Ask the pilot

Nobody needs to actually destroy a jetliner these days to ignite a debilitating plague of panic and foolishness. Case in point: America's airports in August 2006.

Published August 25, 2006 11:50AM (EDT)

Still groggy with our Sept. 11 hangover, and further dazed by events of the past two weeks, we often forget that the history of air crimes goes back nearly as far as the history of aviation itself. The first recorded hijacking -- of a tiny Ford Tri-Motor -- took place in Peru in 1931. The first hijacking of what we'd call a commercial airliner happened in 1948, involving a Cathay Pacific seaplane near Hong Kong. Air piracy was rife by the '60s, and the next three decades were punctuated by numerous deadly takeovers and horrific bombings. Not all air crimes are politically motivated -- the first successful sabotage of a commercial jet involved an insurance scam -- but obviously terrorists and airplanes have shared a long and violent relationship.

Some might wonder: Why the obsession with planes when so many other, less protected targets are available -- shopping malls, movie theaters, subways? There are two main reasons, beginning with the simple fact that airplanes go to where terrorists already are, and/or to places where it's easy for them to operate, the blueprint of Sept. 11 notwithstanding. Seizing or destroying aircraft overseas makes for a simpler job than having to infiltrate and coordinate on your enemy's home soil.

Psychological impact, though, is the bigger reason. Downing a jetliner, that foremost vehicle of international commerce, is a massively symbolic statement. Crashes are automatically high-profile events, even when they're accidents. Throw terrorism into the mix, and you've pushed it to a whole new level of drama. Part and parcel of this, targeting aviation exploits people's innate fears. Rile those fears enough, and you're able to influence entire economies and ways of living. Flying is one of those things we will always be skittish about, no matter how many statistics the experts cite, or how much knowledge we equip ourselves with. Try as we might, we'll never be fully comfortable soaring above the earth at hundreds of miles per hour in pressurized tubes. Start knocking those tubes from the sky, and the ripples can be widespread and profound.

Case in point, America's airports in August 2006. We seem to be losing our grip, sliding from a state of reasonable anxiety to one of mass hysteria. At this rate, we're making the task of the terrorist easier by the day; nobody needs to actually destroy a plane anymore to ignite a debilitating plague of panic and foolishness. Merely planning the act is liable to get the job done, encouraging an entire population to act like lunatics, surrender its dignity (and liberties), and squander away millions of dollars.

If you're one of the 21 bomb plot suspects still sitting in British prison right now, it's mission accomplished. No sooner were we told that a London-based conspiracy had come within days of blowing up several jetliners -- an allegation now subject to doubt -- when we were hit with a gantlet of preposterous security restrictions and a flurry of overreaction:

On Aug. 16, a United Airlines flight en route between London and Washington made an impromptu stop in Boston because a passenger threw an uncontrollable fit. Before being restrained with plastic handcuffs, the 59-year-old woman urinated on the cabin floor, which apparently was reason enough to summon a pair of F-15 fighters to intercept the 767. (She was not the first airline passenger to so relieve herself in an episode of what we used to call "air rage" -- a term that has become almost quaint in the current, overcharged atmosphere.) The aircraft was evacuated on the runway, and passengers were delayed several hours while canine units inspected hundreds of checked bags.

On Aug. 19, a Delta Air Lines jet made an emergency landing in San Antonio, Texas, because -- brace yourselves -- a passenger spent an unusual amount of time in the lavatory. According to flight attendants, the bathroom's ceiling panels had been moved and the smoke detector tampered with. The man, a resident of San Antonio, was detained and questioned -- including a physical search of his home -- before the FBI pronounced him "not suspicious at all." (The decrepit state of lavatories on most U.S. aircraft makes the crew's reaction even more overblown, but that's a topic for another time.)

More toilet trouble that same day, when an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Miami made an emergency stop in Tampa, Fla., after the cabin crew discovered two lavatories with locked doors -- and apparently nobody inside them. Police and TSA officials unlocked the doors and found the bathrooms ... empty.

Details are pending on the case of a Northwest DC-10 that on Wednesday returned to Amsterdam under cover of the Dutch air force. Elsewhere in Europe, a group of passengers were removed from a Monarch Airlines A320 preparing to fly from Málaga, Spain, to Manchester, England. On both, other passengers complained about "suspicious" behavior, though in the Monarch case it seems that the only suspicious thing was physical appearance.

These incidents might sound ridiculous, but they're just a sampling of literally hundreds of occurrences worldwide since Sept. 11:

Last December, an America West flight from Phoenix to Boston made an emergency landing because a note was found saying, "Taliban is here." Also that month, a Southwest 737 was evacuated after a passenger was overheard using the word "bomb."

In 2004, a United 747 bound for Los Angeles jettisoned thousands of gallons of fuel into the Pacific and returned to Australia because a discarded airsickness bag was discovered with the letters "BOB" scrawled across it. At its most nefarious, BOB is crew member jargon for "babe on board," but for reasons that defy explanation, the crew mistook the acronym for bomb on board, and went all the way back to Sydney.

In 2002, military fighters were scrambled when a group of karaoke singers were seen chatting excitedly and pointing at the Manhattan skyline from the window of an Air-India 747.

But of more than 2,300 military intercepts of civilian airliners in North American airspace during the past five years, most amusing was the time a pair of F-16s were launched because two British men had been acting suspiciously aboard an American Airlines flight headed to JFK from London's Heathrow Airport. The men were witnessed making repeated, tandem trips to the toilet. Turns out they weren't terrorists, but they were oversexed members of the mile-high club. They also confessed to smoking crack in the lavatory, and were deported back to Britain immediately after landing.

You can't make this stuff up. But while we ought to have our limits, alas the most recent incidents have been, if nothing else, predictable.

