Do Today's Airport Security Rules Defy Logic

May 25, 2005
David Giffels asks why we still allow matches, but not lighters, aboard passenger aircraft

AIR SECURITY RULES DEFY LOGIC: The two women looked wistfully into the trash barrel at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport security check. The first one dropped in her cigarette lighter. The other did the same.

With the telltale cackle of a longtime smoker, the first woman lamented, "That's my third one this trip."

The paper sign above the barrel announced the new Homeland Security regulation: No cigarette lighters allowed aboard airplanes.

When I reached the barrel, I took a peek. There were enough Bics in there to carry the encore at a Led Zeppelin reunion.

I continued through the checkpoint behind the two women and joined them at the end of the suitcase conveyor, where we made small talk while putting our shoes back on -- just one of the many humbling rituals of modern air travel.

Feeling a pang of sympathy, I asked what they would do when they needed their nicotine fix after their flight.

"Oh," the first one said, "I've got matches. They're still allowed."

And this reintroduced another new standard of modern air travel -- the twisted illogic of security regulations.

I don't know which seemed more baffling -- that it took 3 ˝ years after 9/11 to finally ban open flame sources on airplanes, or that the open-flame-source ban does not include matches.

What exactly is being accomplished? I mean, other than the further diminishing of trust in our government's ability to keep us safe.

I don't like getting inside the criminal mind, but let's just visit there for a moment. Let's say I'm a bad person who wants to cause a major ruckus on a commercial flight. In the pre-lighter-ban era, I could board a jet with a Bic in my pocket and a Sunday New York Times under my arm. Wait for takeoff, wad up the op-ed page and set it to burning. Instant ruckus. (And probably federal charges.)

In this brave new era, I drop my lighter into the trash can at the security gate. But, according to the Department of Homeland Security Transportation Security Administration guidelines, "passengers now may carry up to four books of strike-on-cover matches on their person or in accessible property."

Four books of matches? That should be plenty to get my in-flight bonfire going.

(For those keeping score, strike-anywhere matches are not allowed. So we've got that going for us.)

My guess is that this new area of focus is part of the ongoing reaction to the attempted terrorism of Richard Reid, who has the most uncool nickname in criminal history: the Shoe Bomber. In December 2001, Reid tried to ignite explosives in his sneaker. Ever since, the rest of us air travelers have had to risk potential embarrassment by removing our shoes for security guards before continuing to our boarding gates.

Most of us accept this inconvenience as part of the post-9/11 "new normal." But doesn't it seem odd that one half of the Shoe Bomber's equation -- fire -- was still perfectly acceptable within the cabin? (Was there a powerful butane lobby at work?)

The oddest part is that Reid, on that fateful Paris-to-Miami flight, didn't use a cigarette lighter on his explosive shoes. He used matches. Which are still allowed.

The homeland security process has always seemed more reactive than proactive. Because the 9/11 terrorists were armed with box cutters, great emphasis has been placed on restricting knife-like items. Which is fine. But one wonders what would have happened if, for instance, a belt had been used as a weapon. Would we all be holding our pants up with one hand while carrying our suitcases through the airport?

The Homeland Security czars seem focused on trying to keep history from repeating itself. That's understandable. Nobody wants to relive that history.

But just once, I'd like to see some logic that sparks confidence.