip-ties instead of TSA locks, I need something sharp to cut through them once I reach my destination. Assuming the TSA hasn't already, mind.

#97 ::: Kate Y. ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 01:01 AM:

I keep one of those thread-cutter pendants in my knitting toolkit, travel edition. I considered buying a plastic one as perhaps being less obvious, but reflected that those actually were a wee bit hazardous: cheap plastic case would easily give up the razor if stomped on.

The pedantic, does-not-play-well-with-others side of me would like very much to show up at the airport sometime with a filled water bottle that has spent the night in the freezer.

#98 ::: Allen Baum ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 01:05 AM:

Charlie @88:
I dislike checking luggage, and travel pretty light. I haven't encountered a problem with tiny tubes of toothpaste anywhere besides the UK.
But, for something that size, I'm totally willing to take the chance and just put it in my luggage and have them confiscate it if they happen to see it. Which is not likely in my experience.

Despite the fact that there are no water fountains inside UK airports, you can go to any of the concession stands that serve food/drink and ask them to fill your water bottle; we do that all the time. (but not in India)

#99 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 04:41 AM:

Allen, one option for toothpaste is a travel toothbrush, of the variety that has a hollow handle and takes a capsule of toothpaste (enough for about two brushings). I probably ought to look for a regular source of those, although an electric toothbrush with no paste is pretty good at breaking up biofilm.

I tried traditional old-style dental powder for a while, but it's like brushing your teeth with sand, dammit.

As of the last update we're stuck with this nonsense until 2013 at the earliest, which does not fill me with joy. The really annoying thing isn't the regular hand-searches I've been getting lately (they've turned the metal detectors up to 11, so that my spectacle frames or the hemoglobin in my blood or something is setting them off) as the fact that about 50% of my fellow-travellers seem to be clueless about what's expected of them. The number of times I've been in a queue and found myself right behind a businessman with a briefcase and a frequent flier priority tag who didn't twig that his pocket lint and belt had to do through the X-ray machine until the last moment ...

They keep changing the sodding rules. It's as if they want us to feel helpless and disoriented. Why could they possibly want that ...?

#100 ::: Johan Larson ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 10:24 AM:

Has the TSA considered that it's possible to be dangerous without being armed? The terrorists could take over a plane with nothing but mad Kung Fu skillz!

#101 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 03:27 PM:

Ah, but it's security theater, not Kung Fu.

#102 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 03:29 PM:

...and while waiting for that to post, I suddenly had a vision of Kung Fu featuring Bruce Schneier....

#103 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 04:47 PM:

Charlie Stross @ #99: "or the hemoglobin in my blood"

"Fer Gawd's sake, man, don't take those extra-iron vitamin supplements! Do you want to set off the metal detectors?"

#104 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 05:06 PM:

They just need to employ the right sort of aviators.

There's this chap called Bigglesworth who would know how to handle hijackers.

#105 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 05:16 PM:

Flying to Belfast in a week or so, so shall get to see if the security people there still view US-style security theatre with the same blend of cynical amusement and horror as they did for a couple of years after September 2001...

#106 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 05:16 PM:

Dave @ 104: That spurs an interesting thought on counter-hijacking tactics for pilots - if I recall, the test pilot on the first 767 flight put it through several barrel rolls and Immelmanns for the hell of it.

"Passengers, a hijacking is in progress. Please fasten your seat belts."

#107 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 05:48 PM:

Nicholas Waller: There was a plot, based on an impossible idea (at least as used to justify the restrictions. There are any number of things which could be used as liquids to cause grief) . The reaction of the TSA is not unreasonably described as a rumor, since the actual "plan" was impossible, reacting to it is akin to responding to rumor.

One of the paragraphs in the article to which you linked seems to sum it up (and not in a good way); All three men convicted on Monday had been found guilty at an earlier trial last year of conspiracy to murder, but prosecutors said it was vital to secure a conviction on another charge of conspiring to blow up the aircraft in order to prove that the threat to air traffic was genuine.

Since the charge isn't attempting, but conspiring, the conviction doesn't actually deal with the feasibilty (i.e. the actuality) of the threat it is being used to confirm.

It was, at that level, a show trial and admittedly so. Also worthy of note is the jury in the first bite the Crown took at the apple failed to reach a verdict, and one of them was actually acquitted.

