“No-Fly” Zone

In my retrospective article on the last decade (The “Aught” Knot), I indicated in an aside that the various government security precautions being imposed on all air travellers will not work. I will now try to explain why.

Beginning with the September 11, 2001 terror attack on the United States by Islamic-inspired terrorists, there have been three incidents (about which we have been extensively informed) in which the various governments’ costly and expanding security apparatus has failed to screen out a viable threat. The  horror of September 11, 2001, orchestrated by men armed only with simple weapons, was of course the first, the others involve Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber”. Thanks only to the incompetence of the last two perpetrators and their unknown handlers, as well as some courageous efforts by flight crew and other passengers, further destruction and loss of life was averted.

I will not fly again, particularly on flights bound for the US, because they are unreliably protected by the ineffectiveness of established and newly expanded security precautions. If the objective of the related procedures, including the recent wide-scale multi-million dollar introduction of so-called “full-body scanners” is to make air travel safe from terrorist-style attacks, then they will not work.

In a massive understatement, the threat of terrorist attacks on aircraft is a problem. Defining a problem in certain terms is the very first step in seeking a solution to address it. If you don’t fully understand the problem (or evade its identification) your efforts to address it are likely to be ineffective. Given the experience of the last decade it is pretty clear that the main security threats to airlines and their passengers are primarily Islamic-inspired “jihadists” of Mid-East extraction. Passengers on aircraft, generally speaking, are a component of the terrorists’ targets. Therefore, if 100 percent of the effort in detecting terrorists is directed at screening passengers, it follows that this effort is misdirected and largely a waste, an extremely expensive one at that.

Reasonable solutions to the problem presented by the terrorist threat would of course be psychological and other “profiling” techniques such as those employed by professional security experts. If most terrorists who have attacked and continue to attempt attacks are of a certain physical description and come from certain “high-risk” countries and are professed Islamists or jihadists it is only logical to politely but professionally turn the bulk of one’s security attention toward them.

Enter collectivist politics. In consideration of all innocent individuals who may fit the profile of a potential terrorist, government-sponsored security apparatus opts for random checking instead of profiling. Not wanting to offend anyone, the government bureaucrats choose instead to offend or at least grossly inconvenience everyone equally. This is stupid of course, but more importantly it will not work because it removes all potential for the excellent performance of the task, largely because the real objective is not properly identified or understood. With few exceptions, workers such as those in the US Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) function as bureaucrats, following rules that may make no sense in particular circumstances. Yet, they may have the discretionary power over you as a traveller to change your status as a frequent flyer to that of a Greyhound passenger for the rest of your life by placing you on the “no-fly” list if you happen to negatively impress them with your attitude.

The government targets the passengers. Entering or travelling in the US today exposes you to signs of a modern police-state. Everyone is presumed guilty of something and potentially capable of blowing up an aircraft: old ladies in wheelchairs, adolescents wearing metal-studded jackets or body-piercing jewellery, people with metal pins surgically implanted and anyone who shares the name of one of the thousands on the “no fly” list—even bawling babies in carriages, too young to understand the abuse of privacy.

Now we must endure the assault of the full-body scanners which are designed to reveal all, thereby making much of the physically invasive screening unnecessary. The “underwear bomber” on Christmas Day 2009 represented a sort of tipping point to dampen the controversy over the privacy issue related to the use of these devices. Privacy, the guardian of political liberty, is a principle already broken every day in the most bizarre and embarrassing fashions at airports everywhere.

A recent Canadian Press poll shows that about three-quarters of those polled are of the view that security will be improved by use of the scanners and that a little anonymous peep-show is a small price to pay. Naturally, some controversy continues over the possible negative effects of some of the machines which rely on x-ray rather than millimetre wave technology. In fact, one writer advises that those concerned about virtual nakedness or unhealthy rays should choose the optional “pat down” by one of the security personnel. Let’s see, have your stripped-bare image displayed before Scylla or be groped thoroughly by Charbydis—nothing much to recommend either. Another makes a point that scanned passengers should not be overly concerned about the revealing aspects of the images since the “operator” will be out of sight of the subject and will not know who he is looking at on the screen. After a while, he conjectured, any titillating aspects of the process will become routine and so dull that no one could envy being in the observation chamber for more than a short shift. Well, okay, but that is just the sort of adaptation to the job I was hoping not to find in someone charged with something as important as security at airports, guarding against terrorist attacks.

How does one deal with the problem of motivating security personnel to professional conduct? You introduce the profit motive. There is only one way to do that in this context and it involves firing the entire government security service and making the airlines responsible for their own security. They have something at stake if a terrorist attack succeeds in bringing down one or more of their multi-million dollar aircraft. Not only would an airline have a massive and costly insurance claim for the lost hardware but would lose passengers beyond the numbers killed in any attack. Any airline that has not taken due care to provide secure travel would lose business going forward and might well go out of business if it failed to earn the trust of travellers again. The combination of profit motive and travellers’ choice of airline would provide all the incentive needed to ensure safe travel and courteous treatment to the flying public. Other regulatory restrictions put in place by the perhaps well-meaning but misguided bureaucrats should be removed too. They include restoring the right of airlines to refuse service to anyone and removal of any restrictions on profiling. Security personnel and flight crews should be able to be armed and indeed even passengers carrying properly licensed firearms should be permitted to carry them on board, if the airline management chooses to allow it. Professional security agencies hired by airlines would need to be respectful of customers to avoid complaints and customer attrition. Complaints from any identified and confirmed terrorists could presumably be somewhat discounted.

Finally, my advocacy of absolutely no government-sponsored bailouts to private enterprise obviously applies to airlines as well. Any airline that cannot remain financially viable should not be in business. The foregoing is the logical way to provide the conditions for safe, efficient travel by air.

There is no denying the evidence of government security failures, with the September 11, 2001 attacks the most dramatic and devastating of them. There were also no consequences suffered for those involved in the failure to detect the hazard, unlike the situation for a profit-seeking airline that would have to provide for its own security. Instead, legions of bureaucratic workers were added in the form of the TSA, for example.

In addition, the heavily regulated airlines were shut down for several days and compensated by the government for their losses of business and equipment. That would be a debatable action given that government failure caused the losses, but it should be increasingly clear that the airlines have become bureaucratized themselves rather than profit-driven. They generally lose money and no one who has travelled with any regularity over the last 40 years can honestly believe that service has improved or that they enjoy value for each dollar spent on air travel.

Anecdotally, I was at one time accustomed to looking forward to air travel, but no longer. Ironically, the bus travel I once chose for purely economic reasons, and which was for me a less desirable mode of commercial travel has changed significantly. Improved service in many markets is now offered with luxury cruisers equipped with internet and other personal communication and entertainment devices. By contrast, getting on an airplane today is more like getting on a bus in years past, except that now you risk being virtually or literally violated by the government rather than another passenger.

©Copyright 2010 Edward Podritske

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