How much for those fizzling underpants?

We’ve had a number of looks at airline security in the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s miserably unsuccessful attempt to blow up Flight 253 on Christmas Day. But how unsuccessful was he after all?

We’ve seen how press hysteria, nobly pushed by those in whose political interests it lies, inflate the amateurish underpant fumblings into a full blown worldwide panic. “Twenty-five more bombers are on their way!” barked the headlines. “Yemen the new front in global war on terror” squealed another.

And now the price tag has arrived.

Obama’s proposed $3.8 trillion budget for 2011 contains $734 million to be spent on up to 1,000 new Advanced Imaging Technology screening machines at airport checkpoints and for new explosive detection equipment for baggage screening. Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, conceded that this budget increase was impacted by the failed bomber and the “vulnerabilities he exposed in airport security”…

There were some adjustments that were made. The Department of Homeland Security had a healthy budget but we did make some additional adjustments after that even.

$734 million!!! I guess we can chalk that up as yet another victory for terrorism then.


734 million $1 bills stitched together would be 114,504,000 kms long. We could do something fun with that...

In a world in which acts of “terror” are symbolic gestures, designed to cause fear in the target population/culture it does seem slightly ironic that the heavy lifting is almost exclusively done by those who, ostensibly, claim to want to keep us “safe”.

The media’s role in that task is probably the most obvious. Shock and awe is the way to sell yourself these days and should a competitor appear strident then, well, just shout louder. Politicians have a fairly obvious axe to grind too. There’s nothing like accusing those at the helm of not “doing enough” to scare up a few votes among us fear filled masses.

But now Obama’s waving a fistful of cash around a new, ungodly host of “security experts” have inserted themselves into the discourse and are telling us it’s all our fault.

Here’s American Science and Engineering’s vice-president of marketing, Joe Reiss…

Everybody’s grateful that flight 253 was not a successful attack but those of us in the security industry are terribly aware of where a lot of the vulnerabilities remain. The reasons this technology hasn’t been deployed have to do with privacy and safety concerns that seem to us like very minor issues when you consider the possible loss of life a terrorist attack can cause.

(Spoiler alert – Joe sells body scanners).

Brian Ruttenbur, a defence industry analyst at stockbroker Morgan Keegan agrees that our unreasonable demands for dignity are putting us at risk. However he takes a more upbeat view and says, in the long run, privacy concerns are unlikely to prevent the rollout of body scanners worldwide.

My view is that it’s not an inalienable right to fly in an aircraft and the public will have to put up with some inconvenience if they want to do so.

Although he suspects the industry may need one more marketing opportunity in order to achieve market saturation saying initial installation may be patchy and…

I don’t think we’ll see 100% roll-out until we see a successful attack.

Thanks for helping keep us safe Brian.

Yesterday the absurdly named Lord Adonis, UK Transport Secretary, announced that selected passengers would be required to submit to compulsory body scans at Heathrow Airport.

If a passenger is selected for scanning and declines, they will not be permitted to fly

Lord Adonis assured the Commons that the interim code of conduct meant passengers would not be singled out on the basis of race or ethnicity or religious beliefs.


Randomly selected passengers await screening at Heathrow yesterday

Let me make one thing clear here… my objection to spending vast amounts of money on scanning machines isn’t based on privacy issues. It’s based on efficiency issues. I don’t think they will make travelling by air any safer and they will cost a small fortune.

And there are two very good reasons I think it would be hard to make air travel safer.

Reason Number One. It’s incredibly safe already!

Here are some quick stats produced by Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight.

In the decade from October 1999 through to September 2009 there were six terrorist incidents (four planes on 9/11, failed shoe bomb and Nate adds in the underpants from Dec 25 for good measure). In ten years there were 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. Dividing by six, that is one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures.

Or one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 mles flown. This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune.

Or, looking at it another way… Assuming an average airborne speed of 425 miles per hour, these airplanes were aloft for a total of 163,331,261 hours. Therefore, there has been one terrorist incident per 27,221,877 hours airborne. This can also be expressed as one incident per 1,134,245 days airborne, or one incident per 3,105 years airborne.

So how much safer can we be per dollar invested in your fancy see-through-our-clothing-machines? Can you tell us Brian and Joe?

If we look at Nate’s graph, previously featured in the post Security Fail, we have a visual indication of the decreasing threat to passenger’s lives.

What I would like to see is a graphic representation of  Indignities Forced Upon Passengers in order to Board Plane mapped against time. I think we can safely say the line would be poking up in the other direction and nosing into our nether regions.

But here’s Reason Number Two. If we rely on body scanners to keep us safe what is to stop a potential terrorist from stuffing their various bomb making components up their arse? Or are we going to just pretend that muslims would shy away from that sort of dedication to duty?

Here’s some links to our previous posts on the subject of airline security – C’mon Yemen, man up!, Security Fail, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself and Security Update – The Parrot Sketch.

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