Security - An Unbalanced Response


Are Some Terrorist Acts More Important than Others?

Pan Am's flight PA103 crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, way back in 1988, killing 270 people.  Thirteen years later, the security loophole that allowed this terrorist act to occur remains open.  Meantime, a couple of weeks ago an idiot unsuccessfully attempts to detonate an explosive in his shoes, and in less than 13 hours, shoes are being searched at airports around the world.  Why the unbalanced response?

Xray machines - and their operators - will never detect 100% of all dangerous items.

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The aviation system seems to have a built in acceptance of some levels of risk for pilot error and mechanical failure - the inevitable things that can sometimes go wrong, no matter how much training and care is provided.  But, the system is now trying to eliminate any and all security risks, no matter how unlikely they are, and how difficult it is to eliminate them.  Is this practical, sensible, and consistent?  Why should some types of risk be acceptable, if other equally unlikely risks are considered unacceptable.

Worst of all, even the approach to security itself remains patchy and flawed.

Zero Tolerance?  Certainly Zero Success and Definitely Zero Sense.

We now have a 'zero tolerance' policy - instituted by the FAA - in our airport security screening.  This policy has disrupted the lives of almost all travelers to a greater or lesser extent in the last five months, causing massive chaos and inconvenience to everyone that travels, but can not point to any proof that it has resulted in the apprehension or prevention of any further acts of terrorism.

But let's not forget that terrorist acts are only one cause of plane crashes.  Far more planes crash due to mechanical problems and pilot error than crash due to terrorist acts.

If 'zero tolerance' is a sensible method of managing risk, why do we not have a zero tolerance approach to mechanical dangers?  Or bad piloting?

Here are four examples of the zero sense double standard at work :

Unaccountable Piloting

A federal report, released this week, blames an America West pilot for failing to change course before his jetliner hit severe turbulence, injuring five people on a flight from New York to Las Vegas. A flight attendant on Flight 7 suffered a broken ankle in the 16-second plunge of the Airbus A320 over the Rocky Mountains on April 19, according to the National Transportation Safety Board's report. America West declined Monday to say whether the pilot acted appropriately on warnings the NTSB said he received, and would not say whether the pilot was disciplined.

Unaccountable Maintenance

Ten weeks before the crash of an Alaska Airlines plane in January 2000, managers at the Federal Aviation Administration's Seattle office warned their bosses of an increased risk of accidents for the carrier. Without more FAA inspectors to keep tabs on the rapidly growing airline, "diminished surveillance is imminent and the risk of incidents or accidents at Alaska Airlines is heightened," said the Nov. 12, 1999, memorandum. Before the FAA did anything in response, Flight 261 crashed off the Southern California coast Jan. 31, 2000, killing all 88 passengers and crew members. Note that the FAA had promised to do better at identifying troubled carriers three years earlier, after a 1996 ValuJet crash.

Unaccountable Security

Experts believe that the Pan Am crash was caused by a bag that was transferred from a different flight onto the Pan Am flight in London.  Although international airlines have had to match bags with passengers for some time now, the new 'bag matching' requirement on domestic flights has a massive loophole in it  - the exact same loophole that the Pan Am bombers exploited.  Bags are matched against passengers on the first flight the passenger takes, but are not then matched against passengers on connecting flights.  In other words, a terrorist could book a flight from Los Angeles to New York with a change of plane in Chicago, and check a bag all the way.  He would take the first flight (with his bag) to Chicago, then not take the second flight, while his bag will happily proceed on without him.  The authorities are only now conceding that this (obvious!) loophole exists.

Unaccountable Timings

A strange looking idiot takes a flight and unsuccessfully tries to explode his shoes.  Within hours, the knee-jerk 'security reflex' had responded, such that old ladies and businessmen and all sorts of other people are now having to take their shoes off, for fear that they too may be shoe-bombers.  But, on 12 November, an American Airlines A300 crashed, killing 265 people.  There are another 425 similar A300's flying, and meanwhile the NTSB - nearly three months later - may 'soon' issue a recommended change in how pilots control their plane rudders to reduce the chance of more airplane tails falling off.  As for Airbus, they're refusing to comment entirely!

 We Always Lose

Whether it be in the form of apparently insufficient oversight, insufficient control, or inappropriate security designed to encourage us to confuse inconvenience with safety, there is always one certain loser.  Look around you on your next flight - or in the mirror.  It is you, it is us, the traveling public.

Some cynics might suggest that if 'solving a problem' can be done with the only 'cost' being inconvenience to the traveling public, it will be quickly put in place.  But if solving a problem involves inconvenience or cost to the airlines - well, don't hold your breath waiting for anything to happen any time soon.....

Whatever the explanation, something doesn't sound right to me.  What do you think?

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Originally written 8 Feb 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020
Copyright 2002 by David M Rowell.