If you're flying into American airspace anytime soon, make sure your phone, laptop and other devices all have fully charged batteries, because as of last weekend, you must add “any phone or laptop computer with a dead battery” to the list of “things you can't carry on an airplane, or else the Transportation Security Administration will think you're a terrorist.”
That list has been in flux since the TSA first invented it. Back in the summer of 2005, all small metal grooming tools, such as tweezers and nail clippers, were banned in carry-on luggage, then they were allowed again.
Shampoo, liquid soap and other toiletry gels were initially allowed, then briefly forbidden altogether, then re-allowed provided they were in labeled bottles or tubes each containing three ounces or less, although that limit has since increased so that today, you can have moisturizer, toothpaste and other personal-hygiene gels in bottles or tubes containing up to 3.4 ounces apiece. However, for terrorist-prevention reasons those individual bottles and tubes all must fit in a plastic resealable sandwich bag no larger than one quart.
All carry-on electronics were banned for a day or two after Christmas 2009, during which time the TSA also imposed a set of rules governing passenger behavior during the last hour of a flight: hands were to be visible at all times, nothing was to be kept in people's laps, no reaching into your pocket or carry-on bag, and no leaving your seat for any reason.
Those punitive restrictions were soon rescinded. One year later, in October 2010, the TSA started requiring fliers in American airspace to submit to what it calls “enhanced patdowns” -- the explicit genital-grabbing all-body searches which, as a TSA agent admitted at the time, were deliberately intended to intimidate fliers into walking through the TSA's then-new full-body scanners instead.
And, of course, there have been the periodic TSA warnings against everything from shoes to cupcakes, all of which might, possibly, have the potential to be a bomb, or hide a bomb, or otherwise do something dangerous.
Old is new again
Hence the justification for the TSA's latest edict: if you are going to fly in American airspace and your cell phone has a dead battery (more specifically, if you show up with a device that cannot be turned on where a TSA agent can see it), they'll suspect the device is actually a disguised bomb, and then treat you as a suspect.
Hopefully, no terrorist or potential terrorist anywhere in the world is smart enough to disguise a bomb as an electronic device and then give it an actual working screen. But this possibility has already been considered and discarded by Jason Harrington, a former TSA agent who wrote in the Guardian that "the new airport cellphone rules wouldn't stop an iBomb" and warned that "the latest ad hoc security directive might actually make us less safe."
Those of a certain age may recall that this is actually not the first time the "turn on your devices" rule has been implemented. Long before there was a TSA -- back in the 1990s -- security guards at many U.S. airports used to ask travelers to turn on their laptops. Since this was in the Windows XP days, when a boot-up could take several minutes, it resulted in some pretty major back-ups and was eventually abandoned.
The story has generated many international headlines. For example: the U.K.'s Telegraph, on July 3, reported a “UK terror alert: body searches at British airports” with the subheading “New security regime imposed on passengers as American intelligence suggests al-Qaeda plot to use Western fanatics to bring down a US-bound plane.”
The next day, when the Express reported the news, it included warnings from a British travel agency, advising all travelers in the country to allow extra time for airport checks. The Express also said that the increased security measures were due to fears that terrorists might have an “undetectable 'stealth bomb'.”
"More like a physical assault"
Incidentally, both of those British news stories quoted an American tourist, Lisa Simeone, who was in Europe when local news reported the latest changes in American airport security rules. While Simeone and her husband were at Heathrow about to fly back home, a reporter strolling through the airport asked them what they thought about the new rules, and the Express said this:
American journalist Lisa Simeone, 57, said: “When I came through here last it was a cursory pat-down.
“This time it seems they are being a lot more aggressive and really groping people, it’s more like a physical assault.”
She said officials were swabbing belongings, clothes and shoes and even swabbed a baby’s pushchair.
No bombs or terrorists were found.
Simeone, a Baltimore resident and a frequent contributor to the TSA News Blog, is a frequent traveler who said she stopped flying in American airspace in 2010, when the TSA's “enhanced patdown” policy started.
“We used to travel a lot; it was a big part of my life,” Simeone said in a phone interview with ConsumerAffairs. The thought of never visiting Europe again made her rather depressed until she discovered that the Queen Mary 2 docks in New York and takes passengers across the Atlantic, so she and her husband got into the habit of driving from Baltimore to New York, taking the ship to Europe [it makes port calls in England and Germany], then flying back to the U.S.
“The QM2 is not expensive [compared to an airline ticket]; the problem is that it takes time,” Simeone said. A trans-Atlantic flight takes less than a day, whereas the Queen Mary 2 requires nearly a week to cross the ocean. “Not many Americans have enough time to take a vacation without flying.”
Latest American export
At any rate, Simeone and her husband said their vacation took three weeks in all, including the week they spent on the Queen Mary 2. Two and a half weeks into their vacation, Simeone learned, the TSA practices she sought to avoid in America had followed her to Europe.
“We were in Vienna, at the two and a half week mark, when the news reports started to come out: U.S. demanding other countries do this … I thought, 'Oh, my God, This is what's going on in the U.S., and now it's coming to Europe …. the U.S. makes an edict, and every other country knuckles under. They said the bomb they're looking for is 'undetectable,' but they think groping people will help them find it?”
A two-way ocean voyage from Europe to New York and back takes two weeks in all: as much vacation time as many Americans get in an entire year. “I work freelance, so I can take the time if I have to; my husband can't,” Simeone concluded glumly. She hopes the new regime in European airports proves only temporary, though fears that might be unduly optimistic: “The thing about civil liberties — once they're taken away, it's very unlikely you'll get them back.”