Too-Frequent Flyer Part 2 – Counting Threats
[See part one of this series on air travel and security.]
Let me propose a heuristic: it may be a good time to reevaluate the effectiveness of a national security institution when it becomes the subject of a Playmobil play set.
”Airport Security Check-in” has reached that point.
Don’t get me wrong, getting playmobiled isn’t an automatic demerit; there are plenty of realistic, practical things in play land. Still, it's worth some hard thinking just to make certain that on the scale of practical reality, our airline security processes are closer to “Rescue Equipment Trailer” than to “Bunny with Wheelbarrow”.
I think we might be somewhere in the middle.
Please pardon the sudden shift from absurdist humor to serious and unpleasant realities in this post. I think it mirrors the experience of modern air travel.
Before discussing the effectiveness or practicality of new security measures, it’s useful to understand what threats they’re designed to prevent. There are basically four broad categories of attacks which can be directed against the air travel system:
1. Hijacking – to use the airplane as a weapon or for hostages or safe passage
2. Bombing – to blow up the plane with a stowed device or suicide attack
3. Infiltration – to transport dangerous individuals into or out of the country
4. Smuggling – to transport or disseminate hazardous materials such as chemical or biological agents using the air travel infrastructure
Each of these threats has important national security repercussions. However, the vast majority of the new publicly visible security measures implemented at U.S. airports are focused on preventing only the first one. This is an understandable political and psychological reaction, since preventing a 9/11 style hijacking is at the top of everyone’s immediate demands. Unfortunately, anti-hijacking measures are some of the most costly and burdensome to implement. They may also be the least necessary – maybe even counterproductive.
Only two changes were necessary to virtually guarantee that a hijacking intended to crash a passenger plane into a building could never happen again. One of them - unbreachable cockpit doors – was relatively cheap and implemented within months of the attacks. The other one was excruciatingly expensive, but the price was paid in full before the day ended and implementation was immediate and ubiquitous: everyone became painfully aware of the possible cost of losing control of an airplane.
Someone attempting an exact replay of the 9/11 attacks today would likely be beaten to within an inch of death - and I wouldn’t take that inch for granted - by passengers with nothing to lose. Even if the terrorists managed get to the cockpit, physical locks and airline policy would make it impossible to take control of the plane. They could kill everyone on board and blow up the airplane, but that makes this kind of attack identical in effect to the “bombing” type. The “hijacking” category, at least for commercial passenger flights, has been largely negated. “Never again” is not just a solemn vow here. It is a statement of fact.
Why, then, do I still have to surrender my nail clippers, take off my belt and wait three quarters of an hour to go through a metal detector honed to such a level of sensitivity that the steak taco I had for lunch sets it wailing? What harm could I inflict with a one inch piece of flimsy metal on a hundred instant air marshals, a bank-vault quality door and pilots specifically trained to never give up control of the airplane? Why is our still-recovering economy being subjected to this level of delay and inefficiency? More importantly, why are our dramatically finite security dollars being spent here as opposed to on other, largely unsolved, problems - like the other three types of threats outlined above? Are these measures effective security, or are they primarily meant to comfort us? There's nothing wrong with comfort, as long as it's not the fuzzy, anthropomorphic-rabbit type.
Also, can I have my nail clippers back?
Next Up: The Other Shoe
[Update: The Playmobil site is not very link friendly. If you get errors following the links in IE, just ignore them and the pages should open fine. Also, I just remembered where I saw the Playmobil link originally – thanks Boing Boing.
April 19, 2004 | Permalink
The one problem I see with the cockpit doors, is that it doesn't take into account the possibility that a terrorist will gain access to the cockpit prior to take off. A terrorist may be a pilot, or disguised as a pilot, or even hiding somewhere within the cockpit -- having entered while the plane was on the ground.
If that happens, then there is no way to get into the cockpit, and the terrorist is able to operate without fear of immediate reprisal.
I would like to see a second system in place --controlled from the ground -- that would either override the door locks, or take away control of the plane from the pilot. I realize such a system would be difficult to effectively implement, but it would add another layer of security.
Posted by: allan | Apr 20, 2004 12:45:24 PM
I believe that there are (or should be) carefully designed procedures for inspecting the airplane and cockpit after sealing the cockpit door and before letting on passengers. These include a visual and verbal “all clear” from the pilot to ground crew before the plane is allowed to taxi away from the gate. Strict adherence to such procedures should minimize the risk of foreign objects or contortionist-dwarf terrorists being hidden inside the glove box.
Posted by: Phil Libin | Apr 20, 2004 7:19:42 PM
You are right on about the near impossibility of passengers submitting to another 9/11 style hijacking. Forget that inch. Armed pilots would also help. I think there is a bigger risk that a cargo plane would be used for the exact reason a passenger plane won't.
I'd find the new security measures a lot more comforting if I respected the thought behind them.