KeithS: I've not seen evidence the bombers actually had finished product; merely that they were conspiring to kill people/blow up planes. That the explosives experts were able to make something is one thing, but I'd be a lot happier if it weren't described as It'd take you a few tries to get the proportions right - just as it did the government boffins working for the prosecution, and Dr Sidney Alford working for Channel 4 - but once you know the recipe you can get reliable results.

I'd much rather have a recipe they found in the conspirators flat, which worked like a charm.

sara: Re Grossman: He makes a number of claims based on bad data/blanket assumptions. One of the greatest holes in his theory (and the entire work is to support his theory on the role of videogames/entertainment at positive reinforcement of casual violence), is the assumption the 15 percent who were shooting in any given firefight were always the same 15 percent. From personal experience, I can tell you the people who are able to kill someone with an implement (no matter how small) are 1: not always the one's capable of killing with their bare hands: 2: the psychological effects of even a small weapon on the crowd is huge (box cutters are not all that dangerous, unless one is being held captive; but the thought of being cut is scary)

re locks: I use garden twist-ties. The number of searches of my bags has dropped a lot (someone between Toronto and LAX tossed my bag last year; at which point I made sure to do the wrap job on my zippers). The obviousness they seem to make of having my bags gone into seems to have a great dissuasive power.

Ursula L: Phosgene (the result of ammonia and chlorine) isn't that lethal. To get a really effective batch you need high-test of both, and then they need to be mixed, and they have to stay concentrated. In an airplane that won't happen. They are heavier than air (this is why it's people cleaning floors and tubs who usually get ill/die from it) and needs a fair bit of concentration. In WW1 it was (as was themore effective mustard gas) not very lethal, but incredibly disruptive. I'll wager flight attendents can trigger the oxygen masks; problem solved. It also fails the "drama requirement" for effective terrorism in the modern age.

#108 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 06:25 PM:

Terry @ 107 -- I don't think one gets phosgene by mixing chlorine bleach and aqueous ammonia. Some ammonia gas would be released, because the strong alkali of the bleach solution would shift the equilibrium in the ammonia solution, and there would be some choramines and nitrogen chloride produced. The latter are corrosive, toxic, and unstable -- I'm not sure how they compare to the well-known nitrogen iodide.

#109 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 06:44 PM:

Cygnet at 89, I've been putting my pill dispenser complete with pills in my hand luggage for at least the last few years. TSA appears supremely uninterested in my meds. The TSA website specifically says: "We do not require that your medications be labeled. Medications in daily dosage containers are allowed through the checkpoint once they have been screened." Given this, I am curious as to your assertion that TSA may seize your meds if they aren't bottled and labeled.

#110 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 09:25 PM:

A quick note: I had thought what you get from ammonia and bleach is chlorine gas, and very dilute chlorine at that. Not good for you, but not something that'll kill everybody on the plane in the quantities you could make that way.

(I thought phosgene could be generated from burning carbon tetracloride, IIRC.)

#111 ::: Cygnet ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2009, 09:28 PM:

Lizzy, my day job is working for a company that handles pharmacy benefits. (It pays the bills ... *sigh*)

Part of my job is solving complicated/weird/unusual claims problems that don't always fit in neat little boxes. "The TSA seized my meds and I need to get replacements!" is not incredibly common, but it does happen often enough that I'm not surprised to hear it.

#112 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2009, 01:33 AM:

Shortly after 9/11 when there was a big push by the NRA to get guns made legal in the cockpit a pilot in The New York Times said something like "If they try to hijack my plane I'm dumping cabin pressure and bouncing them off of the ceiling." I remember it sticking in my mind not so much because of the thought of doing an aileron roll or loop in a 747 (like The Straight Dope covered some years before--short answer: a few years after they asked Uncle Cecil there was an accidental aileron roll in a 747 that briefly went transonic. The plane was able to land at SFO but it had the hell beaten out of the tail.), but that the pilot interviewed was mentioned as flying Boeing jets and I didn't know you could dump the cabin pressure that fast. I suspect this is a highly "undocumented feature" if true.

#113 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2009, 05:42 AM:

106, 107, 112:

The pax oxy masks don't actually provide you with pure O2. If you have to use them, your problem is not that the air isn't breathable, but that the oxygen partial pressure at that altitude is too low to get enough of it into your lungs. What they do is to add extra O2 to the stream of cabin air you inhale. Usually this comes from a packet of chemicals that react and evolve O2.

