Thursday, March 17, 2005

Airline Security - View from the Cockpit

On the last day of February, 2005, the TSA re-issued its list of Prohibited Items: that is, the list of items one is not allowed to carry aboard a commercial aircraft, or into “sterile” areas of airports. This prompted me to write a short commentary piece about airline security in this blog, two weeks ago.

By the nature of my work, I chat with aircrews all the time. I know that my views on this subject are shared by many in the aviation industry. Case in point: A group known as the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations (CAPA).

CAPA is a trade group claiming to represent the views of over 22,000 professional pilots. A week ago the organization issued an Aviation Security Report Card in an effort “to highlight the problems in our nation’s aviation security system.” I was particularly struck by this paragraph in the press release (dated March 10, 2005), that announced the CAPA Aviation Security Report Card:

Airline security still gets average to failing grades in over a dozen subject areas with a GPA a little over 1.1, or letter grade D. Rating “F” grades from CAPA were such critical security measures as screening airline employees, screening cargo, biometric credentialing for crewmembers, self-defense training, and countering shoulder-mounted missiles (MANPADS).

If you are concerned about these same kinds of aviation security issues, you might be interested to have a look at the CAPA website. There’s good information there about things you can do to help change what needs to be changed.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

No knives, no scissors...

...and now no lighters. Earlier this week, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) added all lighters to its Prohibited Items List. According to a TSA press release, dated February 28, 2005, all lighters will be prohibited onboard aircraft, and in "sterile" areas of airports, i.e., areas beyond the security checkpoints. The new ruling is to be fully enforced beginning April 14, 2005. (Butane lighters already were officially prohibited as of December 17, 2004 when the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act was signed into law.)

One is still allowed to carry up to four books of matches, however.

Would-be terrorist Richard Reid, the perpetrator of the infamous "Shoe Bomber" incident in late 2001, used matches to try to ignite a fuse connected to explosive material embedded in his sneaker. This event occurred aboard a Boeing 767 aircraft, operated by American Airlines, while it was airborne on a regularly scheduled run from Paris to Miami.

Mr. Reid was thwarted in his attempt to blow up the aircraft, and all aboard, thanks to Flight Attendants Hermis Moutardier and Cristina Jones. After Ms. Moutardier noticed a burning smell -- the smell of sulfur that emanates when someone strikes a match -- she discovered the ersatz bomber, sitting in his seat near a window, attempting to light the fuse in the tongue of his shoe. Ms. Moutardier and Ms. Jones, with the help of some passengers, grabbed Mr. Reid and subdued him. The flight was diverted to Boston, where it landed safely. Mr. Reid was taken into custody there.

Subsequently indicted and brought to trial, Richard Reid ultimately pleaded guilty to the charges against him. During his court appearance he admitted, in his own words, "Basically I got on a plane with a bomb. Basically I tried to ignite it."

No knives, no scissors, no bombs, no lighters -- but travelers still may bring up to four books of matches into a secure area of an airport, and aboard a flight. One wonders what arcane reasoning was used to arrive at the exception of four books of matches from the prohibited list. Was it because, as happened in the Shoe Bomber case, the lighting of a match emits a fume that can be detected by the crew or other passengers aboard a plane? If we don't want to allow someone the means of setting fire to something aboard an aircraft, then why the exception for matches?

If passengers and crews are confused by all this, you can't blame us. Every time we turn around, it seems, there is a new variant to contend with in the airport security lines.

Soon after the Richard Reid incident we became accustomed to removing our shoes and placing them on the conveyor belt to be X-rayed. Savvy travelers now prepare for air travel these days by consciously choosing travel attire that will be least likely to set off the metal detectors as we pass through them: no belts with metal buckles, no metal underwires in bras, no loose change or keys in the trouser pockets. Oh yes, and be sure to take along a handbag that has a zippered pocket somewhere inside, so that you can stow the jewelry you intended to wear until you have passed the security check.

Writer James Fallows, National Correspondent for The Atlantic , addressed this topic in an article he wrote for the magazine's January/February 2005 issue:

Are the measures worthwhile? They certainly reduce one specific danger: that the plane will be brought down by a shoe bomb or some other explosive device concealed in a passenger's clothing or carry-on luggage. But they probably make no difference in the odds of another 9/11-style attack, now that cockpit doors have been reinforced and passengers know they must not let a hijacker succeed. And they also do nothing to reduce the risk of explosions in the cargo hold, since most airborne cargo containers are not screened at all, even when carried on passenger airplanes. [James Fallows, "Success without victory, " The Atlantic, January/February, 2005, p. 82.]
I can tell you that this view echoes that of aircrews all over the world. They tell me that they are far more concerned with what's lurking undetected in the cargo hold than they are with what passengers might bring aboard an aircraft these days. They're worried about attacks on civilian aircraft by terrorists armed with shoulder-fired missiles. And they complain that it is ridiculously easy for unauthorized persons to gain access to supposedly "secure" areas of some airports.

Okay, TSA. No knives or scissors. No lighters. We hear you!

Now, for the sake of the crews, the passengers -- and, perhaps, the future of the airline industry as we know it -- how about spending more time, effort, and a lot more money (if that's what it takes) on resolving the bigger threats.