Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Safety In Our Skies

Michael Chertoff has an Op-Ed in today’s Washington Post about what he calls a much-needed program to stop the next airline plot, the collection of PNR date on passengers flying internationally to the United States. Sure, that is probably helpful, but since we are likely going to be dealing with autonomous cells in the future, we are simply still playing a game of chance with airline security.

None of these spying programs likely would have broken up the recent plot by home grown British terrorists, that was achieved by a tip from someone in the plotters' community. That is a dice game we don’t need to be playing in the future. I’m not saying this program isn’t helpful, but we clearly need to do more, and Chertoff and the DHS are woefully neglecting the additional things we need to do to provide the best airline security in the world.

True airline security involves interdiction at the point of attack, and that interdiction breaks down into four categories. Those are cabin security, cockpit security, cargo security, and external threat security. Let’s take a look at what can be done in each of those areas.

Cabin Security

First of all, no liquids, gels, etc. should be allowed past the security gate. That is going to have to stay with us for the duration of our lives, I’m afraid. Each passenger should only be allowed to carry one carry-on bag. When you reach the gate, everything on your person must go into that carry-on including keys, wallet, medicine, and any personal electronic devices. That bag will then be zip-locked by gate personel. Upon boarding, all carry-ons are to be locked into the overhead baggage compartment for the duration of the flight. If you should need any essential medicines or baby formulas during the flight, the attendent can retrieve it for you.

This will effectively end internal cabin threats on commercial airlines. Yes, it will make for a boring flight, but I’m sure the airlines that most quickly solve this problem will thrive in the new environment. It’s also true that it will make work on the plane impossible, but to paraphrase a golfer I heard one time when a cell phone rang on the course, “ If that guy is that damn important, he ought to be in the office.”

Cockpit Security

Cockpit security is about a lot more than securing the cabin door. Remember, roughly two years before 9/11 a pilot ditched Egypt Air flight 990 into the ocean. We’ll never know if this was an act of terrorism or simply a suicide, but the result was that 217 people lost their lives. I’d like to see routine pre-flight pilot screening and periodic backround checks. This would not only help prevent acts of terrorism by pilots, it would certainly end the practice of pilots showing up drunk or hung over to perform their duties.

Also, I would like to see the end of the practice of allowing pilots to carry guns into the cockpit. With a secure cockpit door, one pilot can simply kill the other and then fly the plane into any target he chooses as long as he doesn’t meet any external force to stop him along the way.

Cargo Security

We simply don’t do enough at the present time in scanning the cargo that is on almost every commercial flight in the United States. A good start would be for Congress to pass HR 4373, the Safe Skies Cargo Inspection Act. This would require that all cargo carried on commercial airliners be inspected by the TSA. The fact that we don’t do this already is tantamount to criminal negligence. It is the easiest way to put a bomb on a plane.

External Threat Security

The final major threat to US commercial airliners comes not from within the plane itself, but from a should fired missile (MANPAD). As I wrote back in March the cost to retrofit the entire fleet of US airliners with defense measures is an embarrassingly small $10 billion (Can’t remember where I heard that number), and that someone manages to bring down an airliner with one, the next bailout of the airlines would likely cost double that, plus we would have to equip the fleet anyway to return passenger confidence in air travel.

This is the next threat, and how has the government responded to it? Congress at least appropriated over $200 million for studies over the last three years, but President Bush effectively cut that funding by only asking for $4.9 million this year for the program. Funding needs to be renews to previous levels with an implementation goal of 2010.

That pretty much covers it, in a general overlay sense. I sincerely doubt you will see any of these ideas initiated any time soon. The republicans that currently control our government are too reactive, and not nearly proactive enough to solve problems that don’t yet have the blood of Americans already staining them.

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