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Airline Safety – Or Where Do We Go From Here?


Jack Keady, MBA

About The Author

Jack Keady is a transportation and marketing consultant for the airline and airport industries. His extensive experience includes long term resource planning and analysis for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company, manager of marketing development for American Airlines, and proposal writing for Lockheed Martin Corporation. His company, John J. Keady Transportation Consulting provides travel, airline and airport consulting together with logistics management and proposal writing services. He holds a B.S. from Northeastern University and an MBA from the Harvard School of Business Management. He is a member of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) , the Airports Council International (ACI) and the Wings Club.

The horrific events of September 11 have, in the space of 90 minutes shattered both an industry and a nations sense of security. After years of complacency, of telling ourselves that nothing could go wrong in an airplane, that metal detectors and X-ray machines kept out all the bad people, we found that that was not true.

Our reactions to this tragedy (in reality compound tragedies) remind one of the story about finding someone stooped over looking for something on the floor. When queried as to what they had lost the person replied he had lost his watch in the other room. When asked why he was not searching in that room, the answer was “because the light is better here.”

So it is with airport security. We react in ways that we can, not in ways that we should. We look under buses and taxis with mirrors, we place camo-suited Guardsmen at the X-ray machines. We block off parking garages to automobiles. We stop visitors from the concourses. Do these measures really add to security? No. Why do we do them? Because we can. Because they keep us from feeling impotent. Because we don’t know what else to do. It’s the old “do something, do anything” reaction.

Consider: if a terrorist passes through security and has no weapons, we say the system works. But a grandmother with knitting needles and hemming shears is, prima facie, a security risk. Which would you rather have on your plane?

The simple facts are that the September 11 terrorists worked within the system and did not subvert it. To now start taking nail files away from innocent travelers, while personal computers and cell phones get on, borders on the silly. Has anyone considered that a cell phone antenna could make a sharp weapon? As any prison warden will testify, there is no limit to the ingenious ways evil minds can shape and conceal weapons.

What, then is the answer? We might divide it into three components:

  1. Technology
  2. Vigilance
  3. Motivation

Component One: From a technology standpoint, all seem agreed that some form of ground or automatic control of an aircraft must be installed to forever again prevent what happened. The easiest method might be a simple, one-way control button marked “divert to nearest airport”. If this simultaneously froze or blocked all pilot inputs, then nothing could be done and the aircraft would presumably land shortly thereafter.

Component two, vigilance, refers to the ordinary things that we are already doing, such as improving the quality of our security checkpoints, doing a positive ID check of vendors and employees, constantly testing the system, plugging holes or weaknesses, and, more than anything, thinking like a terrorist.

Component three of a new security system, motivation, is certainly the most comprehensive and hard to both grasp and accept. It focuses not on what you carry but who you are. At its simplest this would include observing passengers throughout the check in and boarding process. If a traveler appeared nervous at the curb but then straightened himself out at the metal detector, he might be a suspect. If a traveler kept looking at his briefcase, or feeling his left pocket, he might be worth asking a question. However, the usual tip-off signs do not apply anymore. Prior to September 11, anyone buying a one-way ticket, paying cash and checking no luggage would be identified as a suspicious person, due for extra scrutiny. As we have now seen, terrorists do not all hide in isolation. They learn the system. They beat the system. While we cannot give everyone who gets on a plane a lie detector test, we must not be oblivious to subtle factors that suggest further examination. And, regrettably, profiling may play a part in this. While racial biases have no place in this country, we would do well to remember the right to fly is not written into the constitution and the risks of others must be taken into consideration.

Ultimately, as has been said, we need to focus on the person and not the objects they are carrying. In a perfect world we would have the answers to the questions; “who are you and why are you traveling”. Two obstacles to receiving answers to these questions are that they are intrusive and impossible to administer. In terms of intrusion, these questions are not too dissimilar to those asked of gun purchasers or even those who buy a life insurance policy. And, while constitutional rights have to be observed, so does protecting the welfare of the large majority of the population.

In terms on physically ascertaining the travel motivations of individual travelers, with close to a million people flying every day, this might prove impossible. However, some sort of “passport” or right to fly system might be set up to allow a one time only exam, much like a driver's license or diplomatic passport. Whether this would truly weed out all terrorists would to some extent depend on the questions asked and resources devoted to the program.

As this is written, debate continues in Washington relative to what changes to make to the security screening process. This overlooks the fact that the screening process worked as designed on the morning of September 11. The terrorists worked within the system. Two conceptions underlie the drive toward federalism of security screening. The first is thinking that the current system is a failure. Much as been written about how today’s screeners are minimum wage people with inadequate training who need to be replaced by a federal force. It could be argued that these screeners are typically immigrants or job entrants to the workforce who feel compelled to do a good job simply to support a family. It could also be argued that a $100,000 Ph.D. could be hired to do the job and do it no better. With respect to training, this was a matter left largely to airlines but approved by the federal government. In any event, paying trainers more will, undoubtedly reduce turnover and additional training will result in at least some increased measure of comfort, if not actual weapons detection.

We need to remember that adding patrol people and implementing increasingly onerous restrictions at the security checkpoint merely reflects the Maginot Line example that those with motivation will seek ways to go around or circumvent the system. Adding explosive detectors and hand frisking of passengers simply inconveniences the innocent. But, again, security forces everywhere feel compelled to do something, even if it is the inappropriate thing.

With respect to federalization of security forces, it could be argued that a single, government-directed organization, with uniform training process and procedures would be an improvement over the current system. This writer’s observation is that the Post Office is a uniform federal organization, and well paid also, yet the intelligence and performance of its employees do not seem any greater than airport security screeners. Again, only part of the solution is being able to read an X-ray screen. A viable system must include operators able to read people.

A sky marshal program would seem in order and may even be happening today in an unannounced manner. While there are many advantages to having an armed person on the aircraft, this person could also be detected and disarmed by hijackers who could then use the marshal's own gun against the crew. Similarly, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) is proposing to arm and train pilots. On the one hand this makes sense as they must have some protection and be able to protect the passengers. On the other hand, don’t we want pilots to simply fly the plane?

Two factors not normally discussed might be the best in-flight method to prevent future tragedies. The first would be extreme aircraft maneuvers. No terrorist can walk down the plane aisle if the aircraft is inverted or rolled over, then put in a step dive to land quickly. Similarly, as apparently the passengers on the Philadelphia aircraft found, one of the greatest weapons against hijackers is if the passengers themselves take a forceful role in disarming them.

In summary, a great national tragedy has happened. It is human nature to over-react in implementing solutions to prevent a repeat. It is also human nature to want to attempt many different solutions in an effort to prevent a repeat. Yet at the same time, creation of a police state fails in two ways: it fails to predict and prevent something new from being tried and it fails to provide the level of comfort and security people desire. To paraphrase the NRA cliché, it is people, not weapons that create mayhem. While we cannot create a huge internal spy and security apparatus, we clearly must know who is within our borders and what their objectives are. Evidence exists that the September 11 hijackers were known to be risks and had been tracked, yet no one advised the airlines. It is faults in information flow, not weapons detection that is our true Achilles heel.

© October 11, 2001 Jack Keady

Jack Keady can be reached by filling out our feedback form and referencing this article. His website, has a detailed description of the services of his firm, John J. Keady, Transportation Consulting, together with resume and prior experience.

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