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Light Sabers on the prohibited item list?

2010 April 17 by

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I guess the first interesting question is, why are light sabers on the prohibited items list? Now, I was there in 1977 when Star Wars first came out, and I’ve seen all the movies plenty of times over — and as much as I’d love to have a light saber, they are, unfortunately, a fictional weapon. And one you cannot carry on an airplane — maybe because they are afraid that a fictional Sith Lord will try to take over the plane.

Our recent trip to Italy for vacation was of course wonderful, but as an aviation security author I can’t go to any airport without observing their security practices. What I’ve learned from our trip to Italy are three main things: the Rome Airport never forgot 1985; the people in Italy don’t seem as concerned about terrorist attacks, and you can’t take a light saber on an airplane, without attracting some suspicion.

First observation: Rome Never Forgot 185

In 1985, terrorists, using guns and grenades, conducted an assault on the passenger terminal buildings in Rome, Italy and Vienna, Austria. I have railed and warned about airport attacks in the past, how this is a potential avenue for attack and how airports need to take this more seriously. Well, in Rome, they have. In fact, next to Israel, I believe they have one of the best systems for preventing an airport attack in the public area. They may have even bested Israel in some ways.

DISCLAIMER: In everything from the textbook to this blog, I never reveal anything that isn’t available to the public, through casual observation or through public sources.

Upon entering the terminal building at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci (Fiumicino) Airport you immediately notice the catwalk surrounding the check-in lines. The catwalk is patrolled by armored and armed police officers, carrying submachine guns. They have areas where they can duck behind cover and even, what I’m assuming, are bulletproof glass barriers where they can keep watch while under fire if necessary. In observing the observers (the police) these were not laid back airport cops chatting up the local gentry. These guys were seriously reviewing the crowd. When a passenger started arguing with the security person doing the document check, one of the police watched for several seconds until it was apparent the passenger was just upset, but not a threat. That’s true police work. Check out a questionable situation and make a decision about what it really is so you can focus on other threats.

In addition to the police patrolling on the catwalks, I also saw at various times, 1-3 additional police officers on the ground floor with the passengers. They weren’t always carrying submachine guns, but at least had 9mm pistols, rather than what you can still find in some U.S. airports with cops carrying old school revolvers.

Second Observation: the people in Italy don’t seem as concerned about terrorist attacks

In Italy I was more interested in sightseeing, eating and enjoying wine at lunch (and dinner), so I wasn’t conducting a formal poll, but overall it seems that folks in Italy weren’t as worried about terrorism. Maybe you just can’t attack a country with wine and coffee that is THAT good!

Entering the country at the Italian immigration and customs area, our Passports were barely even looked at and were not stamped. In fact, we were pretty much just waved through. Meanwhile, the Italian citizens had to stand in the really long line to get back into their country. It seems that Italy is more concerned about who is leaving as we all got our Passports checked and stamped on the way out. I guess they wanted to make sure we left all of our tourism dollars in Italy before allowing us to leave.

Throughout our travels on the Eurorail, it was both nice and interesting. There is no screening or visible security personnel, with the exception of the occasional guard or police officer, and even then you have to really be looking to spot one. You sort of just get on and off the train and sit and off you go. I’m reminded of the attacks on the rails in Madrid, Spain a few years ago. If this was a mass transit rail system in the U.S. there would have been 300 screeners, x-ray equipment, explosive detection machines and train marshals — that is, if we moved the kind of people the Eurorail moves — we really don’t have national rail in this country and compared to the real systems overseas, you can’t count Amtrak.

I think one major difference between the U.S. and the rest of the traveling world, is that we expect our government to protect us from all bad things that could happen to us. Meanwhile, it seems that the rest of the world takes a sort of, well, I suppose it could happen but I’m not going to worry about it. Maybe they don’t want to give up every right they have to buy some false sense of security.

What is interesting is that while there was virtually no visible security on the Eurorail, the aviation security was more intensive. For example, Italy still does the security questioning before you can get to the airline check-in area. And this is where our light saber saga begins.

Third Observation: You Can’t Carry a Light Saber on a Plane

I’m not so naive that I would try to carry even a fake weapon as carry-on baggage but this does bring up a point about the lack of common sense in aviation security practices — it’s not just a U.S. phenomena.

We had purchased some plastic light sabers for one of our kids. Why we bought something in Italy we could have bought at Target is a different story and we’re not going there. Let’s just say that I did my homework and saw the article where TSA confiscated a fake Pirates of the Caribbean sword from a kid at Disney World who’s father had died of cancer (click here for the story), so I didn’t want to take the chance that we’d have our kids toys confiscated by the Italian aviation security personnel.

The light sabers were fixed, not retractable and we when asked by the security personnel whether we had anything that looked like a weapon in our CHECKED baggage, we declared that we had them. We wanted them to be inspected in our presence rather than behind some wall where they’d possibly just get tossed and we’d get a note of apology upon our arrival in the States.

It took about 30 minutes as the US airline agents made calls, inspected the light sabers (you know, the pieces of plastic with a flashlight on the end, and keep in mind that it’s a fictional weapon, not a REAL light saber — those don’t exist, I don’t care what kind of fanboy you are) and then eventually decided that if the batteries were removed the light sabers would be “safe.” Oddly enough, the agent threw away the brand new batteries. I’m not sure why, batteries, especially in checked baggage, aren’t prohibited items.

During this time, one of the patrolling armed officers did look down. I can imagine what he was thinking: “Can’t anyone just make a common sense decision about this? It’s a fictional weapon — heck, it’s a long piece of plastic.”

And this is the problem with aviation security and common sense. Those are four words that don’t go together. We need some trust in the system. While we are grateful to US Airways for working with us and ultimately clearing the devices to fly in checked baggage, tons of time and staff effort could have been saved if the agent had just come out, seen what the device was, and made a common sense decision. In fact, if common sense and Smart Trust (as defined by Stephen M.R. Covey in The Speed of Trust) could infuse itself into the aviation security system, the system would move faster and cost less money — and we may even see some customer service and have the ability to, just like the Eurorail, travel like we did many years ago, when flying was fun.

I wonder though, would a Sith Lord need to use a light saber to hijack a plane? Couldn’t they just use the Jedi Mind Trick or that cool lightning they fire out of their hands? Maybe Sith Lord Hands are also on the prohibited items list. Bummer.