Posted by: Nick | Apr 27, 2004 4:59:46 PM
The overwhelming and useless airport security is here to stay, because of the very simply reason that government jobs never go away.
Posted by: Toren | Apr 27, 2004 5:02:39 PM
Airport screening is designed neither for effective security, nor for comforting the cowardly. It is merely for show, but it does serve two purposes. One, so our politicians can declare that they are "fighting terrorism" and two, so the people who get paid to protect us from foreign invaders can cover their asses in the event of another terrorist attack. They'll say "We tried our hardest with the meger budget we had, but it wasn't good enough. If we only had another $100 billion and fewer civil liberties, we could have prevented it".
Posted by: Greg Buchholz | Apr 27, 2004 5:03:39 PM
Have you ever realised that the metal detector with gain cranked way up would pick up the metal wires and metal detonator components necessary for a hidden bomb?
Hijacking may be over but old fashioned blowing out a window might still be in.
Posted by: researcher | Apr 27, 2004 5:04:38 PM
Of course, if you listen to the gun nuts, then the pilots and copilots should go armed, and that will somehow make it impossible for anyone to ever do anything bad on an airplane.
Posted by: DensityDuck | Apr 27, 2004 5:06:33 PM
DensityDuck, the argument for widespread concealed carry of handguns is that no one will ever do anything bad -- twice.
There's obviously no way of preventing the first criminal attack. But a decentralized security system (aka We the People) is like a stop loss order.
Posted by: shaun evans | Apr 27, 2004 5:15:10 PM
Sure, and since the terrorists are law abiding citizens who have foresworn bringing guns on planes we are all safe. Right, Dense Duck?
Posted by: Fred Boness | Apr 27, 2004 5:15:19 PM
Couldn't agree more about the wasted duplication of current airport security measures. But I think your list of alternative threats is incomplete. What about shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles? There must be about, what, 10,000 of them pretty much loose on the face of the earth right now? How some of them haven't found there way here by now is beyond me. And, there is a way to foil them that involves spending money on chaff systems for the aircraft - but that money is going elsewhere. We won't decide that is a priority until it happens, sorry to say.
Posted by: Roosevelt | Apr 27, 2004 5:17:39 PM
Without getting into a lot of long, boring detail, most shoulder-launched SA missles can't be detected by anything short of the human eye (and even then it's iffy). Chaff is only useful for radar-guided missles, which aren't generally portable. Flares can spoof IR seekers, but a human has to see the incoming missle first.
Assuming a passenger aircraft on takeoff detects a heat-seeker and deploys flares, he's 1) Probably not going to spoof the missle, since he can't jink, and 2) probably going to torch a few residential neighborhoods by dropping dozens of flares at very low altitude.
Add to all this that it's really hard to drop a large aircraft with a shoulder launched missle (witness the DHL plane in Iraq), and you end up with a really low bang-for-buck ratio. Homeland Security dollars are better spent elsewhere.
I vote for bomb-sniffing machines that are currently in development, but still too pie-in-the-sky to be used regularly. If you can keep a bomb off the aircraft, the passengers can do the rest of the job securing the plane from terrorists, and they won't need to crash it into the ground like Flight 93 did. We're all on the front lines now, and they'll never take us all by suprise again. The only option they now have is to just blow us all up before we can react. Get rid of the bombs, and they can't even do that much.
Posted by: TomK | Apr 27, 2004 5:40:45 PM
They don't have to shoot the aircraft down with the missile. Just firing it will ground all air traffic again and over a longer period scare away all the passengers. Repeat until industry collapse.
An additions to the threats: you can hit the aircraft on the ground too. The PIRA tried it with Heathrow in London, UK; homemade mortars fired from the back of a truck left in a car park a few miles away from the airport. (They tried the same trick on 10 Downing St too and nearly pulled it off, but that's a separate matter)
Posted by: Dave | Apr 27, 2004 6:06:50 PM
My steel and silver jewelry used to trip the metal detectors, I'd get get pulled aside and wanded. Then the same stuff would set it off in some airports, sometimes and not other airports, othertimes. Two days ago, the screener suggested that I remove the jewelry. I told him that it doesn't come off, finished putting my junk into the machine and stepped through-- no alarm. I asked him if they'd adjusted their settings. He told me that it was turned it off before I stepped through.
Posted by: stef | Apr 27, 2004 10:38:24 PM
Wow, my first serious of Instapundit-fed comments. Welcome to ViN and thanks for your time.
My response to many of the excellent issues raised above are in this new post.
Posted by: Phil Libin | Apr 28, 2004 12:56:41 AM
DensityDuck, the gun nuts think that everyone on the plane should have a gun, and that the natural good guy:bad guy ratio will take care of the rest.
Posted by: a Gun Nut | Apr 28, 2004 4:05:11 AM
The nail clippers confiscation is a myth- since the standardization of TSA protocols, you are allowed to bring them. A guard who tells you otherwise doesn't know the rules, and there is a sign posted at every major airport with a picture saying you can bring them.
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