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AskTog, October, 2001

The Airport Experience

   The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington made it clear that our current commercial airline security is inadequate. The question is how much further inconvenience must the flying public face before we are rid of the threat of further attack.

Like most interface issues, it would appear at first glance that the users of the system must necessarily accept significant inconvenience. Like most interface issues, a deeper analysis shows little, if any, inconvenience is really necessary.

The FAA, in their initial reaction to the attacks, put in place several measures that ensure maximum inconvenience with minimum effect. Since the September 11th attack, there have been at least four instances of people smuggling knives and guns successfully past security, in most cases, just to prove it could be done. Clearly, making people stand in line for hours while ill-trained inspectors paw through their bags is not the answer.

The answer is to change the technology to fit the new circumstances. Specifically, planes must be equiped with the kind of flight deck security passage to be found on El Al , the Israeli national airline. If you do manage to penetrate the outside door into the cockpit, you will never have the opportunity to penetrate the inside door, since you will be dead. The system, once armed, is automatic and highly effective.

Such doors, coupled with the powers already given to the military to shoot down planes on collision courses with populated buildings, will terminate this new threat without delaying anyone in security.

Should we improve security also? Yes, but it doesn't intrinsically mean people must be delayed. The airlines have been getting away with making people stand in long lines for years now, just so they can save a few bucks on employees. Now that the government seems likely to take over their security role, perhaps they might put on a few more check-in agents, so that passengers are delayed less when first arriving. That time savings can make up for time lost going through any extra security.

If a zero-increased-time approach is not followed in designing the new security system, people may find it more pleasant to just stay home. Air travel was already at the ragged edge of bearability before this latest threat arose.

Will hijackings continue to occur? Yes, along with crazed pilots that dive their planes into the ocean. However, let's look at it with some perspective. Hundreds of millions of people fly every year, yet only a few hundred people a year die on commercial aircraft. (Compare that with the 25,000 deaths in the highway just in the USA.) Even with the unnecessary deaths caused by crazies, being in an airplane is a remarkably safe place to be.

A steel door with a kill zone behind it will stop this latest escalation in its tracks. Even the occasion crazy who manages to sneak aboard a knife is going to be in real trouble. The pilot, from the safety of the cockpit, will simply ask everyone to put on their seatbelt. Then the pilot will do a little flying like back when he or she was in the Navy. A few barrel rolls and the crazy will be on the ceiling, begging for the handcuffs. Oh, yes, they do carry handcuffs. They have for some time. Just in case you've been considering a little air rage of your own.

Update: November 16, 2001. The airlines are apparently bent on commercial suicide. It took us 24 hours to travel from Tampa, Florida to San Jose, CA, due to increased, but ineffective, security measures. Atlanta had no one empowered to stop people from skirting security. Instead, they emptied 10,000 people from inside the terminal and started over.

SouthWest Airlines at LAX had lines up to three hours long to board flights that are less than one hour in duration. The line for security stretched all the way out of the terminal, the length of the terminal itself, across a 500 foot gap between terminals, and down a fair amount of the length of the next terminal down. The same checks were performed over and over again, in the mistaken belief that somehow this adds up to security. Passengers were being asked to produce their driver's licenses no fewer than five times. I was pulled aside for "an additional check" at the aircraft door. My suitcase had seven compartments. She looked at two of them. I could have had a howitzer in there and she wouldn't have found it.

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