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The panicked rush of security measures to protect air travelers immediately after 9/11/01 has slowed and now we can fairly ask two questions.

Are we safer than we were before 9/11?

And are we now sufficiently safe?

 
 
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September 11 revisited - three years later

Are we safer?  Are we safe?
 

Every time we travel, every time we take our laptops out of their carry bags to be X-rayed separately, and remove our shoes, we're experiencing the aftermath of 9/11.

But are we now safer - and are we now sufficiently safe?  Or is our security a feel-good inconvenience rather than an effective process?

 

 

None of us need to be reminded of the horror of 9/11, and neither do we need to be persuaded of the imperative need to prevent further acts of terrorism against our nation's air transportation system.

But as we spend billions of dollars on new security measures and accept the billions of wasted extra travel hours associated with them, it is fair to seek accountability - to ensure we're spending the money and sacrificing our freedoms wisely and getting the security we're promised in return.

NOTE : This article was written on 9/10/2004. Almost nothing has changed in the last five years.

Two Simple Tests

Everything we have done to improve the security of our nation's air transportation system since 9/11 should be measured against two simple tests - has it made us safer than before, and has it made us now sufficiently safe.

Note that 'sufficiently safe' is very different to 'absolutely 100% safe'.  Achieving 100% safety is probably impossible in a free society, and even in a completely controlled society, would only come at great financial cost.

Proposed extra security measures should also be tested the same way - will they make us safer, and will they make us sufficiently safe.

The Overriding Lesson of 9/11 - Protect the Cockpit

The events on the four planes hijacked on 9/11 can be distilled into one overriding imperative.  It is a simple lesson, so simple in fact that it was learned by the passengers on the fourth plane, and implementing this is possible at minimal cost.

Prior to 9/11, it was official policy to cooperate with hijackers, and to do anything they asked.  Official policy did not countenance that hijackers might choose to fly a plane into a building but instead revolved around doing anything necessary to get the plane on the ground and then to negotiate or storm the plane to resolve the situation.

So the hijackers on all four planes needed nothing more special than short box-cutter type knives and possibly some tear gas to force their way into insecure cockpits, overpower pilots trapped by their harnesses, and take over the planes, while behind them in the passenger compartment, the few passengers on board uncertainly and passively waited and worried.

The passengers on the fourth plane found out when calling people on the ground about the fate of the earlier planes, put two and two together, and bravely fought to retake their plane.  They failed to regain control of the plane, but succeeded in preventing it being used as a missile against another ground target.

This most important lesson of 9/11 has been obscured in the horror of the tragedy, and by the massive over-reaction that followed.  The lesson is simply this :  Don't allow terrorists to take control of a plane.  Defend the cockpit at all costs.

How well have we responded to this lesson?

Amazingly, prior to 9/11, neither pilots nor airlines wanted strong cockpit doors.  Pilots worried about getting trapped in the cockpit after a crash, and airlines worried about the extra cost and weight.

  • Stronger Cockpit Doors

The FAA over-rode the objections of pilots and airlines, and insisted on stronger cockpit doors.  However, it also gave the airlines 19 months to fit the doors to their planes!

This was done, as directed, although critics would point out the new strengthened doors, while bullet proof and very expensive (costing the better part of $50,000 each), are not actually person proof - a 225 lb man, running into the door at 5.5mph, would create enough impact to collapse the door.

Needless to say, there is more danger from terrorists simply using their natural strength to break into the cockpit than there is from terrorists using weapons to try and shoot through the cockpit door.

Three other measures have also been partially implemented to add to the integrity of the cockpit.

  • Arming pilots

The first of these is allowing pilots to carry pistols.  Unfortunately, the TSA has opposed this program and so has made it as difficult as possible for pilots to be approved to carry a pistol (anecdotal evidence suggests it is much easier for a person to become a federal air marshal and carry a pistol into the passenger compartment on a plane than it is for a pilot to keep a pistol in a secure lockbox in the cockpit).

Very few pilots have been approved to carry a pistol.

  • Federal Air Marshals

The second measure has been to revive the federal air marshal program.  An unknown and secret number of thousands of marshals were hired and quickly trained, and now plain clothes marshals can sometimes be found on domestic flights within the US (but almost never on international flights).

