Fire Up the Lab Lights!

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Fallout from the would-be liquid bomb brigade just keeps getting weirder. These past few days I've been doing more TV than newsprint, checking out reputable networks and hearing some surprising reflections and opinions. Maybe cameras lure words that the print media can miss. What did some of those interviewees say—or suggest—about sensing technology? Turn the page and find out.

The Panic Button and the Pilot
As you'll remember, air travelers leaving England for the U.S. were stripped all but naked, at least the first day or two after the plot was discovered. Nothing to be carried aboard in bags or pockets. Must have been some fun for diabetics, angina pectoris patients, asthmatics, those with babies who cried all the way across the Atlantic sans bottle. No books either! Perhaps nitrous oxide was piped in with the cabin air to keep the peace and even lend a party atmosphere to the adventure.

The U.S. commercial pilot's sober, but not particularly grim, take on the realities of air travel was that we will never be 100% sure that no one's going to try something nasty. Remember skyjackings? Don't they feel like way yesterday's news? And the pilot's right. Air travel has changed in a way no one flying in, say, 1970 could ever have imagined. Mostly we hoped for good weather back then.

The Traveler Advisor and the Sterile Concourses
This is a good time to say that I really did transcribe parts of those news reports. But I kept missing the identifying subtitled names. The travel advisor had a good point: Presumably, passengers are relieved of all potentially offending items at the security gate (mascara wands out, tweezers are back in). Thus cleansed, travelers scatter toward their departure gates, replacing bottled water and underarm protection as they rush past the kiosks. Hold it! At the gate there's yet more frisking and confiscation. Into the collection tubs go those new purchases.

Let's step back a moment and look at this. The travel advisor was buffaloed that products bought inside the sterile concourses ceased being sterile upon purchase. Or words to that effect. Beats me too.

Remember the Great Tylenol Scare? The manufacturer responded to some apparently random poisonings of its product by pulling every package of Tylenol off every shelf in the country and rapidly devising and deploying a new type of safety seal over the bottle caps. Many other companies followed. Every product, OTC or prescription, that I use in my eyes now arrives with plastic hats that can't be tampered with inconspicuously.

Machine-based inspection systems, near the end of the manufacturing or process lines, have proved their accuracy and reliability for years. And years. And years. Why not require all products of conceivably suspect nature (liquid, gel, lotion, etc.) sold along sterile concourses have those seals? I doubt that cabin attendants offering tiny pouches of unidentifiable salted items would care to shove a mini-drugstore up and down those narrow aisles. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

The Air Official and the Vanishing Money
What the air official said was that we have to find the bad people, not the bad things. Now don't jump and say durr. At some point, Congress voted to allocate $6 M for research into liquid bomb detection. See, there was a failed threat of such activity in 1995. Unhappily, the current Administration chose instead to spend that money on federal building security. Then there was the $120 R&D budget handed to the Transportation Security Administration, half of which sum it spent on salaries.

What I Saw
. . . was a repeated shot of a handheld device that can be pressed up to a container and analyze its liquid contents, right through the plastic or glass container wall. Color: orange. Buttons: about six (some fancy software in there!). Price: $30,000. It was described as still under development (If it's your product, please send a Comment via the form below.)

I also saw film footage of what looked like a beta-test of a "puffer," an automated interrogator that fluffs your clothing and hair with a puff of air and then analyzes your chemical aura. Those puffers were proposed and tried out here and there quite a few years ago but haven't caught on. I don't know why. As for me, I'd rather be puffed than patted if a stranger's doing the work.

So is the price of finding the bad people, those who would most likely be the people carrying the bad stuff, the barrier to more widespread adoption of available technologies and funding those still in the lab? Biometrics, more sophisticated surveillance techniques, affordable chemical detectors? Who's going to get onto this problem and stop picking around the edges?

First, What's Next?
If this doesn't happen, it should: Revive teleconferencing. And do you remember that great advance? What happened to it? I think the idea was a product of some previous oil squeeze and the fantastic new capabilities of computers. Well, now we have extreme versions of both the above, with liquid bomb (and other) sweats thrown in. The wealthy (who have their own aircraft), the lovelorn, the bereaved, the homesick, will continue to fly. Those called to pointless meetings by upper management simply exercising its authority might not. And there's always the option of telephone conference calls.

Next, What's Second
I have zero idea of the ratio of business to pleasure air travelers, but I suspect it's seriously lopsided toward the left of that expression. If a large percentage of the briefcase class drops out, not from fear of liquid bombs so much as dread of hurdles between curb and boarding gate, an industry-wide Yowch! is going to be felt in their bottom lines. A good many vacationers are having second thoughts too, according to a bus company scheduler out of Boston. His vehicles are fully booked and have a waiting list. Aunt Nesta in Idaho will have to wait; this year the family will visit Uncle Leo in Sunapee.

So, the Money
Those air carriers who survived the myriad corporate acrobatics of the past 15 years or thereabouts had just begun to turn the corner. Now this. If they plan to survive at all—and I sure hope they do—it just might be that they are going to have to step up with measures to entice their increasingly irate customers back. By either raising a united demand to restore R&D funding of sensor technology and security product deployment at airports—or by funding this work themselves.

I'll let the parties hammer it out. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, "Money doesn't talk. It swears."

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