Is Air Travel Ever Going To Not Suck?

They tell me that there was a golden age of air travel. There was a time when air passengers were treated like kings and queens and the idea of flying somewhere came with a sense of elegance. It’s hard to imagine what those days were like.

I flew for the first time in the early 1970s, going to visit my grandparents; it was a quick flight from Washington DC to Boston and I remember that people dressed up to fly. It was almost like going to church. The good news back then was that we were treated well; the bad news is that flying was so expensive that it was beyond the reach of most people. That changed in 1978 when the airlines were deregulated. It made air travel cheap, but much more complicated as there were more airlines, more routes, more choices, and more variables.

It all changed for the worse on September 11, 2001. Virtually everything we believed about air travel changed. There was a flurry of hijackings in the early 1970s and we learned to get used to screenings before we boarded a plane. But we also learned that the hijackers expected to survive the incident and we were better off cooperating with the hijackers and allowing the negotiators on the ground to fix the problem. Finding out that hijackers were now suicide bombers told us that we needed to be aware of the people we sit next to.

This new awareness benefited us; in 2002 the shoe bomber was unable to blow up the plane because of the quick thinking of those around him.

It also benefited us on Christmas Day, 2009, when a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit landed safely despite the efforts of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He boarded the plane with the intent to destroy the plane and kill everyone on it. He had, hidden in his underwear, a chemical called PETN; it’s related to TNT and he intended to detonate it by lighting it on fire. It’s a compound that’s easy to get past security but hard to detonate. Passengers around him noticed that he was attempting to light something and stopped him. There’s been no end to the gnashing of teeth about how he was allowed to get this far, and the Obama administration conceded that their security failed.

I disagree. If we’ve learned anything from September 11th, it’s that the last line of defense are the seatmates of the suicide bomber. I agree that it’s scary to think that the bomber got that close to success, but the fact that the plane landed safely and nobody died indicates that the system worked.

Unfortunately this has led to the “we have to do something” syndrome and it’s started in spades. Camera crews in seeming every major city were dispatched to seemingly every airport to see what changes the airlines made and to ask random travelers if they felt safer. This was not the best way to cover the story and it certainly wasn’t the best way to figure out how to make air travel safer.

One suggested (kneejerk) change was that passengers not be allowed to have anything in their laps for the last hour of the flight. This came out of the fact that the bomber waited until the flight was nearly over before attempting the detonation. This appears foolish because a bomber who knows this will simply detonate the bomb before the last hour. This is my best example of a change that makes us feel better but doesn’t make us safer.

There is also a hue and cry to use body scans before passengers are allowed on planes. The only real concern I’ve heard is about privacy. That argument normally appeals to me, but I have different concerns about these scans. My primary concern is the radiation used; from what I can read they use T-Rays instead of X-Rays which are not as dangerous, but I’m not convinced. We already know of a link between overuse of X-Rays and cancer, and we know that there are lots of people who fly lots of miles. Do we know there is not a cumulative, bad outcome to being scanned? I hope I’m wrong.

The other problem is that while it will detect a weapon that is wedged between skin and clothing, it will not detect anything hidden in folds of skin (either body cavities or skin folds in overweight people). Simply put, it’s easy to circumvent.

Clearly we need to do a better job screening people before they get on a plane but that story does not report well. This most recent bomber paid cash for a one way ticket from Lagos, Nigeria to Amsterdam to Detroit. His father warned us that he might be trouble. We need to improve screening so someone like him doesn’t get on the plane to begin with.

The hysteria over this reached a crescendo on Sunday, January 3rd. A man at Newark (N.J.) Airport walked past the TSA screening and made it into a secure area without being screened. The terminal was essentially shut down and no flights were allowed to take off; flights that landed were left on the tarmac and not allowed to get to the gates. This went on for the better part of six hours. The man who breached security apparently left the airport 20 minutes later and has not been identified. We’re approaching the point where a trip to the airport (or connecting flights) needs to include the contingency of finding a place to stay if the airport gets shut down. That’s right: if you’re elderly, if you have health troubles, if you’re an unaccompanied minor, or you’re too poor to afford a hotel room near the airport, you may well spend the night sleeping on the floor with your suitcase as a pillow. I don’t want to travel like that.

We need to be honest about the steps that really will make air travel safer. We need to be better at screening people before they get on the plane. We need to be willing to say that my 78 year old father with an artificial hip is not the same security risk as someone from Yemen who pays cash for a one way ticket to the U.S. the day before the flight. And we need to continue to be as vigilant as the passengers on the flight to Detroit were on Christmas Day.

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