So to implement this you'd also need to dump the cabin. This is a well documented procedure because it's part of the cabin smoke/fire checklists - one way to put out a fire is of course to deny it oxygen, and venting the cabin air over the side is obviously a sensible way to get rid of smoke. Turn the aircon packs off and open the relief valves. The oxygen masks should deploy automatically, but they can be commanded down as well.

Come to think of it, the hijackers will probably think the plane is about to crash, especially when the next item on the depressurisation check list goes into effect (emergency descent...).

Crew oxy masks are airtight and deliver pure O2 from a tank and the cabin crew have some portable bottles dotted about the place as well so they can move around during a depressurisation event.

Supposedly, a 1960s BOAC VC-10 captain barrel rolled the plane during a long night sector over the Indian Ocean. With care, it can be a +1g manoeuvre, and apparently no-one outside the cockpit was any the wiser.

#114 ::: Antonia T. Tiger ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2009, 06:50 AM:

There's a lot of mythology around cabin depressurisation, and I would blame Ian Fleming for some of it (Goldfinger). Of course, the Comet crashes were much more recent when he wrote that book.

(I've been checking on some of this for my NaNoWriMo. But all the real excitement in firmly on the ground.)

#115 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2009, 07:29 AM:

114: true. The worst is the idea that if you put a bullet through the fuselage, OMG DEPRESSURISATION and everybody dies.


If you fire through the fuselage of an aeroplane, what you have is an aeroplane with a small, round hole in the side. Aeroplanes aren't completely airtight anyway - there's no need, when the cabin air conditioning packs are running anyway and taking air from the outside to keep the cabin air fresh and up to pressure. A hole means the packs just has to work a little harder.

(What if the bullet hits something important?)

Everything important is redundant, generally multiply so. Including the pilot...

#116 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2009, 10:24 AM:

ISTR that it was a 707 that did a roll during a demonstration flight - in front of company executives. I wouldn't rule out other test pilots doing it, though. It's certainly a demonstration of something.

#117 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2009, 02:39 PM:

P J Evans: You are thinking of this incident (SLYT) (in which Boeing chief test pilot Tex Johnson rolled the Dash 80 prototype in front of an audience of airline executives and nearly got himself fired.

NB: according to Wikipedia, "To date the only other four engine jet transport aircraft known to have been rolled is Concorde which was extensively rolled during testing by both British and French test-pilots". So there.

#118 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2009, 09:51 PM:

Bleach plus ammonia releases chlorine gas, instantly recognizable as that pale green to yellowish gas creeping along the ground. Enough quantities of this will induce massive pulmonary edema, but it's noticeable and wearing some form of SCBA will protect your lungs. Also, go upwind and uphill.

Solid and liquid forms of chlorine compounds are not toxic like chlorine gas.

#119 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2009, 10:59 PM:

Charlie - Interesting, and thanks for the correction. I can see how the actual "367-80" must have mutated in the retelling to "767" by the time I heard it (when the 767 was a fairly recent release.)

#120 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2009, 11:44 PM:

Explosive decompression of a plane's cabin? Tested by the MythBusters. Recap of the results here.

#121 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 12:02 AM:

Charlie, that sounds like the right incident. I wasn't sure I was remembering any of it correctly.

#122 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 01:09 AM:


NB: according to Wikipedia, "To date the only other four engine jet transport aircraft known to have been rolled is Concorde which was extensively rolled during testing by both British and French test-pilots". So there.

Let's hear it for Wikipedia accuracy. Mind you, if someone changed the line to "the only other four engine jet transport aircraft known to have been rolled without damage is Concorde" I'd buy it. As you can see, the 747's tail is chewed to hell, which I doubt happened to Concorde.

#123 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 03:32 AM:

Bruce, reading the report, I am not clear on just what happened to the plane. "rolled to the right" and "nosed down" makes me wonder just how far the roll went. And an uncontrolled roll inverted would surely have meant negative G in the cabin. There's no mention of inverted flight.

I don't think you have enough evidence that Wikipedia is wrong in this case.

#124 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 05:24 AM:

Bruce @122: an interesting little-known factoid about Concorde is that the designers might have specifically intended it to be capable of aerobatic maneuvers. After all, Prototype 002 (IIRC) was built with attachment points for an internal bomb bay! To get cabinet backing for the hugely expensive project the Air Ministry wanted the RAF on board, and the RAF had a hard-on for the prospect of a supersonic four-engined bomber that could carry a Blue Steel stand-off bomb most of the way to Moscow while out-running Warsaw Pact interceptors.

