Enhanced Security or Just Increased Annoyance?

The NYT reports on new security measures adopted in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day terrorist attack on a Northwest flight.

The government was vague about the steps it was taking, saying that it wanted the security experience to be “unpredictable” and that passengers would not find the same measures at every airport — a prospect that may upset airlines and travelers alike.

But several airlines released detailed information about the restrictions, saying that passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. It was not clear how often the rule would affect domestic flights.

Overseas passengers will be restricted to only one carry-on item, and domestic passengers will probably face longer security lines. That was already the case in some airports Saturday, in the United States and overseas.

The restrictions will again change the routine of air travel, which has undergone an upheaval since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001 and three later attempts at air terrorism. . . .

Airline industry executives said the new steps would complicate travel as vacationers return home from holiday trips and could also cause travelers to cancel plans for flights in 2010.

But the government seemed to discount those concerns. The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, said in a statement Saturday that new measures were “designed to be unpredictable, so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere.” She said passengers should proceed with their holiday plans and “as always, be observant and aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious behavior or activity to law enforcement officials.”

Whether or not “unpredictable” security measures may keep would-be terrorists on their toes, they will be a supreme annoyance for frequent travelers, and I’m unconvinced they will do much to enhance the safety of air travel.  Forcing people to sit for an hour or more with nothing on their laps?  Are they serious?  And if travelers are supposed to expect “unpredictable” security measures, how will they distinguish between legitimate security measures and arbitrary commands from TSA personnel?

Airport security is already more show than substance.  It’s an exercise of political theater that is supposed to make travelers feel more secure.  I am unconvinced it even does that very well anymore, and from what I’ve heard thus far, the new measures are only going to make things worse.

UPDATE: More from Professor Bainbridge: TSA: The Stupid Agency.  This comment by Radley Balko is particualrly apt:

For all the crap they put us through, this guy still got some sort of explosive material on the plane from Amsterdam. He was stopped by law-abiding passengers. So TSA responds to all of this by . . . announcing plans to hassle law-abiding U.S. passengers even more.

Passengers — not the TSA — apprehended this guy, so by all means lets keep pesky passengers in their seats.

SECOND UPDATE: According to the Secretary of Homeland Security: “the system worked.”

THIRD UPDATE: Secretary Napolitano now says “Our system did not work in this instance” and promises a full review.