Equally predictable has been a measure of self-congratulation from assorted pundits and reactionary blabbermouths. The Philadelphia Daily News took the opportunity to publish a page-long opinion piece by conservative talk-show host Michael Smerconish on the virtues of ethnic profiling. London stands as proof that dark-skinned bogeymen are out to get us, and clearly the best way of thwarting them is to employ the one tactic that a majority of security experts believe is ineffective and doomed to failure.

Also reenergized of late is the old "dry run" conspiracy, which holds that packs of evildoers have, for the past few years, been riding around on U.S. jetliners, casing things out in preparation for a future attack. This theory has been with us for a while, jump-started by columnist Annie Jacobsen's eyewitness account from a Northwest Airlines 757 two summers ago. Word of the liquid bomb plot has nourished the contention.

"You argue there are many reasons why the theorized 'dry runs' make no sense," begins a letter sent to me last week. "I wonder if your view is changed at all by the events of these past days?"

The letter writer claims to have witnessed two separate instances -- one aboard Air Canada and the other on Continental -- in which "Middle Eastern" passengers acted strangely. Their alleged behavior, more or less identical in nature to other dry-run accounts, involved lots of surreptitious gesturing and "coordinated bathroom visits" with "objects in hand."

(I put quotes around "Middle Eastern" because, like the word "Arab," it's an adjective applied with distressing inaccuracy these days -- a rude shorthand used to describe an imaginary ethnic zone ranging from, roughly, Morocco to China.)

While I expected this topic to be reenergized, the dry-run idea makes no more sense today than it did before. While various people are eager to assert the dry runners are out there -- moving freely despite the most powerful antiterror blitz in American history -- none of them can offer a cogent explanation as to what, specifically, they might be up to. Toilet visits, secret gestures, "objects in hand" ... for what? (Other than the obvious: to have sex and smoke crack.)

Best I can extrapolate is that teams of criminals intend to smuggle aboard bomb components, then assemble and hide them in lavatories. But why on earth would they need or desire to spend three years rehearsing this, tempting capture at every turn? When Ramzi Yousef pulled off a rehearsal for the Bojinka bombings in 1994, did he get onto the plane with a bunch of cohorts and risk exposure? No, and why would he have?

Moreover, the dry-run proponents say that law enforcement and government agencies have long been aware of these terror teams, but have denied their existence for one of two presumable reasons: 1) Because of a massive, ongoing investigation, or 2) because although they have no idea who these people are, they don't want to frighten the more than 2 million Americans who fly daily. The second reason is laughable on the face of it, and the first one isn't much better.

The e-mailer says that on his Continental flight, a crew member assured him that federal air marshals were monitoring the oddly behaved passengers. Putting aside that crews are under strict orders never to tell a passenger if marshals are present, let me get this straight: Although authorities are aware that groups of would-be terrorists are out there racking up thousands of frequent-flier miles, either they don't bother detaining them, or they do detain them, but repeatedly let them go. And although these terror teams know that we know, they keep doing it.

Thinking about that American jet with its mysteriously locked lavs, it's easy to crack a joke and suggest that a pair of terrorist operatives had pried open a floor hatch and crawled into the bowels of the plane, where at this moment they are hiding out, snacking on pretzels as they await orders to strike. Unfortunately, there are too many people who might actually believe this.

And although there's very little about the London story itself to make the dry-run contention more plausible, it has gained considerable traction. It's bad form, maybe, for a writer to paraphrase himself, but in August 2004, I predicted that by the time the next batch of genuine terrorists struck, whether by airplane, by truck bomb, by submarine or on horseback, this insidious conspiracy theory would retain just enough vaguely rendered credibility to shout, "I told you so." We are hearing that now. Details don't matter, and it's your patriotic duty as an American not to allow logic, facts or clear thinking to dampen the perverse psychodrama of our "war on terror."

Meanwhile, the ultimate and destructive irony is that we've responded to news of the infiltrated terror plot not with increased confidence -- confidence in knowing that most would-be bombers are unskilled fanatics whose plans are prone to failure, and confidence in our abilities to outwit such people -- but with yet more fright and self-defeat.

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Re: The airlines we love to hate

Regarding the comments of SkyTrax's Peter Miller, I've heard this tired old Wall Street Journal attitude too many times. Things aren't as simple as the conservative pundits preach. He is right that overseas-based flight attendants (for American carriers) work their butts off, but that's because they are, in almost every way, slaves to the airline, with no protection from being booted off the payroll. Employee dedication? From what I've seen in the airline industry, dedication is what management exploits. As to your reader who touts Starbucks, there's a company that charges $4 for a $1 cup of coffee; if the airlines inflated their product at that level, service might look pretty good -- especially to those who already feel entitled to expect it for peanut fares.

-- Capt. Tom Bunn (Pam Am/United, retired)

Re: Seat beat

The most comfortable seat I ever had was the driver's seat of an old Peugeot 504 that I owned years ago. I could sit for hours with no sore back or neck. The seating in planes was designed by cretins; it is entirely devoid of anthropometric or ergonomic functionality. You're sitting in a multimillion-dollar aircraft, and the seating is from the Stone Age. I carry a pack of cushions when I travel: a contoured lumbar cushion and a small seat cushion. Aircraft seating designers assume that all humans have a bum that becomes a sharp right angle when they sit down. No forward thigh support, no lower back support, and no room for your bloody bum!

-- Barrie Collins, Katoomba, Australia

Author's note: Sorry about your bum, Barrie. We feel your pain all too literally. You're right, the problem with airline seats is mostly about shape, not width or legroom. Rumor has it that Virgin Atlantic will soon unveil an ergonomically correct seat for its economy sections.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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