The nuclear-armed Concorde died when the Royal Navy definitely picked up the strategic deterrence role. And it would probably have been outrageously expensive and of limited utility. However: while aerobatic maneuvering is useless to an airliner, it's quite a different matter for a strategic bomber which may have to evade enemy fire.

(But it's worth noting that the Tupolev bureau had sketches on file for a nuclear-armed derivative of the Tu-144C; it was to be capable of scrambling rapidly on warning of a US ICBM attack, and would fly to dispersal points over the Siberian arctic before launching what was effectively a cut-down version of the SS-20 IRBM at US territory.)

((Yes, I have been researching the weaponized Concordes for a novel; why do you ask?))

#125 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 10:44 AM:

Dave Bell:

In my earlier post I said an aileron roll. Here's a better description at image 29. I went with the earlier link because it clearly showed the damage, which this second link does not--I'm not sure where to find NTSB/AAR-86/03 online or I'd include the final report.

Charlie: that brings to mind the push to have the USAF take over the old Project Orion on the grounds that once it was launched it would be damn hard to destroy it with a nuke, which always struck me as too strange for words...

#126 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 11:02 AM:

The RAF also borrowed a Concorde on a number of occasions for big air defence exercises, as she was the closest thing to a Tu-22M3 or (later) Tu-160 in the sky, and could fly supersonically down the Norwegian Sea and attack from the west.

#127 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 11:22 AM:

meredith @18 said: I travel for a living. It pains me to note that by far the airports with the most lax security are EWR, LGA, and JFK.

I live in Chicago, and have traveled not infrequently for conventions and the like; I also spent a (very subjectively long) winter working at ORD, pushing wheelchairs and skycapping.

I universally find that security is more of a pain in the ass (in the 'being sticklers for letters of rules that don't actually make anyone one whit safer, but delay hundreds of passengers a day by hours) in smaller airports, because a policy that delays 1 passenger out of every 1000 through the checkpoint, every day (note: numbers made up for illustrative purposes), will cause relatively little airport-wide consequences at, for nonrandom example, Sacramento SMF. However, at ORD, a policy that delays 1/1000 of their passengers by so much as FIVE MINUTES causes massive huge snarls that could shut the whole place down, so they don't.

SMF's metal detector gates are set so sensitively that bra underwires make them squeal like sirens. They also insisted on opening up my breast pump to swab it in six places for explosives residue; at ORD, the lady pointed at the corner of my suitcase full of motor and said, "What's that?" "My breast pump," I said, "I have a 9-month-old who's not coming on this trip." She nodded and waved me on, without even opening the suitcase. I presume if I'd looked nervous or not been able to facilely explain it, they'd have taken more notice, but can you even imagine the number of breast pumps, CPAPs, and stranger things an ORD screener sees in one workday?

Admittedly, my airport job gave me a lot of practice at streamlining myself, my baggage, and my workflow so I know how to get through smoothly (most workdays, I went inbound through the security checkpoint at least 20 times), but I have NEVER had the amount of stupid, overblown hassle over piddly, normal things as I do when I fly through third-tier city airports like SMF. The biggest airports can't do it because it would destroy them; the smallest airports are staffed by nice, reasonable people who don't get burnt out by the daily grind.

meredith @32 said in reply to Karen Kay (#19) -- while that might be the officially revised policy on paper, in reality it depends upon the airport and the particular TSA agent. I have had to mail my teeny keychain Leatherman (blade length = smaller than 2") back to myself on more than one occasion since the rules supposedly changed. I don't even bother trying any more.

They weren't confiscating that one for the blade, but for the screwdrivers -- anything that is 'a tool' is absotively verboten, even tiny allen-key sets. I wish I were kidding, but the rule is written so broadly, and in such a way that many of the staffers think they have no latitude at all, that they're taking everything from electric drills and hammers to eyeglass repair kits.

miriam beetle @63 said: my partner wears a utilikilt like 90% of the time. he also happens to be solidly built, asian, & sometimes mohawked (allright, so i can't help showing off). guess who gets "randomly selected for a personal search" every time? (we fly a dozen times a year, including through sfo.)

