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Any liquids discovered must be removed from the passenger

The most interesting thing I heard anyone say yesterday came from Simon Sole, of Exclusive Analysis, a risk assessment company specializing in the Middle East and Africa, in an interview on CNBC. He said that it's no longer possible to track terrorists by following the money, because terrorism is now so cheap they don't need much: it cost, he said, only $4,000 to crash two Russian planes. That is an awfully long way from the kind of funding we used to hear the IRA had.

It is also clear that the arms race of trying to combat terrorism (by throwing out toothpaste in Grand Forks, North Dakota?) is speeding up. Eighteen years ago, the Lockerbie crash was caused by a bomb in checked baggage; that sparked better baggage screening. Five years ago, planes were turned into bombs by hijackers armed with small knives. The current chaos is being caused by a chemistry plot: carry on ordinary-looking items that aren't weapons in themselves and mix to make dangerous. Banning people from carrying liquids is, obviously, a lot more complicated than banning knives when you already have metal detectors. Lacking scanning technology sophisticated enough to distinguish dangerous liquids from safe ones, banning specific liquids requires detailed, item-by-item searching. Which is why, presumably, the UK (unlike the US) has banished all hand luggage to the hold: maybe they just don't have the staffing levels to search everything in a reasonable amount of time.

The UK has always hated cabin baggage anyway, and the CAA has long restricted it to 6Kg, where the US has always been far more liberal. So yesterday's extremity is the kind of panic response someone might make in a crisis when they already think carrying a laptop is a sign of poor self-control (a BA staffer once said that to me). Ban everything! Yes, even newspapers! Go!

Passengers in and leaving the US can still carry stuff on, just not liquids or gels. You may regard this as reckless or enlightened, depending on your nationality or point of view. Rich pickings in the airport garbage tonight.

The Times this morning speculates that the restrictions on hand luggage may become permanent. When you read a little more closely, they mean the restrictions on liquids, not necessarily all hand luggage. If I ran an airline, I'd be campaigning pretty heavily against yesterday's measures. For one thing, it's going to kill business travel, the industry's most profitable segment. If you can't read or use your laptop in-flight or while waiting in the airport club before departure, you're losing many hours of productivity. Plus, imagine being cabin staff trying to control a plane full of hundreds of bored, hungry, frustrated people, some of them adults.

Security expert Bruce Schneier links to a logical reason why the restrictions should be temporary: blocking a particular method only works until the terrorists switch to something else. Schneier also links to a collection of weapons made in prison under the most unpromising of circumstances with the most limited materials. View those, and you know the truth: it will never be possible to secure everything completely. Anything we do to secure air travel is a balance of trade-offs.

One reason people are so dependent on their carry-on luggage is that airline travel is uncomfortable and generally unpleasant. Passengers carry bottles of water because aircraft air is dry. I carry a milk on selected flights because I hate synthetic creamer, and dried fruit and biscuits because recent cutbacks mean on some flights you go hungry. I also carry travel chopsticks (easier to eat with than a plastic fork), magazines to read and discard, headphones with earplugs in them, and I never check anything because I hate waiting for hours for luggage that may be lost, stolen, or tampered with. Better service would render a lot of this unnecessary.

I know these measures are for our own good: we don't want planes falling out of the sky and killing people. (Though we seem perfectly innured to the many thousands more deaths every year from car crashes.) But the extremity of the British measures seems like punishment: if you are so morally depraved as to want to travel by air, you deserve to be thoroughly miserable while doing it. In fact, part of air travel's increasingly lousy service is the cost of security. We lose twice.

I read – somewhere – about a woman of a much earlier generation who expressed sadness at the thought that today's weary wanders would never know "the pleasure of traveling". We know the pleasure of being somewhere else. But we do not know the pleasure of the process of getting there as they did in a time when you were followed by trunks that were packed by servants, who came along to ensure that you were comfortable and your needs catered to. Of course, you had to be rich to afford all that. I bet it wasn't so much fun for the servants, or for the starving poor stuffed into the ship's hold. Even so, yesterday I thought about that a lot, and with the same kind of sadness.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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