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Terror plot spotlights passenger screening system

By Marnie Hunter
CNN

FLIGHT RESTRICTIONS

New flight restrictions were issued following an alleged terror plot.

In addition, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United Airlines advised passengers to arrive three hours early for flights.

The new rules include:

• No liquids or gels of any kind in carry-on baggage. The items must be in checked luggage. They include all beverages, shampoo, sun tan lotion, creams, toothpaste, and hair gel.

• Baby formula and medicines are exempt from the ban, but must be presented for inspection.

• All flights from the UK must send passenger information for intensive screening before departure. Passengers on international flights will be subject to heightened inspection upon arrival in the U.S.

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(CNN) -- The long lines and bulging trash cans at U.S. airports due to increased security after a suspected terror plot was uncovered Thursday had some aviation experts questioning the focus of America's air passenger screening system.

"Standing there looking to make sure no one has a tube of toothpaste is patently ridiculous, because now we're looking for objects again -- we're not looking for threats" said Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm in Evergreen, Colorado.

British police overnight arrested 24 people suspected of plotting to blow up as many as 10 jetliners bound for the United States. It is believed the suspects planned to mix a sports drink with a gel to make an explosive that might have been triggered by an MP3 player or a cell phone.

Liquids and gels of any kind were subsequently banned from carry-on luggage in the United States and Britain.

Boyd sees the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's ban as a knee-jerk reaction that leaves Americans no safer than they were before the 9/11 attacks.

"Remember Richard Reid, the guy who tried to light up his shoe on the airplane? After that we had to take off our shoes. Imagine what would have happened if he had hid that bomb in his pants," Boyd said.

Aaron Gellman, a professor at the Transportation Center and the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University, is not as certain that the new measures are unwarranted, but he sees a hole in screening technology.

"It's inadequate to meet all the reasonably required capabilities," Gellman said. "They ought to be capable of finding the kind of things that are offensive with much more reliability and much quicker than they do."

"The government's got to rethink both what it needs to procure and how it needs to buy it," Gellman said.

He said an emphasis on design rather than performance hinders the development of screening devices.

The training and performance of airport screening personnel also has received much scrutiny in the aviation security debate. The Transportation Security Administration recently announced it is changing the way it grades airport screeners on performance tests; while the TSA will still give annual tests to screeners, it will not fire screeners for failing.

Clark Kent Ervin, a former Department of Homeland Security inspector general, points to a recent Government Accountability Office report that revealed that congressional investigators were able to sneak bomb components past screeners at all 21 airports tested.

"And if bomb parts could get past then, obviously, things like liquid gel, which nobody would typically think of as a bomb component, could do so, too," Ervin told CNN.

"It's true that we've done a lot of things since 9/11," he said. "We've spent $18 billion to $20 billion. Cockpit doors are hardened. We have a larger number of air marshals. Some pilots are armed."

"But it is clear that al Qaeda, in particular, continues to focus on the aviation sector," Ervin said. "And for every measure that we put in place, they're working to develop countermeasures."

Ervin said he agrees with the tighter security measures.

"(DHS) Secretary (Michael) Chertoff is right to say that we should ratchet up security to the highest levels now," Ervin said. "And if subsequently we learn that we can relax things a bit, then fine. But, certainly, we need to err on the side of caution."

The full impact of the current security burdens on the struggling airline industry, which is experiencing its most profitable summer since 2000, is uncertain.

"This could go on for some time," Boyd said. "And could it hurt the airline industry? Yes."

"I think you could see a pretty near-term reduction in short-haul business flying mainly because that business traveler is going to say, 'Why should I stand in line for an hour-and-a-half at LaGuardia ... to get on a one-hour flight to Buffalo?' " about 400 miles away, he said.

Stocks of major U.S. airlines tumbled Thursday after the suspected plot was revealed to the public, then rebounded by midday.

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