June 2, 2008

Is Air Travel Really Safer?

It's on my mind as I book travel for the autumn. Are we really any safer? Is all the extra money and effort put in to airline security really helping? Since 9/11, air travelers in the U.S. (and elsewhere) have had to submit to an ever-changing variety of security procedures. It's not at all clear to me that we're any safer. I'm not alone in thinking this -- read this interview for some really critical questions.

Take, for instance, toothpaste. For a while, toothpaste was still OK to carry with you, either in checked baggage or carry-on luggage. Then someone realized that the bad guys might pack some sort of explosive gel in a container that looked like a tube of toothpaste. So then you could only put your toothpaste in checked baggage. Then, you could take it on a carry-on bag, but it could only be 4 ounces. Now, you can carry on any size toothpaste you want, but it has to be presented to the screener in a sealed zip-lock bag along with your other toiletries.

How has any of this made us safer from bad guys trying to blow up or take over our airplanes? Potentially, anything can be a weapon. Take a look at the guy sitting next to you on the plane. He could have explosive agents, detonators, timers, or weapons...

a) concealed in the heel or soles of his shoes;
b) inside his socks;
c) strapped to his ankles;
d) stuffed down his underpants;
e) below the false bottom of the bottle of water he's sipping;
f) hidden in his carry-on bag as toothpaste or shaving cream;
g) under his shirt;
h) sewn in to the inside liner of his baseball cap;
i) embedded within his jewelry;
j) hidden within his iPod, laptop, or cell phone;
k) actually inserted within a body cavity;
l) in a concealed compartment carved out of the Bible he's carrying;
m) not there at all because he's a trained martial artist...

I could go on, but you get the point. A weapon or dangerous device could be literally anything. Or nothing; a dangerous person is dangerous even if he's unarmed.

Still, the only way to really be sure no one is getting a weapon on board a plane is to strip-search the passenger, deny him the ability to have any carry-on bag at all, and break every object in the passenger's bags down to its component parts. Obviously this is overintrusive, impractical, and expensive. Not to mention that the caliber of TSA employees working the security screens do not always give enough confidence that these people know how to peel oranges, much less disassemble, inspect, and reassemble a laptop computer.

In fairness, there are a decent number of TSA screeners who seem quite bright and alert and who do inspire confidence that they could find something dangerous if it were there. But the number of people who actually manage to get on board planes with contraband handguns, that they later claim to have forgotten they were carrying, is still high enough to be independent cause for concern. (Total B.S., by the way -- a handgun is kind of heavy and if you've had any kind of training or practice with it, you're aware of its awesome power. If you don't remember that you've got one on you, you shouldn't be carrying.)

"Fine," you say, "perfect security is impossible. What we're really shooting for is marginally improved security." Obviously, that's true. But how much of an improvement have we made since 2001? Really? Putting the it's-not-really-toothpaste in a ziploc bag just means that the would-be plane bomber has to take the extra half-second in the privacy of the mini-toilet to get at his weapon.

But here's my real point. People are what are dangerous, not things. Wouldn't we be better off finding some way to know a little bit more about the people who are getting on board a plane even if that means devoting fewer resources to screening out the stuff they bring on board with them? I hate the idea of racial profiling, because not every terrorist is going to be a young Arabic man on a jihad. But someone on a suicide mission has got to be exhibiting certain kinds of behaviors. I expect they'd pray a lot. They'd probably be pretty nervous and fidgety. There are probably other kinds of behaviors we could observe that would fit into patterns. Air marshals and security screeners and onboard personnel could probably profit quite a bit from some training in psychology and human factors observation.

Of course, we should have more air marshals flying anyway -- less than one percent of all flights have a marshal on board. The TSA says there are more than that but will not be precise; a "covered" flight includes one in which a pilot is armed even though the pilot is almost certainly under instructions to lock herself in the cockpit and land immediately in the event of a cabin incident. CNN's sources seem much more credible than the TSA bureaucrats.

And the ease with which I bought a ticket tonight -- online, with a credit card and only my word for it that my fellow passenger was my wife -- suggests that bad guys would have an easy time getting on board flights, too. I would hope that there would be some looking into the credit card I used, verification if mine was a name that showed up on other travel registries, and so on -- but mainly, I would hope that I would be examined by someone searching my face and body language at the airport for the signs of traveler's fatigue, exasperation, and other sorts of "normal" airport behavior to separate me from the unusually anxious and skittish looking sorts, who would get a discreet talking-to by people trained in security.

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