If you're on a larger sized plane that flies in or out of New York or Washington DC, there's perhaps a 50% chance that two air marshals might be on your flight (look for two men or women wearing business attire on aisle seats in first class).

But if you're on a short-haul flight between a couple of secondary cities, and on a small plane, there's almost no chance any of your fellow passengers will be air marshals.

  • Cabin Crew Training and Passenger Attitudes

Two separate laws - passed in Nov 2001 and Nov 2002 - require the TSA to establish training guidelines for cabin crew to help them respond to and act against potential threats to flight safety posed by terrorist passengers.

Unfortunately, neither piece of legislation specifies any time limits for such measures to be implemented, and so this issue is languishing, largely neglected (but not by flight attendants who are concerned that with the pilots now locked in the cockpit, they are increasingly the only resource to control passengers - be they simply unruly and drunk, or terrorists).

However, on the positive side, it seems likely that if there is a problem in the cabin, passengers may enthusiastically volunteer to help establish control.

This passenger assistance is the one thing that requires no government intervention.  And it seems to be the only thing that has positively occurred.

For a detailed discussion of cockpit and passenger cabin vulnerabilities, see my earlier two part article, Protecting Planes Against Terrorist Attack.

Has cockpit security become safer since 9/11?  Yes.

Is it safe enough?  No.

Four Other Vulnerabilities

The government and airlines between them are spending many billions of dollars extra on aviation security now than they were prior to 9/11.  But a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the security chain that protects our nation's air travel system seems to comprise almost exclusively weak links, billions of dollars notwithstanding.

Here are four of the most worrisome.

  • Passengers bringing explosives on board

Although you now have to take your shoes off before going through the metal detectors at the airport, and although they are set so sensitive that underwires in bras and small belt buckles will trigger an alarm, none of these metal detectors are of any use at all in detecting explosives, because explosives are not made of metal.

There is nothing to prevent a terrorist from carrying plastic explosive through a metal detector and onto a plane, wrapped around their person underneath their clothing.  They wouldn't even need to bring a lot on board with them - a single pound of plastic explosive - no bigger in size than a couple of bars of soap - is enough to destroy a plane.

Detonators could be disguised in common electronic gadgets and smuggled through the X-ray scanner.  Indeed, some insiders suggest that as many as 20% of illegal guns and knives slip through the X-ray machines unnoticed, so disguised detonators are likely to pass through with no problems at all.

Two Russian passenger jets crashed in August 2004 as a result of onboard explosions.  One theory suggests suicide bombers came onboard with hidden explosives, went into passenger toilets, and then detonated their bombs.

We in the US have absolutely no protection against such actions at present.  Explosive sniffing detector technology does exist, and is currently being tested at five airports, but has not been deployed across the country.

Are we safer now from terrorists bringing explosives on planes?  Not measurably.

Are we safe enough?  No.

  • Explosives in baggage - and freight

Remarkably, our checked luggage is now subject to closer scrutiny for possible explosive devices than we are, ourselves.

However, this was a long time coming, and marks the culmination of a repeatedly delayed program that was first developed in response to the terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 104, way back in 1988.

It took 15 years to respond to this vulnerability, but even now, there remains a massive loophole.  While passenger luggage gets varying degrees of inspection, commercial freight usually gets none.  Many passenger flights also carry commercial freight on them.

Terrorists can simply send their bombs onto passenger planes via commercial air freight.  In partial response, the government introduced 'known shipper' requirements that make it harder - but, alas, far from impossible - for a person to anonymously ship a bomb via air freight.

Are we safer now from terrorists sending bombs via commercial airfreight?  Not measurably.

Are we safe enough?  No.

  • Restricting Other People's Access to Planes

We as passengers have to endure long lines and pointless so-called security screening before we get onto a plane.  Now look out your plane's window at all the people on the tarmac around it.

What sort of screening have they had to undergo?

The food and drink that is loaded onto your plane - do you really think every can of soda has been passed through an Xray machine to see if there is a bomb hidden inside it?

While in theory aviation workers who access secured areas have to undergo background checks before being hired, and then security screening before being allowed to access the secure areas of an airport, the background checks are seldom very detailed, and security screening of 'insiders' is often minimal.  While waiting in line to go through security, I've watched people wearing TSA uniforms walk up, go through the metal detector, set the alarms off, then keep on going, while their co-workers just smile and wave them on.

