Making Air Travel Safer

Making Airline Travel Safer

© David Burton 2010

Safer Airline Travel

     President Obama's eventual response to the foiled 2009 Christmas day airliner bombing is a much needed step in the right direction. First, he has acknowledged that we and the rest of the civilized world are engaged in a no-holds-barred war with Islamic extremists. Second, he has taken off the government’s blinders and declared that the U.S. counterterrorism system has been ineffective because of a failure of the various governmental agencies to a) work and communicate with each other and b) to recognize and act upon obvious clues leading to a possible attack.

     While President Obama eventually began to get it right, the first responses to the attempted Christmas day airliner bombing were certainly less than encouraging and were characteristic of the United States' lackadaisical attitude toward air travel safety. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's initial statement that the "system worked" in reply to questions about the attempted Christmas day airliner bombing elicited nothing but ridicule from the public.

     The threat to airline travel has existed for over 50 years. Some of us remember the hijacking of airliners to Cuba after Cuba’s takeover by Fidel Castro. Later, we saw airliners hijacked by Arab militants and then the murder of airline passengers by Arab terrorists.

     More recently, the attacks on airlines have graduated to bombings such as was the case with the 1988 Lockerbie destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 and then to the use of airliners as weapons as was the case in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Most recently, we have the failed airliner bombing attempts by “shoe bomber” Richard Reid in 2001 and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day “underwear bomber” in 2009.

     Airline security assumed much greater importance and visibility following the 9/11 attacks. Was the response to the 9/11 attacks adequate? In light of events since then, the answer is obviously a resounding NO. As Shlomo Dror, an Israeli security expert said in 2002: “The United States does not have a security system; it has a system for bothering people.” (Ref. 1) I can readily attest to his assessment. I am a very senior, native born, non-Muslim, American citizen who held Top Secret security clearances for most of my years working in the defense industry. Still, each time I fly, I have to remove my shoes and belt, and then receive a full body pat-down and a total body wanding because I now have a titanium left knee, following a total knee replacement. Indeed, this is not security, it is a blind, stupid way of bothering the air traveler. These actions do not improve air travel security and probably reduce airport security effectiveness because it wastes the time of airport security personnel and only results in mind-numbing boredom for the security personnel involved. They aren’t really looking for terrorists – they are only doing a boring, repetitive job.

     Since 2001, American air travel security has relied primarily on technology and an increase in the number of air marshals. Rafi Ron, the former head of Security at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, said that “the United States still relies too much on technology to prevent attacks” He also said that “there needs to be more personal screening of passengers, specifically at the point where a TSA {Transportation Safety Agency} officer compares their boarding pass and identification. Anyone deemed suspicious should receive an extended interview and more weapons screening.” Heavy reliance on technology is doomed to failure because “there are so many ways to use the loopholes left by technology.” (Ref. 2)

     "Over the past week or so, much ink has been spilled over the pros and cons of airport security techniques as diverse as body scanners (child porn?), passenger profiling (racist or just plain smart?) and the prohibition on bathroom breaks during the last hours of the flight (cruel and unusual punishment?). Surprisingly, what people aren't talking so much about are the methods employed by the country that pioneered and perfected aviation security - Israel." (Ref. 3)

     "Here's how {the Israeli airport security system} works: From the moment you drive into the parking lot of the {Ben Gurion} airport from one of two entrances, armed guards are there to monitor your car and ask you two questions: How are you and why are you here? Once inside, more questions follow as you wait in line to check in, accompanied by hand inspections of your bags when security personnel deem that wise. Finally, there's a layer of scanners and metal detectors. At all stages of the process, the Israelis employ profiling, but it's not profiling based on race, but on behavior. They are looking for things like body language and profuse sweating and other signs of unease. Crucially -- and in contrast to the United States -- your bag remains with you until your security check is complete, and you go to the security check before you obtain your ticket, not after." (Ref. 3)

     "What really distinguishes the Israeli security measures, however, is the extensive use of questioning. It's not just the casual "Have your bags been with you since you packed them?" sort of thing. It is, instead, detailed and probing and -- significantly -- once the security official starts asking you questions, she/he will never once take his/her eyes off of yours. This can, of course, be disconcerting." (Ref. 3)

     "There are several reasons to think that moving towards the Israeli model would be superior to the sorts of measures that the U.S. and the U.K. have begun to implement in recent weeks. For starters, . . ., profiling people by country is not a sure-fire way to screen all would-be terrorists." (Ref. 3) After all, Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber is an American citizen while Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day airliner bomber is a citizen of Nigeria, not a country that would necessarily be identified as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism.

     "There are, to be sure, a number of costs to so-called Israelification. The difference in scale between the size of Israel and the U.S., for example, is enormous. By American standards, in terms of passengers served, Ben Gurion is like a busy regional airport on the order of Sacramento. So implementing Israeli-style security measures nationwide would be quite a feat." (Ref. 3)

     "For one thing, retraining employees at the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Agency along the lines of the Israeli model . . . would be both labor-intensive and expensive." (Ref. 3)

     The failed bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab "revealed that our multibillion dollar airport security system doesn't work. It doesn't work because it was conceptualized as a search for weapons - or anything that might be used as a weapon." (Ref. 4) If we really want to get serious about airport security, we should certainly consider how to implement some form of the Israeli airport security system. "The Israelis' priority is to find the terrorists rather than the weapons." (Ref. 4)

     Increasing the number of air marshals, as President Obama recently announced, certainly has the potential for reducing 9/11 types of airliner attacks. The presence of air marshals, the scanning and inspecting for weapons prior to passengers boarding, and the willingness of airline passengers to fight back against attempted airliner takeovers makes terrorist attempts to hijack flights much more difficult. It may be noted that since the response to the 9/11 attacks by governments, airlines and passengers, terrorists have not attempted another 9/11 style airliner hijacking. Instead, the Islamic terrorists have attempted to have suicide bombers blow up airliners and their passengers. Air marshals provide essentially no deterrence to this type of attack. It has only been by good luck, passenger intervention and the incompetence of the would-be bombers and their trainers/bomb-suppliers that disaster has been avoided.

