Security Silliness


The number one growth industry seems to be security at present.  But is any of it worth the billions of dollars we're spending on it?

More to the point, why are we ignoring simple and easy solutions to immediate problems while pressing on with billion dollar programs that provide only partial solutions?.

We trust pilots with our lives already, and with what has now been unforgettably shown to be the most dangerous of all weapons - the plane itself.  So why won't we trust them with a gun?

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Earlier this week the Government announced that pilots would not be allowed to carry weapons in the cockpit.  Part of the reason was because, if a plane is hijacked, rather than have the pilots shoot it out with the hijackers and possibly endanger other passengers, the airforce will simply shoot down the entire plane!

Give me the Bullets, not the Missiles

Am I the only one to find the government's reasoning extraordinary?  Rather than potentially have one or two (or even ten or twenty) passengers wounded or killed, the government would prefer to order the airforce to shoot down the entire plane, complete with hundreds of passengers.

Excuse my bluntness, but everyone on the plane is sure to die if shot down by an airforce missile.  It gets worse - shooting the plane down also runs the risk of it crashing into an inhabited area.

Let's not also overlook the fact that very few hijacked planes can be guaranteed to be intercepted and shot down by a fighter jet before they are crashed into a building somewhere - especially now most of the fighter patrols have been grounded.

The situation is really dead simple.  We, all of us, place our lives into the hands of the pilots every time we board a plane.  They can kill all of us many different ways, starting off by depressurizing the cabin, and of course ending by deliberately crashing the plane.  We are already 100% reliant on the pilots, why shouldn't we trust them with guns?

Some people might say 'because they are not trained marksmen and skilled at gun battles in a plane full of passengers'.  Okay, that is true.  But the pilots are all willing to undergo whatever training is necessary, and many of them are ex-military to start with.

Which reminds me of the other reason why the government said that pilots don't need firearms.  TSA Director John Magaw told a Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday that pilots did not need firearms because federal air marshals (plain clothed armed guards assigned to some flights) were armed and trained.

There's Never a Policeman When you Need One

So the government is saying that we should rely on air marshals rather than pilots to protect us.  But, there's just one problem.  Unless you're on a flight in or out of Washington National Airport - for example, if you're on a flight between, say, Denver and Milwaukee - your chances of having an air marshal on board is about the same as your chance of having a terrorist on board - close to zero in both cases!

In order to place air marshals on every flight (they seem to generally travel in teams of two) we would need tens of thousands of air marshals.  While the actual number of air marshals is not exactly known, it is probably somewhere in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands.  In other words, I am estimating that you have less than a 1% chance of being on a flight with air marshals.  But Mr Magaw would rather gamble on this one chance in a hundred of an air marshal being on board a flight than allowing the pilots a chance to defend themselves, their plane, and their passengers (that means you!) for the other 99% of the time when the air marshals are not onboard.

I suppose, to Mr Magaw, it is not that much of a gamble, because, hey - he can always order the Airforce to shoot the plane down if it doesn't have air marshals on board!  But wouldn't you, as a passenger, prefer the certainty of an armed pilot to the uncertainty of a 1% chance of an air marshal, backed up by sure death if shot down by a fighter's missiles?

Stop Press :  A large part of Mr Magaw's argument about not allowing pilots to have guns is that only the 'true professionals' - the air marshals - can be trusted with guns on a plane.  This article reveals that the very few air marshals that do exist are no longer being required to pass the marksmanship tests that formerly applied!  Which makes Mr Magaw's claim that 'the weapons training for air marshals is more intensive than any other training except possibly that of Delta Forces in the U.S. military' (quoted in this article - a Washington Times article no longer online) seem like nothing more than an outright lie.

Sleight of Hand and Misdirection

I've said before (23 Nov, 30 Nov, 8 Feb) that our current approach to security is lopsided and misguided.  There is no point in spending billions and billions of dollars to make one aspect of air travel safer if all that does is redirect terrorists to other security loopholes that have not been addressed and resolved.

For example, we are currently fixated on securing passenger baggage, to the point of spending literally billions of dollars on new super baggage Xray machines and requiring all bags to be matched to traveling passengers.  But our security masters seem to be deliberately ignoring a huge remaining security weakness.  Most planes carry passengers, passengers' bags, and also freight cargo.

And, guess what type of security screening the freight cargo receives?  And, guess what type of security screening the freight cargo handlers receive?

This article (a USA Today article no longer online) explains the answers (which aren't very encouraging!) to these two rhetorical questions.  It quotes an FAA report who says that terrorists 'may perceive an attempt (at using a cargo shipment) to be relatively accessible and risk free'.

Could someone explain to me exactly what is the point in spending billions of dollars to screen passenger luggage if we then ignore the cargo freight that is shipped on the same plane?

Some Good News?

To close with some 'good news', I pass this news release on :

LOS ANGELES--(BUSINESS WIRE)--May 23, 2002--The entire Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) community continually strives to improve the passenger experience. In recent months, surveys of departing LAX passengers have indicated that travelers are highly satisfied with new security screening procedures and encouraged by efforts to improve passenger service and care.

Are there two LAX airports?  Or is this a news release from a different planet?  Passengers at LAX are 'highly satisfied' with the new security screening procedures?  Hey - no-one asked me!

Meantime, here's a story that definitely comes from Planet Earth, not Planet 'Fantasyland'.

The Transportation Security Administration has received so many complaints about security from travelers that it has to expand its call centre to handle them. The enlarged centre should be up and running by July. The agency plans to employ about 30 people to handle complaints, up from six. It will keep the centre open 16 to 18 hours a day, up from eight hours. Their phone number is 866-289-9673.

Make a note of that number - you might need it!


This editorial (no longer online) appeared in the Wall Street Journal two days later. 

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Originally written 24 May 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020
Copyright 2002 by David M Rowell.
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.