Friday, January 1, 2010

Let's Have Less Security at Airports

After the recent, foiled attempt to bring down an airliner let me, once again, ask for fewer security measures at airports. This seems counter-intuitive, but the current measures are almost completely ineffective and new measures will simply increase the cost without making us safer. Here is how I think terrorists can define success. Spend a couple of thousand dollars to get a guy to burn himself on a plane and the US responds by spending billions of dollars on useless security measures and, as a bonus, slows commerce and communication. The real wounds of terrorism are self inflicted. Every time we clamp down on civil liberties or spend lavishly on additional defense, the terrorists have won.

The recent terrorist failure to bring down an airliner has, predictably, been hailed as a failure of airport security. On the TV, round after round of security experts have been crying for more money and technology to be deployed at airports to protect us. Secondary screenings have been instituted at many places and travel experts are urging travelers to arrive at the airport even earlier and to anticipate even longer delays. In international travel to the US you will be confined to your seat, with no permitted distractions and no ability to go to the bathroom for the last hour of the flight.

If you want to make a bundle over the next few years, invest in the companies that make corporate jets. As travel becomes more costly in terms of time (money) business travel will decrease overall, but more companies will simply buy/lease their own planes to bypass the increasing hassle of commercial flight.

As far as I know, there has never been a hijacking attempt that was thwarted by airport security. None, zero, zip, nada, zilch. There have been thousands of box cutters and pocket knives seized. I am probably pretty typical of the passenger who has a "dangerous weapon" confiscated. I always carry a pocket knife (swiss army tinker). Sometimes I forget to leave it behind and find it in my pocket while waiting in the security line. I have had to throw away at least three pocket knives (and smuggled them through security a half dozen times). Occasionally even a gun is found in a passenger's carry on. This is hardly surprising considering that Florida alone has over half a million concealed carry licenses in force. Let me repeat, security screening has proven to be ineffective. I have not been able to find a single case of hijackers being stopped by airport security. The security could deter terrorists, and it may be best to keep guns off planes, but I doubt the current screening system could pass any kind of cost/benefit analysis.

There are three things that actually increase security on airplanes.

The primary effective security measure is the tracking of extremist individuals and groups long before a member approaches an airport. The failure of tracking is what lead to the latest (pathetic) terrorist attempt.

The second effective air security measure is locks on the cockpit door combined with the assurance that pilots will never allow anyone on board to direct the flight. This means that planes cannot be used as guided missiles. The most a terrorist can dream of is a plane that goes down in an urban area causing a maximum of perhaps five or six hundred dead. Locking the cabin doors was one of the few proper reactions to the September Eleventh bombings.

Given that the worst immediate consequence of an airline hijacking is several hundred dead people, terrorists have better targets elsewhere. In terms of maximum terror, public places are easier and more attractive. The Madrid bombings killed 19 and wounded 1800. The Mumbai attacks killed 173 and wounded abut 300 others. Baghdad bombings in October killed 132 and wounded more than 500. The Oklahoma City bombing killed 168 people and injured about 700.

The final security system is the passengers and crew. Starting with September eleventh itself, passengers came to realize that the best way to survive a terrorist attack is to eliminate any threat that appears. Because of this, it is basically impossible to hijack a plane with a knife or even a gun. Both of the terrorist hijackings since 2001 (Richard Reid and Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab) were thwarted when passengers took action


The only reason for a terrorist group to attack an airline is to trigger a disproportionate defense response. This is exactly what the current attack is likely to do. The terrorists have won.

A brief history of hijackings since 9/11 shows the current sources of hijacking threats to US citizens - largely drunk or crazy folks. Don't expect that threat to decrease as airline travel becomes even more unpleasant.

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This list comes from internet sources including Wikipedia (proves its worth again) plus worldwide news media.