     Is improved technology the answer? Will full body scanners detect bomb-making materials hidden in the shoes or in the underwear or suicide bombers? I don’t know the answer to that question and the security community is not saying - and rightly so. Air marshals and full-body scanners both tend to be attempted solutions to previously tried methods of attack. In other words, they are reactive solutions. What about methods of attack that have not been previously tried? What defenses should be developed to combat terrorist methods that have yet to be attempted? For example, what is being done to avoid a suicide bomber who secretes bomb-making material in a body cavity and then retires to a lavatory to retrieve the material and then assemble and detonate the bomb? Are pre-boarding body cavity searches the answer? Not likely.

     “No single technology can keep terrorists from boarding airplanes with bomb materials. That’s why full-body scanners are not cure-alls for security breaches. It’s wise to expand the use of scanners, but only as part of a broader strategy to make flying safer.” (Ref. 5)

     “It’s debatable whether {full-body scanners} would have detected the bomb materials hidden in the underwear of the man who tried to bomb Northwest Flight 253” on Christmas day 2009. “Furthermore, the scanners cannot detect materials that would-be suicide bombers ingest or insert into their body cavities.” (Ref. 5)

     President Obama has already taken steps to improve air travel safety. These are good first steps, but they are only belated first steps. Perhaps first and foremost, we need to staff the agencies responsible for air travel safety with security professionals and not with persons appointed for their political support of the administration. One can justifiably ask what were the qualifications and credentials that Janet Napolitano possessed prior to her appointment as Homeland Security Secretary, other than being an early supporter of Barack Obama during his run for president. “Get these political appointees out of sensitive positions they know little or nothing about. We have had eight years {since 9/11} to get smart, yet we look like incompetents to the rest of the world. Get these nincompoops out of these positions.” (Ref. 6)

     Another step in the right direction - President Obama finally acknowledged that we are engaged in a war against global Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. What should have been the next step, the President failed to take. Abdulmutallab should have been treated as an enemy combatant in this war and immediately turned over to the military for interrogation. Instead he was treated as a common American criminal – he was read his rights and provided with a lawyer, who promptly told him to stop talking with authorities. The opportunity to obtain potentially critical intelligence on the organizers of the bombing plot was thereby lost. “Imagine during World War II, having to read all German or Japanese prisoners their rights.” (Ref. 7)

     It is also essential that persons who were/are responsible for airline safety and who have failed to aggressively and effectively perform their duties should be replaced with personnel that will perform their jobs in a more effective manner. Indeed, in response to the government’s failures in the 2009 Christmas day airline bombing attempt, members of the U.S. Senate have said that there is a need to “punish officials, correct security lapses and limit opportunities to join jihad overseas.” Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) “pointed to breakdowns at the State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center, where he said people failed to act to identify as a threat the suspected {Christmas day underwear bomber}.” (Ref. 8)

     Is better cooperation between security organizations the answer? It will certainly increase the odds of defeating the terrorists. Can air travel be made safe? – Not likely! Can air travel be made safer? – Definitely YES! “Airport security must be unpredictable enough that terrorists can’t adapt to it, and comprehensive enough that it can’t easily be breached. And no security measure can be better than the people carrying it out.” “Aviation security strategy must reduce the potential for human error, while drawing on human intuition to detect threats. This requires better training and oversight of security officials, not just to consistently identify what shows up in scanners, but to notice people who sidestep security and to identify behaviors that suggest a terrorist motive.” This is what has made the Israeli air travel security system so effective for the past several decades. “Terrorist networks strive to be more nimble and adaptive than the government bureaucracies that aim to outsmart them. Upholding one technology as a panacea will not make flying safer. Ongoing adaptation of intelligence, interrogation, and technology will.” [emphasis mine] Winston Churchill was reported to have said: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is {to} have changed often.” (Ref. 5)


  1. Even pre-9/11, skies unfriendly, Jonah Goldberg, Boston Herald, Pg. 19, 7 January 2010.
  2. Consultant: Shoe bomber lesson not learned in U.S., Glen Johnson, Associated Press, Boston Herald, Page 5, 7 January 2010.
  3. Airport Security: Is Israel the Answer?, Delia Lloyd, POLITICS DAILY;, 8 January 2010.
  4. Air insecurity understatement, Clifford D. May, Boston Herald, Page 15, 16 January 2010.
  5. Full-body scanners are a help, but no panacea, Editorial, Boston Sunday Globe, Page C8, 10 January 2010.
  6. Random Thoughts, Ronnie Ford, The Valley Patriot, Page 25, January - 2010.
  7. Don’t Count on a Community Organizer for Homeland Security, Editorial, The Valley Patriot, Page 2, January - 2010.
  8. Senators call for action after plane attack, Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press, Boston Herald, Page 9, 11 January 2010.

  19 January 2010 {Article 71; Whatever_16}    
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