Another theory about the two Russian planes that crashed in August 2004 is the bombs were placed on the outside of the planes by airport workers.

In the UK, also in August, a journalist managed to get employment at a major airport as part of the ground crew after providing fake background information, smuggled a pretend bomb through employee security screening, and had an accomplice photograph him placing it inside an airplane by its fuel tank.

We are similarly vulnerable in the US to such 'insider' actions.

Are we safer now from terrorists getting access to a plane while masquerading as airport employees of some type?  Not substantially.

Are we safe enough?  No.

  • Missiles

The threat posed to our commercial aviation system by missiles is possibly the gravest of all threats for three reasons :

  • Missiles are cheap, portable, readily available on the black market, and easy to operate

  • Missile countermeasures (none of which are currently deployed on regular passenger planes) are not 100% effective and can not be relied upon to protect slow and not very maneuverable passenger planes

  • Missiles can be quickly launched from a large area around the flight paths in and out of airports  - as much as 150 square miles, often in built up city areas - making it impossible to secure the areas under vulnerable parts of flight paths

Protecting against SAM attack is perhaps the most difficult vulnerability of all to resolve.  And, to date, no counter-measures of any kind have been deployed.  My article on SAMs - the unresolved air security threat discusses these problems in greater detail.

Are we safer now from SAM attack against planes?  No.

Are we safe enough?  No.

Other vulnerabilities - and conflicting demands on our dollars

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is tasked with protecting not just our planes but also all other forms of transport in the US.

To date, their actions have been focused almost exclusively on aviation.  A plane carries 50-300 people.  Now look at one of the new cruise ships, carrying 3000 or more passengers, plus another 1000 or more crew.  A tempting terror target?

Terrorism in other countries is often much more mundane.  Car bombs on street corners and suicide bombers in shopping centers - we have nothing to protect against these acts, and probably never will.  If Israel can't protect against such acts of terrorism, how can we?

One more thing to consider - the cost per life saved when spending money on counter-terrorism efforts is estimated to be ten or even one hundred times higher than the cost per life saved if the same funds were invested into simple road safety or preventative healthcare programs.

We don't have unlimited funds, and our approach to security necessarily requires compromises.  This article doesn't question the need to compromise, but does question whether our current compromises and priorities are correctly set.

Is the System Working - Three Years of Safety

In the Conan Doyle story 'The Adventure of Silver Blaze', Sherlock Holmes solves the case of a stolen horse with the clue of a watchdog who didn't bark.  Sometimes things that don't occur are as significant as things that do.

In our case, after 9/11 there have been no successful attempts at disrupting our air service, and - with the exception of the strange shoe bomber - no apparent unsuccessful attempts either.

How then to reconcile the massive remaining vulnerabilities in our aviation system with the lack of terrorists exploiting them?

Indeed, in a broader sense, our nation has not suffered any of the anticipated and variously threatened follow up attacks (and long may we remain so blessed).  All manner of tempting events and targets have passed free of incident - Superbowls, July 4 and New Year celebrations, and most recently the Democrat and Republican Presidential conventions.

Does this mean we're winning the war on terror?  Does this mean our enemy is weaker and less resolute than we thought?

Where do we draw the line between infringing on our civil liberties and freedoms and right to due process on the one hand, and combating terrorism on the other hand?

These are important questions, but not ones which allow for easy or absolute answers.  This article limits itself to reporting the stark fact that a group of determined terrorists still have ample opportunity today to cause massive harm to our aviation system.

Our three years free of terrorist attack - like the countless years prior to 9/11/2001 - are no promise of continued safety tomorrow and into the future.

Are we safer now than we were on 9/11/01?  Slightly and selectively.

Are we safe enough?  No.

Summary

Despite three years and tens of billions of dollars, our air safety remains massively vulnerable to terrorist attack, as does most of the rest of our national transportation system.

We have focused huge amounts of resource into a minor part of the problem (controlling some of the items passengers can take on board flights with them) while leaving vulnerabilities in this area (eg no testing for explosives on one's person, incomplete cockpit protection measures, etc) and other areas (eg commercial air freight, SAMs, etc).

I don't think this is good enough.  Do you?

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Originally published 10 September 2004, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 
 
 

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