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Subject: Secure at Any Cost?

I’m sure everyone has now heard about the TSA requiring a 95-year-old woman to remove her diaper as part of a pat-down at a screening checkpoint. Frequent readers of this blog may expect me to talk about profiling or the use of K-9’s instead of this embarrassing screening process however, I’m going to take a different approach.

In 1955, the first bombing of a U.S. commercial airliner took place. It happened in Denver, Colorado and was committed by Jack Graham, who put dynamite into his mother’s suitcase, took out an insurance policy on her and put her on the flight. All 44 were killed in the explosion. We assume mom did not know about the dynamite.

So, is it beyond the pale to think that there are people out there, who would, perhaps posing as a caregiver, pack a diaper full of explosives and dupe an Alzheimer’s patient or elderly person with Dementia and send them onto an airplane? No. In fact, probably been thought of already.

TSA is defending their actions by saying that all protocols and procedures were followed. I don’t deny that. But, the real question is, are the procedures correct? Are they the right thing to do? How much of our civil liberties and our freedoms are we willing to give up for a greater illusion of security? Ask yourself – would you want your grandmother or yourself to be subjected to this level of screening for a higher guarantee that the flight will not be bombed or hijacked? How about we strip everyone down, but it turns out that the pilot was an al-Qaeda sleeper agent, in place for ten years, who, without a weapon, except for his hands, breaks the first officer’s neck and crashes the plane into a building?

Well, at least grandma didn’t blow up the flight.

TSA is not the problem here, nor are they the solution. This is a Congressional issue. More likely, it’s a societal issue. When the trains and buses were bombed in London in 2005, the U.K. didn’t hire 60,000 screeners and install billions of dollars worth of screening equipment. Keep in mind that subways, trains and busses are the primary forms of transportation in the U.K., just as aviation is the primary form of transportation in the U.S. What the U.K. did was ramp up their MI5 (internal security service – think FBi) and MI6 (external security – think James Bond) to try to make sure similar attacks did not occur in the future.

Of course, I thought they overdid it on the liquid bomb plot but there’s a lot of backstory there – read Garrett Graff’s The Threat Matrix for more information on that plot.

The point is that in the U.K., they accepted a level of risk in order to not bankrupt the economy and to preserve their freedoms. We seem to do the opposite. More and more, going through a screening checkpoint resembles the process for a visitor to enter a prison.

You’ve heard me say it before. Life is a risk sport. Maybe we, as a society, decide that we need to improve our intelligence and investigatory capabilities, establish a baseline level of reasonable airline screening measures, toss in a few random measures now and then, do R&D and test new technologies and processes (slowly, let’s make sure the stuff works before we deploy it) and understand that every flight, just like every car trip to the airport, comes with a certain level of risk.

We do this already, we just don’t realize it. If every flight was to be made as safe as possible (and we’ll assume that we’ll still fly the plane and not just drive), everyone would be sitting backwards, we would all have parachutes with back ups, there would be double the flight crew, quadruple redundant computer and flight systems, a parachute for the plane, big floats in case it lands in the water (or Captain Chesley flights every flight), airbags in every seat back, twice the number of mechanics checking over the plane before it flies, twice the flight attendant compliment and at least one surgical team on board, and we’ll build the entire plane out of the same stuff that the black box (which always seems to survive) is built out of. The ticket will cost $20,000 one-way. Please take your seat.

I recently took Amtrak from Penn Station to Boston, where I got to observe rail security practices. With frequent announcements of “see something, say something,” videos showing up how to see something and say something, no lack of K-9 patrols and armed and armored (kevlar) police officers actively patrolling through the terminal and TSA personnel conducting random screening, I felt pretty safe getting on the train. Well, it is Amtrak, so let me clarify, I felt reasonably “secure” – I won’t get into Amtrak’s safety record.

Could a bad guy still get through the rail security? Sure. But, most bad guys during their surveillance are going to look at another target. Maybe another rail station besides Penn, where Port Authority and TSA seemed to really be on their game.

Maybe we, in aviation, take some lessons from the rail industry here?

That said, the problem I’m addressing is society based. Too many of us want a risk-free life and we want our government to guarantee and provide that to us. Even many people ARE willing to take their clothes off at the screening checkpoint – okay, some if those people are just perverts, but I’m talking about the certainty-freaks who think that if everyone does everything right, they personally will live to a ripe old age.

Like I said, we’re talking about Congressional perspective changes at the least, and ultimately, societal changes. Later, I’ll solve global warming, illegal immigration and world peace. For now, let’s look at what COULD have been done in Diaper-Gate.

Throughout the U.S., in fact, more often than many of us believe, there are breaches at airports. People somehow slip through the screening process, or go the wrong way down an exit lane into the Sterile Area, go out a fire alarm door into the airfield, or are accidentally allowed to enter the Sterile Area (where the gates are) with unresolved screening alarms. Sometimes TSA and the airport figures this out but can’t find the person. CCTV footage will be analyzed, cell phone calls will be made to the Transportation Security Operations Center (TSOC), and airport and TSA security officials will confer. At some point, either the airport concourses are evacuated, or a decision is made that the risk is acceptable and normal operations resume without disruption to the system.

Not having all the facts in this case yet. Perhaps the traveling companions could have been interviewed (which they hopefully were), and a decision made, based on all the evidence, that letting grandma fly without taking off her diaper, is an acceptable risk.

Dignity, sanity and security is maintained.

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3 Responses to Subject: Secure at Any Cost?

  1. I agree Jeff. We are willing to accept a certain amount of risk every time we get into our car and drive. We need the same mindset for aviation, we will make it safe within reason, but perfect is not reasonable. Risk-based strategies must be employed and like you indicated, it will need to come from the direction of policy and social change.

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