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Up in the air over airport security

By Lionel Hogg - posted Monday, 20 June 2011

I travel on business quite a bit. I'm one of those gold frequent fliers, if that gives you any idea. It means I travel often enough to have the packing and the airport routine down to a fine art. That said I'm not one of those platinum and beyond, George Clooney “Up in the Air” types who seem to live on planes.

Given the above, I wondered if my strong negative reaction to the proposal requiring photo ID at the domestic flight boarding gate is just a bit selfish. I decided to read the Parliamentary committee report on the subject, a detour into my precious day that I wouldn’t normally make. I figured that the proposal was so mind-blowingly stupid that I had to be missing something. Silly me! As it turns out the only thing I missed was the natural inclination of those writing long reports to equate good policy development with an increased level of micromanagement of others' lives.

I won't even start on the privacy implications of all this – there is a well- entrenched civil libertarian commentariat better placed than I to tear this proposal into strips, and they'd be right to do so! I'll just satisfy myself by whingeing about the inevitable inconveniences to be endured by all of us, which I'm more than happy to suffer, if in fact there is actually any point to the exercise.


Airline travel, whether for business or pleasure, is always a challenging experience, especially in more recent times. Although electronic bag tags and boarding passes are clearly designed to provide economic efficiencies for the airlines, they do not have the collateral benefit of easing the travellers’ pain. You only have to pause to examine passengers’ tendency to not checking their luggage in unless it's absolutely necessary. Witness the overstuffed overhead lockers on any domestic flight confirms this fact. That a trip to the airport for many of us is more of a survival experience then a romantic adventure, and now, to top this off, the pollies want to make this even harder by adding yet another queue to the experience.

If you've ever travelled domestically in the United States, you’d agree that the entire experience is the pleasure equivalent of filing a tax return. We all reluctantly accept the need for baggage and security screening. But the long lines for ID checks (which are actually done at the security point rather than the boarding gate) but are ironically a more efficient proposal than our parliamentarians can muster.

The parliamentary report examines aircraft and maritime weak spots for organised crime, in particular drug trafficking. Much of the report analyses what happens behind the scenes – corrupt baggage handlers and wharfies, that kind of thing. It concludes that we might make better use of sniffer dogs, more electronic screening and the like. That's all well and good. But then it turns out that a few law enforcement people think that drug traffickers’ activities can be better traced and brought to justice if the perpetrators are identified at the boarding gate. And that might also help us track terrorists as well.

The reflex law enforcement response to anything is to acquire more powers, regardless of the social or economic costs. I suspect that 99.9% of air travellers (and I'm probably understating the percentage) aren't carrying cocaine or packing guns. If they are, let's spend the money on technology and dogs to sniff this out rather than employing paper shufflers at every gate attempting to discover that people are who they actually claim to be. I also suspect that the primary means of transportation of drugs and weapons around the country is not on scheduled Qantas domestic flights. I'm not aware of a similar proposal to show my ID every time I board a bus or train nor am I aware of a Brandenburg gate solution at state borders to check my driver’s licence along with my holiday luggage. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but I seem to recall that all of the 9-11 hijackers travelled under their real names. But don't worry, although the Parliamentary report identified the existence of corrupt baggage handlers, rest assured there will be no corrupt ID checkers.

Obviously law enforcement could do a better job if it put a GPS on all of us. But if the AFP knows or suspects the people who are engaged in unlawful activities, it is sufficiently well-resourced to track them without needing to trawl through airline manifests. Inevitably the bad guys will just modify their behaviour if the new rules present any real obstacle. If the AFP doesn't know who the bad guys are, no ID system will help.

There is a balance to getting any public policy right, and the obsession with airport security over the last decade or so has certainly skewed that balance to the detriment of traveller convenience. If all of the experts tell us we can still do better, then let's limit the spending of other peoples’ money to improve the infrastructure and sniff out the problem rather than snuff out the remaining patience of long-suffering passengers.

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About the Author

Lionel Hogg is co-founder of On Line Opinion. He practices as a lawyer in Brisbane.

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