This week, as a result of the terrorist attack on 9/11 and as a member of the SAE S9 Cabin Safety Provisions Committee, I was asked by SAE to submit a list of recommendations to the FAA on the subject of security. That list was submitted by the 9/27/01 deadline, though by all appearances it was mostly another exercise in futility, a token offering to SAE so they would feel a part of the solution. There seems little question that the FAA and its industry dominated task forces had already decided what they intend to do, or not do, as the case may be.
While there will be plenty of finger pointing in coming days, we should all understand that the ultimate responsibility really rests on our own shoulders. The U.S. government is only an extension of our will; an imperfect extension to be sure, but an extension nonetheless. That is fundamental in a democracy. We the people wanted to bury our head in the sand, and the government and industry performed as desired. The buck stops here. (Mind you, this isn't an indictment of those relatively few who didn't stick their head in the sand, but you know who you are and you know everyone else didn't listen.)
There were plenty of warnings and experts have been admonishing us about lax security and the penalty that could be paid for it for years. Many of us in the aviation industry, pilots and others, have complained for years. The method chosen was neither novel, nor unlikely given the pattern of suicide terrorism that has been developing over the past decade or so. The scale may not have been imaginable, but the method certainly was to many of us.
It should also be understood that simple economics drove many, if not most of these fatal security decisions, aided and abetted by a government without the stomach to stand up to the travel industry, and a public unwilling to foot the bill because they preferred to stick their head in the sand.
This is all with respect to the end result, the actual attack of 9/11. Other deficiencies in government performance contributed to the failure to stop the attack even before it was attempted, but the whys and wherefores of that is a subject beyond the scope of this editorial.
Those managing security at the FAA failed the ultimate test so unbelievably badly, so now we are to trust them to fix the problem? Only in a government bureaucracy would this be allowed.
The FAA and others involved in security need to quit fighting the last war, for crissakes. At this point even the dimwits in the FAA should recognize that terrorists are willing to commit suicide and as a result, EVERYTHING is changed and old style solutions and attitudes don't work. Unfortunately, there's little indication that this revolution in thought has occurred.
To continue their rein of terror in the U.S. and to cripple the economy completely they do not have to repeat their last attack. They only need to succeed in further reducing the confidence of the flying public and make it even more difficult to travel. Any number of easily consummated terrorist acts will accomplish that, they don't have to go to the trouble of hijacking another aircraft and costing themselves multiple agents.
Focusing on preventing another 9/11-style attack is not the major issue now. Having said that, there's also no reason to make it easy should they decide they want to make another “statement.” Typically, terrorists don't repeat the same attack unless nobody does something about the basic flaws that allowed it to be successful.
The issue of “sharps” on board aircraft is a red herring. Rules that allowed passengers to board with small knives did not cause or contribute in any substantial way to the success of the attacks of 9/11. Not being prepared to deal with suicide hijackers was the problem, the flawed policy that allowed the attacks to succeed. From the perspective of stopping a repeat of the 9/11 attack, that's the problem that needed addressing, and from a practical standpoint this has already occurred by the change in attitudes and policy since 9/11.
With or without official regulatory guidance, flight crews have already decided on an aggressive defensive policy. No crew or planeload of passengers will ever again cooperate with hijackers, which was the flaw in policy that allowed the 9/11 attacks to succeed. I cannot imagine any crew or passengers who wouldn't immediately resist and attack hijackers in the current environment. The heroes aboard United Airlines Flight 93 recognized the stark reality and acted accordingly, as others would today. Hopefully some idiot or drunk won't get themselves killed trying to be cute.
There is currently no practical way to keep all potential weapons off an aircraft. Passenger screening as currently conducted is no more than eye-wash for the generally ignorant and fearful public. The purpose of passenger screening should only be to prevent bombs from being carried on board since they can destroy the aircraft.
Current restrictions are asinine. They prevent passengers from carrying on a BIC razor when they can keep their car keys, a far more effective “weapon.” A terrorist can make an effective lethal weapon from something as innocuous as a newspaper, let alone all the materials and equipment already on the aircraft. Then there's non-metallic weapons that are capable of being easily concealed. Unless you strip search and perform a body cavity inspection of every passenger, you will not stop a determined terrorist from having access to weapons on board. If the crew won't cooperate and other reasonable anti-hijacking measures are in effect, it doesn't much matter what weapons are brought on board, a hijacking won't succeed.
100% security isn't possible in a free and mobile society, but you can easily bankrupt the airline industry and reduce productivity in America enough to cause a depression trying to get there. Make it painful enough to fly and only those with absolutely no alternative will do so. Irrational over-reaction such as banning all carry-ons and eliminating pre-assigned seating, as has been suggested and even implemented in some cases, will certainly have that effect, without appreciably improving security. We need to remember the “law of unintended consequences” and stop reacting with knee jerk “feel good,” often politically motivated security measures. It only encourages a false sense of security and is wasteful of scarce resources that could actually be doing something effective.
