More on air travel security

Let’s calm down for a moment and in Mark’s spirit, think about what’s really going on here.  In 2008, there were about 800  million commercial (scheduled carrier) airplane trips from, in, and to the US, on about 11 million flights.  In the decade since 2000 (traffic has been up and down, of course), let’s say 100 million flights.  Of these, three were successfully used as terror weapons against non-passengers, a fourth was crashed, and six crashed in accidents with no or few survivors. If we just use the crude averages as a guide to probability, when you get on a plane, you are drawing one pea from a bucket of peas that contains four black ones (you die from terrorism) and six red ones (you die from something TSA has nothing to do with).

How big is this bucket? I did a little experimental research with the extra blackeyed peas I didn’t cook up for New Years: it’s 800 6400 gallons [thanks, Cardinal Fang – in comments], which is about six feet across and four feet tall. Full of peas, with ten killers among them, four terrorist. Is there anything that could make it worth reaching diving into this bucket, groping around, and picking one pea? Attitudes to risk vary, but I don’t consider myself especially courageous and I would do it for almost anything nice. I would do it for twenty  bucks. I certainly did it repeatedly in order to get from A to B when there were only the six accident peas, without even thinking about it; I rode a motorcycle for years, for Pete’s sake (admittedly, in a very cowardly style). Four more death peas in that bucket hardly move the needle from where it was for “flying in general”.

But the four deadly 9/11/01 events used a strategy of taking control of airplanes whose cockpits were not secured, with knives initially deployed against the cabin crew. Since 2001, there have been no attempts to take over airplanes; it’s pretty clear that even if you get a weapon on board today, you might spill a lot of blood in the cabin but you are not going to fly the plane into a building, or even crash it.  I think we can take the four black peas out of the bucket and replace them with two grey ones, representing those failed attempts to blow up the plane with non-metallic explosives (another was interdicted on the ground, before the plane even took off).

Inference: we should not be getting all bent out of shape about this very occasional occurrence. Language like “completely unacceptable” is just nonsense and very bad leadership: less is better than more, but as Mark explains, before we start acting as though all of human behavior should be dedicated to the purpose of “no chemical bombing attempts on airplanes, at all, not one single one, ever”,  we need to do two things.  The first is to treat the costs of different ways of further reducing the already minuscule, microscopic odds seriously, and not letting passengers read a book on their laps for the last hour of a flight is not a trivial cost (not to mention that it has absolutely nothing to do with real security: Abdulmutallab was too stupid to work his bomb at leisure in the toilet, but the next bomber probably won’t be). The three-little-bottles-in-a-plastic-bag rule is a non-trivial cost as well, in addition to being just dumb (no-one checks to see what liquids are in the bottles); two of them half full are plenty to blow out the side of an airplane. A lot of airplane security is about being seen to be worried about something passengers might or not be afraid of, not about making flying safe; it’s mendacious and damages the credibility of government, not to mention insulting our intelligence and wasting our time.

The second, much more specific, is to recall that one of the four 9/11 attacks was constrained to the airplane itself by passenger action, and both the bomb attacks were aborted by passengers, and to act on this lesson. Let’s go back to the knives for a minute: would you rather be on a plane where the only person with a knife (or a bomb) is the terrorist who got it through screening, and the air marshal with a heater is a twenty rows back or not on this flight…or on a plane where you and lots of other passengers have Swiss Army knives in their pockets?  Would you think you could hijack a plane more easily by smuggling that knife or bomb kit on (or even a gun) if most of the passengers were equipped, or if most had been graciously disarmed by TSA?  If we know the “no weapons” rule would exclude all weapons, it might make sense, but we know it doesn’t, and therefore enables the bad guy. Actually, I would feel much better overall if adult passengers were charged a few bucks extra if they were careless enough to fly without a pocket knife (guns are another story because using one in an airplane is so hazardous to the aircraft itself, and they are a lot easier to screen for).

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

28 thoughts on “More on air travel security”

  1. Kudos for a sound and useful analysis. To elaborate one key point, the 9/11 hijackers shrewdly and successfully exploited the experience that prior to that time hijackers were not suicidal, and once they had control, cooperation was the crew's and passengers' best path to survival. It worked on three flight essentially simultaneously, failed on the fourth plane when its passengers heard about the first three, and stands little chance of ever working again. There may well be other ways that a passenger can bring down a plane. The question is how much police state treatment will or should endure in hopes of reducing the number of black peas in that huge vat from four to three or two.

  2. The failure of Captain Underpants notwithstanding, my guess is that more of this would happen absent the security theater which we all endure. We all read news sites, any attempts are headline news around the world, and loom a lot larger than their numbers justify.

    We really don't know how much more would happen absent TSA checking shoes – how many lonely guys are out there who can be seduced by friendship for a few months and the promise of a swell hereafter? I have read that detonators are difficult, and distinctive on x-ray, thus more of a problem than the explosives themselves, which have failed for both Richard Reid and Captain U. It's hard to see a way out, though, Obama's majority is looking very tenuous at this point and he can't afford to look less than heedful, Bush felt similarly vulnerable to public opinion that he was not doing enough throughout his administration. Who in future will be able to step back?

  3. Now imagine your a flight attendant having to deal with a drunk and unruly passenger. Now imagine that drunk and unruly passenger is carrying a knife. The number of drunk passengers far outweigh the number of terrorist attacks.

  4. Now imagine that, for decades, you COULD carry pocket knives on planes. And that we know it wasn't causing any particular problems.

  5. There are 125000 peas in a gallon? Really? That sounds too high by a factor of ten. If my calculations are right, that would mean about 500 peas to a tablespoon.

