Just about everything else. Privately, many experts say the 3:1:1 rule, which requires you to use those annoying little bottles and baggies, isn't very effective because terrorists can find many other ways to smuggle explosives. Same thing with shoes. Nobody walks shoeless in an Israeli airport, and Israelis know a thing or two about terrorism. One leading Israeli aviation security expert told me that he found the U.S. shoe removal requirements "silly, ineffective, annoying and even humiliating." These rules stick because removing them is bad politics, making people feel less safe even if they aren't.
The worst of the worst is full body scanners. Remember the outcries that the TSA would become a Hustler magazine photo booth, sacrificing privacy for security? Turns out the security gain wasn't much. John Halinski, the TSA's assistant administrator for global strategies, said last May that none of the full body scanners (there are two major types, one that uses X-rays and one that uses millimeter waves) has nabbed a single suspected terrorist. The Government Accountability Office has questioned whether full body scanners would have caught the 2009 underwear bomber. Many experts believe these machines would almost certainly be unable to detect "cavity bombs" hidden where the X-rays don't penetrate and the sun does not shine. X-ray scanners elevate passenger cancer risks, which is why they are already banned in Europe. They are expensive, about $200,000 each just for the hardware. And did I mention X-ray scanners take so long, they are now being removed from major airports like LaGuardia to speed up security? Ninety-one of these clunkers currently sit in a Texas warehouse.
Helpfully, the TSA has revealed the top 20 airports where employees steal from passengers. #1: Miami. iPads and laptops are the most popular items.
Then there are your fellow travelers, who pack ridiculously dangerous and stupid things far more often than you'd think. In the first week of December alone, TSA screeners discovered 41 firearms (36 of them loaded), 40 stun guns, 4 grenades, 2 eight-inch knives (one hidden inside a cane), and a rocket launcher. And that's just the stuff they found. Terrorist attacks on airplanes are, thankfully, low-probability events. Scary carry-on items are not.
- Cooperate. Be prepared for delays. Remember that every time you're the focus of a screener, somebody else doesn't get enough scrutiny. You know you're not a bad guy. TSA doesn't.
- If you have the choice (and you often do), select a regular metal detector over a full body scanner, especially for kids. It takes less time and is medically safer.
- If you get pulled aside for a pat down, you don't have to stand there with 1,000 people watching. TSA doesn't advertise this, but you have the right to get a pat down in a private room, by someone of the same gender, with a companion of your choice present.
- Have your act together. Get shoes off, belts undone, liquids and computers out, change and papers removed from pockets before you hit the front of the line. And if you're one of those guys that are always in front of me, think about wearing pants that stay up without a giant metal-studded belt. I think I speak for many when I say that view is one Christmas present we'd rather not have.