If you're in a long line with nothing better to do than peoplewatch, keep an eye out -- for every time the TSA stops someone who they're obviously racially/culturally/'weird-looking' profiling, they stop either the third or fourth person AFTER them as well, to 'make it look random'. It's pretty funny, and consistent country-wide, in the observations of myself and several friends.

Charlie Stross said: Second tip: instead of fluids, carry cash. (If in the UK, make sure to take pound coins. Euro zone: take euro coins. USA: take one dollar bills.) There will be concession stands/vending machines after security where you can buy as much drinking water/cola/etc as you need for the flight, but only if you've got the wherewithal to pay for it. Alternatively: take an empty drinking bottle -- they'll let it through security as long as it's clearly empty -- and fill from a drinking fountain. (Doesn't work in the UK: no drinking fountains.)

Biggest airport stupidness I've encountered lately: at Denver DIA, at least when we went through this summer, it was impossible to purchase a non-water beverage in a sealed container. The convenience-store type shops sold a variety of bottled waters, and you could buy a soda/etc in a paper cup with a lid and straw from any food-selling restaurant (all of which also had huge lines), but there were no bottled non-water drinks for sale anywhere in the concourse. Considering we wanted to buy a soda to drink ON THE FLIGHT, and didn't want to have to juggle a spilly paper cup, PLUS our luggage, PLUS our infant, in the long waiting-to-get-on-the-plane line ... ARGH. It was incredibly annoying. There were banks of vending machines purporting to sell bottled drinks, but none of them were plugged in, and when a staffer was asked, he told us that they were being phased out 'for security purposes'. That one I can't figure out at all.

In re thread-cutter pendants: the yarn-sized one is actually amazingly good at removing tags from newly-bought clothing (the kind with the plastic string holding the paper pricetag on).

#128 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2009, 01:15 PM:

Bruce, all you need is Google. That reference number brings up several on-line copies and summaries.

Reading this PDF copy of the report, the roll took place in a steep dive and, while the plane was inverted, at the time it was also 70-degrees node-down at high indicated air speed.

It's that air-speed, and the pull-out, that did the damage.

#129 ::: Henry Troup ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2009, 04:46 PM:

BTW, chlorine gas activates standard ionization smoke detectors just fine. A janitor once evacuated our building that way. It was probably about 100 ppm, not really a dangerous level.

#130 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 30, 2009, 11:03 PM:

Dave Bell: If I'm reading the report correctly it still seems to me the Wikipedia entry should be changed to "the only other four engine jet transport aircraft known to have been rolled without damage is Concorde," unless I'm totally misinterpreting the didoes the 747 did in the air...

#131 ::: twif ::: (view all by) ::: December 01, 2009, 02:40 PM:

i always just toss my knife in my checked bag. however, i'm a pipe smoker and my pipe tamper (as well as the reamer) typically invokes a bag search. never had it confiscated (not that i'd be much of a problem, since i use the cheapo czech tool that costs 2 bucks), but i usually have to explain what it is. though, when i flew to ireland, before the truly idiotic lighter ban was lifted, i had my wooden matches taken. paper matchbooks? those were fine. but a small box of wooden matches was not. why? who the fuck knows.

#132 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2009, 11:33 PM:

Elliot Mason: As with the other thread, "for security purposes" generally means either "I have no idea why this is being done" or "I don't have to tell you why this is being done." It's the same whether you're asking why the street is closed, or why you can't bring non-Coke products into the auditorium, or why you can't take pictures here, or why you can't be given a copy of that government document.

I wonder what will happen, if the security theater and amped-up media fear machine keeps going to the point that everyone just laughs at it and otherwise ignores it.

#133 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 04:08 PM:

#31 emm: ...the director of screening at SFO got Good Omens for his birthday?

#134 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2009, 04:41 PM:

re 128: Looking at the pictures from the computer simulation, the plane rolled 90 degrees, the nose dropped, and the plane "rolled" the rest of the way while the nose was pointed towards the ground. Maybe I'm just a stickler but I don't think happening to survive falling out of the sky counts as aerobatics.

#135 ::: Nathanael ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2009, 04:49 AM:

I simply decided never to fly on commercial airplanes in the US again. Why pay to get humiliated for the sole purpose of humiliating people?

I don't have to do so for my job, and Amtrak is much more suitable for any pleasure trips. I'm in a position where if anyone really wants me to take a plane, I can tell them "private jet or ground transport, your choice".

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