Perfect is the enemy of good enough to save lives now. The pursuit of the perfect solution to various security needs, which in many cases has only meant a search for a cheaper solution, has prevented the implementation of solutions that could discourage numerous terrorist threats. Imperfect security is better than no security as long as you continue to work towards better solutions. By the same token, accepting imperfect solutions as the final solution is just an invitation to terrorism.
Right now the biggest threat is not another hijacking, it's a bomb. The easiest would be a suicide bomber with the explosive device in his checked baggage, but there are plenty of other likely scenarios. Everything, (supplies, equipment, baggage) that goes on board a commercial aircraft should be screened. If that takes an army of screeners to get it done expeditiously, so be it. There are thousands of furloughed airline employees who would probably jump at the chance to diligently search all this stuff if it meant that passenger confidence was restored by actually attending to security and they might stand a chance of getting their real jobs back. Yes, it will be expensive. So? It makes a lot more sense to pay them to do something effective about security than to provide unemployment payments that don't solve anything. Give people real, honest security and confidence to fly and it will pay for itself.
Having taken care of the immediate problem, we need to invest whatever it takes in equipment to ensure no bombs get on board, at least not easily. The technology exists, but it is neither cheap nor fast at the moment. It will cost a few billions of dollars to do so in a manner that will not impede air travelers unnecessarily. So what? What is the health of the U.S. economy worth? Having taken the next step, then invest whatever it takes to improve the technology on an emergency basis to reduce costs and overhead and improve reliability further.
Until the above is fully implemented, and even after as another layer of defense, require 100% bag matching with passengers. The technology already exists to make this easy and painless for the passenger and airline alike. Lost bags should be routed via freight aircraft, or 100% searched. This won't prevent a suicide bomber, but will prevent many other bombings.
Everyone allowed access to a commercial aircraft must be screened properly before hire and retinal scans and security screen required to access secure areas. ID cards are too easily forged to be relied upon as the primary screening device. Companies and managers need to be held criminally liable for willful violation of security and screening requirements.
The government needs to set and enforce strict security screening standards, both in hiring and performance. I do not believe that having the Feds to do the actual screening will solve the problems; it could make it worse. Federal bureaucracies do not lend themselves to such tasks, as history has taught us time and again. Remove the responsibility for security from the airlines, for sure. But, utilize the basic fundamentals of the capitalist system to get quality security screening and then test, test, test. Require a very large bond of companies doing the screening and make the management criminally responsible if willful violations are discovered. The FAA must be prepared with some number of personnel to take over temporarily if testing shows lax security at an airport, paid for by the bond. No third or fourth chances for companies doing the work, you continue to screw up, or screw up too badly, and your company is fired, shut down, kaput. Without accountability, there can be no effective security. Who does it isn't the issue. Having adequate standards that are enforced painfully if necessary is.
When you plug one security hole, the terrorist will just look for another. If you ever stop plugging them creatively, you lose the battle. There is no practical, final solution, it's an ongoing battle. Complacency is deadly.
Also, just to set the record straight, bullet holes will not result in “explosive decompression.” Aircraft have outflow valves that regulate pressurization, there's much more than needed. The fuselage is not a 100% sealed pressure vessel, it is always leaking. Even a slew of bullet holes won't make much difference, the outflow valves will simply close up some. Boeing has extensive experience with bullet holes in aircraft fuselages. B-29s bombing Japan regularly took .50 caliber bullets through their pressurized fuselages without any harm whatsoever.
The triple-pane passenger windows are plastic and won't blow out if they get a bullet hole or two in them. The aircraft structure is a “ripstop” design to stop any small cracks or holes that might occur from spreading. This is not to say that a bullet couldn't wreak some havoc among some aircraft systems, but that's one of the reasons that aircraft have redundant systems, so if some fail or are impaired, there are alternatives and back-ups.
Finally, we need to accept the fact that no matter what is done, terrorists may succeed sometimes, more so if we are to retain the freedoms we have worked so hard to develop and preserve to date. We only set ourselves up for added trauma by denying that likelihood. We accept 40,000 plus innocent lives lost on the highways every year because it is the price we, as a society, have decided is worth the freedom that we enjoy owning and operating automobiles. Each of those deaths is no less tragic than all those lost as a result of this heinous terror attack, or any that will be lost going forward, we just view cause and effect differently. To succeed and prosper we need to change our viewpoint and we need to address the real security issues. Eye-wash just won't cut it!
-- Doug Ritter
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First Published: September 27, 2001
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