  6. The thing is, of course, that you don't have to imagine what I described, it's simple history. People carried pocket knives, and even firearms, onto airliners, for most of aviation history. The degree of ignorance of recent history inherent in some of these, "We couldn't do X, it would cause a disaster!" arguments is appalling.

  7. We live in different times today from when there was no airport security. The on-the-ground numbers on guns suggest that allowing free access to guns on an airplane is likely to be, on balance, significantly negative.

    I personally am convinced that a knife will never prove useful again in taking over an airplane but I also think it's unlikely that a passenger with a pocket knife would make much difference in subduing a terrorist. What the passengers will always have on the terrorist(s) is numbers.

  8. Dave Schultz,

    You are right about the detonators. Industry has worked closely with government to ensure that detonators cannot be smuggled past security. Indeed, it was industry that told government that they should focus on the detonators as the key to stopping explosive attacks. The government wanted a different focus.

    (I am an engineer who was in the explosives manufacturing biz at the time changes were made after the Lockerbie bombing. This definitely shows that there is such a thing as "good lobbying.")

  9. Also, most people know that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, but his really important invention was the first safe and reliable detonator. A failed detonation is a very bad thing, and these were common in the nineteenth century during the early days of high explosives.

  10. It is a myth that firing a bullet through the window from the inside of a pressurized cabin of a plane will cause it to crash. Chances are the pilot will be able to land with minimal loss of life.

    Check out this Aloha Airlines Boeing 747 which suffered explosive decompression of the passenger cabin through metal fatigue – the plane landed with only a single loss of life, a stewart who was unlucky enough not to be strapped it.

    The Underpants Bomber would probably NOT have caused the loss of all the lives on the Delta flight – the likelihood is that the people adjacent would have died, but most passengers would have survived. The explosive may not have even punctured the cabin walls – leaving a cabin fire as the major risk. It illusrates Al Qaeda almost insuperable problems when it comes to sabotaging another flight. It would be very, very difficult to smuggle enought explosive into the cabin to cause the plane to crash.

  11. Security designed to prevent hijacking or destroying the plane should not be confused with trying to prevent on-board simple assault, including the passenger-on-flight-attendant variety. There are innumerable ways to take on board an effective shiv that cannot plausibly be prevented — a large and sturdy pen, for one, would do all too nicely. Not to mention fists, or any kind of cord for choking. Fortunately such attacks are a fairly rare and manageable problem. The point is that if we task the TSA with the fool's errand of making them impossible, then whatever slim hope we have of keeping airline travel a tolerable experience is gone.

  12. Brett Bellmore- One good thing about knives is that they can't discharge accidentally.

    But I agree about the drunk with any weapon. If you've ever been on a plane with a really out of control drunk… It is quite unsettling enough stuck in a seat while someone at the other end of the plane rages incoherantly while the poor attendants try to calm them.

  13. I'll side with Brett on the knife issue. In the pre-hijacking period, people carried knives on planes, *and* drinks were often free. But I don't remember that there were a lot of stabbed cabin crew.

  14. They used to carry guns, too, in the same time frame. Barring passengers from carrying guns onto airliners is relatively recent, baring them from the cockpit even more so. In fact, the FAA only banned pilots from being armed 2 months before 9-11. How's that for perfect timing?

  15. Toby, if Reid or Abdulmutallab had successfully exploded their PETN in the cabin, what part of an airplane's design would have made that less effective than the baggage-compartment explosion in the Lockerbie attack?

  16. But in a change of institutional heart, the FAA rescinded its firearms ban on pilots at the last minute. And so it was that on the morning of September 11, 2001, the captain of United Airlines Flight 93 had his trusty .38 with him.

    Unfortunately, the captain was just as surprised as his crew when Ziad Jarrah and his henchmen stormed the cockpit. After dispatching the captain and crew, Jarrah requisitioned the captain's pistol, which later turned out to be quite useful in quashing a revolt by some of the passengers…

  17. Hi, Suzii,

    The quantity of explosive you could conceal in shoes or underwear is far less than the amount you could smuggle in a sizable piece of luggage.

    I am just pointing out that it is not at all definite that Abdulmutallab would have caused the plane to crash and taken 300 lives, if he had ignited the PETN. The Aloha Airlines example is only the most spectacular of many cases when planes have survived violent depressurization of the cabin. Do we even know if he had enough PETN to puncture the cabin?

    As part of Abdulmutallab's trial, I hope we see an assessment by an explosives expert on the chances of him causing the plane to crash. Experimental evidence would be excellent. Of course, the intent was there, but it all points to a certain amateurishness about the whole operation. Certainly, the picures we all saw on TV of a plane being cut in half by an explosion was from a case where the explosive was planted on the ground – that was not "evidence".


  18. That's an amusing fantasy, Michael. By your reasoning, if we can call it that, perhaps we should arrange to provide suspected terrorists with firearms, before they board planes. Thereby making the flight safer by enabling their fellow passengers to turn their own guns on them?

  19. I like the part about the hijackers using the pilot's gun in "quashing a revolt" by the passengers. I wonder how they celebrated that victory.

  20. Until some enterprising airline lays on a "convention special" charter for Al Qaeda, numbers will always be on the side of the non-violent air passengers; the problem is,of course, that most of these, armed or not, will have long been exposed to the conventional wisdom of it being better to go along with a thug when threatened. The result? A horror of using force… even when injury or death are likely if nothing is done. Perhaps the terrorists' real secret weapon is that their victims are (for the most part…remember the abusive cabin drunks) civil–while the terrorists are not.

  21. Yup, that conventional wisdom was the strongest weapon in the terrorists' arsenal, and it being broken by 9-11 probably does more to explain the lack of repeats than anything the TSA has done. You'd almost think the government was trying to reestablish it, though, they're so determined to keep the passengers defenseless.

  22. I would have followed your reasoning, but as mom always said, "If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?"

Comments are closed.