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WHAT WE KNOW AND WHAT WILL COME
By Joe Brancatelli
December 26, 2009, 11 p.m. E.T. -- It took fewer than 24 hours for the Christmas Day incident on a Northwest Airlines flight to go from scary bit of terrorism to political football.
Calling into CNN early this evening, Rep. Pete King (R-NY), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, raged about what could have been a "Christmas Day massacre." He also slammed President Obama for not being more publicly visible today and linked his criticism of Obama to the criticism of President George Bush's lack of public concern and action after Hurricane Katrina submerged New Orleans.
If you can make heads or tails of what King, once a rational voice on the political scene, is babbling about, please let me know. Me, I'll try to concentrate on what we know (and don't know) about the events on Christmas Day on an aircraft arriving at Detroit Metro Airport. And I'll also outline some of what we know about how the powers-that-be will respond to the incident.
THIS WAS THE REAL THING: TERRORISM
We're all justifiably skeptical of claims of terror-related incidents on board flights, especially since there seems to be a rash of Web sites that now trumpet any in-flight passenger disturbance as a dry run for some far-fetched attack or another. But this one was real: A terrorist tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day as it was nearing Detroit/Metro for a landing. The Delta Air Lines Airbus A330 with 278 passengers and 11 crew aboard originated at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport; the suspected terrorist flew in from Lagos, Nigeria, and connected with the Northwest flight at Schiphol.
WHAT WE THINK HAPPENED
What we know as "fact" about an in-flight incident in the early days after it happens often turns out not to be true. In this particular case, Reuters' original reports on Christmas night said "a man reportedly set off firecrackers" on the flight. But according to a criminal complaint filed today in federal District Court, a 23-year-old Nigerian national named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded Northwest Flight 253 in Amsterdam on December 24 local time. Just prior to landing in Detroit midday on December 25, he set off an "explosive device" that started a fire. He was subdued and restrained by passengers and members of the flight crew. The plane landed shortly after without incident or injury.
According to the complaint, Abdulmutallab's device contained PETN (pentaerythritol), an unstable explosive substance related to nitroglycerin. Passengers said he was located in Seat 19A, an over-wing seat. He went to the restroom for about 20 minutes, returned to his seat and pulled a blanket over his legs. They then saw Abdulmutallab's pants on fire and saw that the aircraft wall near his window seat was also ablaze. At least one passenger said he was holding a partially melted syringe.
WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW
According to a variety of published reports, Abdulmutallab is the son of a Nigerian banker. It was Abdulmutallab's father who told authorities, including the U.S. officials in Nigeria, that Abdulmutallab had been radicalized and might be dangerous. He was educated in London and was traveling on a valid, multiple-entry tourist visa. He was burned in the aborted attack and is being treated at a hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Abdulmutallab was apparently on at least one U.S. government "watch list," but was not on a no-fly list that would have denied him passage on a flight.
WAS ABDULMUTALLAB ACTING ALONE?
Abdulmutallab claims he was acting on orders from al-Queda, but U.S. government officials have yet to confirm the contention. He also claims he obtained his explosive device in Yemen, a failed state on the Arabian Peninsula that is a known haven for terrorist groups including al-Queda. Security experts note that Abdulmutallab's actions--choosing an over-wing seat at the window, apparently preparing his attack in the restroom, using PETN--indicate that he may have been trained by experienced terrorists.
DID EXISTING SECURITY FAIL?
Some talking-head experts who got themselves on television in the early hours of coverage claimed that Abdulmutallab wouldn't have cleared security at Schiphol because he was a transfer passenger. That is simply incorrect. At Schiphol, all passengers for international flights clear security at the departure gate regardless of whether they are transfer passengers or flyers starting in Amsterdam.
Whether security was or is inadequate is separate issue. The exact nature of how Abdulmutallab managed the explosion and what his "explosive device" was remain unclear. If Abdulmutallab carried PETN on his person--some experts say it was in his underwear, others say it was strapped to his body--a standard screening would not have identified it. A syringe, which may have been a part of the explosive device, is not contraband. The issue of whether a foreign national on a U.S. watch list should by definition be on a no-fly list as well will be a matter of much debate.
THE SILENCE OF THE REGULATORS
What is this incident going to mean to us travelers? Far be it from the regulators at the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration to tell us about any new rules of transit. Both have been publicly silent, their standard pose since the agencies' creation after the 9/11 attacks. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano even released a statement claiming that "these measures are designed to be unpredictable." That, of course, is hogwash. The regulators are just too lazy and too arrogant to help travelers plan properly and they are too ignorant and too clueless about the impact of travel on the nation's economy. Their unwillingness to give us even the basic guidelines of how to pack--and how many bags we are now permitted--is obscene.
WHAT COMES NEXT
What little we know of what's to come is from airlines, who say they've been instructed by the TSA to implement the new regulations. (December 27 addition: I have now posted the salient portions of the TSA memo here.)
Most immediately affected will be transborder and overseas flights headed to the United States. At least four carriers--Alaska Airlines, Air Canada, WestJet and British Airways--say they have been told to limit passengers on flights to U.S. destinations to a single carry-on bag. Here is what BA says on its Web site and how Air Canada has explained the changes on its Web site.
But wait, there's more. According to Air Canada--and confirmed by several other airlines--there'll be new rules of in-flight behavior on international flights headed to the United States. As Air Canada put it this morning: "New rules imposed by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration also limit on-board activities by customers and crew in U.S. airspace that may adversely impact on-board service. Among other things, during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps."
And expect more invasive searches of carry-on luggage at security checkpoints in the United States. There are already anecdotal reports of checkpoint screeners opening every bottle in toiletry cases; demanding all electronic gear be removed from bags and screened separately; and randomly confiscating items that are not contraband. Other things we know are back: Random, secondary screenings, more annoying document checks and, of course, more pat-downs and wandings at the discretion of individual TSA screeners.
Would any of these have stopped Abdulmutallab? Not likely, but security kabuki is easy to impose. Stopping bad guys is hard.
Buckle up, fellow travelers. It's going to be a rough ride. And the TSA will be stonewalling all the way.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.