December 2001 - Richard Reid attempts to ignite explosives in his shoe. Passengers prevent this. (terrorist/passengers)

August 2002 - Swedish man (originally Tunisian) arrested for trying to take a gun on board a plane going from Stockholm to London. Caught by racial profiling and security screening. Most of the early reporting turned out to be incorrect. All charges were dropped. Apparently he had simply forgotten to take his gun out of his possessions before heading to the airport. (police mistake)

March 2003 - Turkish Airlines aircraft Ergene on the way from Ankara to Istanbul was hijacked and forced to land in Athens, Greece. The Turkish citizen hijacker surrendered, appears to be mentally unstable. (crazy/surrender)

April 2003 - Cuban passenger plane hijacked. Landed back in Cuba, some passengers released in exchange for food and fuel. Plane flew and landed in Key West. "Second time in two weeks a plane has been hijacked to the US." The man apparently had his wife and child on the plane. (asylum/surrender)

Oct 2006 - A man hijacked a Turkish Airlines Boeing 737 with 107 passengers and six crew on board. He was captured. Hijacker was seeking asylum in Italy, but was returned to Turkey. (asylum/surrender)

December 2006 - Russian plane hijacked. Russian wanted the plane diverted to Cairo. Emergency landing in Prague. Man arrested, no one hurt. Terrorism not a motive. Hijacker claimed to have a bomb. Apparently he was drunk, involved in a fight, then demanded that the plane be diverted. The man was traveling with eight family members, three of them children. (drunk/surrender)

January 2007 - Internal Sudanese flight hijacked. Flight landed in Chad where the hijacker surrendered. Hijacker entered the cockpit with a gun. Passengers were unaware that the plane had been hijacked. Motive was political, to call attention to the conflict in Darfur. (statement/surrender)

February 2007 - Flight from Mauritania to the Canary Islands hijacked by a gun wielding hijacker who wanted political asylum in France. The pilot took the plane to its planned destination and speaking in French (the hijacker did not speak french) warned the passengers and flight crew that he would brake hard on landing. This threw the hijacker off balance and he was subdued and beaten by passengers and crew. (asylum/passengers)

April 2007 - Turkish flight forced to land in Ankara. Security forces overwhelmed the hijacker. Unemployed man tried to approach the cockpit and said he "had something in his belt" and wanted to go to Iran. (??/police)

August 2007 - A Turkish passenger plane heading for Istanbul from northern Cyprus was hijacked and forced to land in southern Turkey, where the 136 passengers escaped or were set free and the hijackers surrendered to authorities. (??/surrender)

August 2008 - Sudanese flight from Darfur - apparently successful attempt to divert the plane. The hijackers wanted to go to Egypt, but ended up in Libya. No injuries. (??/surrender)

April 2009 - Flight from Jamaica to Hallifax hijacked by a gunman. He asked to be taken to Cuba. He allowed passengers to buy their way off the plane. The "mentally challenged" hijacker was captured by a security officer who entered through the cockpit window and pretended to be the copilot. (crazy/police)

September 9, 2009 - Flight out of Cancun Mexico. A crazy guy says he has a bomb and tries to hijack a plane. His demand is to speak to the Mexican president. The plane continued to its destination and landed five minutes early. (crazy/police)

October 2009 - Man attempts to hijack a plane from Istanbul to Cairo using a plastic knife from the meal (US airlines have phased out food and utensils). Marshals overpowered the man and the flight continued. Man may have been drunk and claimed that he wanted to "liberate Jerusalem". (drunk/air marshall)

December 2009 - Northwest Airlines Flight 253 Amsterdam to NY Man on plane to the US attempts to combine materials (hidden in his underwear) for an explosive device. Passengers and flight crew intervene. There is a fire, the terrorist is badly burned and a couple of passengers injured. (terrorist/passengers)

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

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hopalong said...

I was telling a friend that the TSA might just be trying to make airplane travel so annoying and inconvenient that terrorists start going after something else out of frustration.

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Colin said...

I just saw a news report about the effectiveness of full body scanners. http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/04/01/airport.body.scanners/?hpt=C2. During the course of a full year they found "over sixty" concealed items. From what I see, none of them were a threat to to plane. Why they even detected prohibited "large bottles of lotion". I feel safer already. All this at a cost of only $100,000 - $200,000 per scanner. It will only cost us $3 billion over eight years to catch every large bottle of lotion moving through the airport.