Terminal frustration

Is air travel safer since 9/11? Yes, there have been some effective changes. But most of the so-called security measures have been irrational, wasteful and pointless. When will we learn?

Published September 6, 2006 12:15PM (EDT)

Of all the aspects of American life touched by Sept. 11, 2001, perhaps none has been more obviously and tangibly affected than the experience of travel by air. This is hardly surprising for two reasons. First, commercial aviation has always been a fast-acting barometer of the nation's moods. Few businesses are more cyclical, with peaks and valleys that tend to mirror whatever spell of growth or malaise we happen to be going through. And second, the attacks themselves were exacted with the direct and unwitting assistance of the airlines, instantly propelling them into chaos.

Half a decade later, air travel in the United States is a manic paradox: Never before has flying been so inexpensive and accessible, yet we have an airline industry still in the throes of its worst-ever stretch of fiscal devastation. At the same time, fears of additional attacks have spawned a security apparatus of maddening inconvenience.

Within the theater of security -- and I use the word "theater" intentionally -- has come the first and most noticeable paradigm shift, one that has left all of us reeling. The industry's sagging economics wield considerable influence over just how unpleasant flying has grown. However, for all of the airlines' struggles and well-earned demerits, a journey by air does not begin and end inside an airplane, it begins and ends inside the terminal. And much of what happens there is beyond any carrier's control, directed instead by government agencies -- mainly, in this case, the Transportation Security Administration. Ask a traveler what the gravest inconvenience of flying is, and he or she is liable to answer without pause: airport security. This was true enough prior to the recent revelation that a group of suspected terrorists in Britain had been on the verge of launching synchronized attacks against U.S. jetliners over the Atlantic.

The specific changes have been drastic, and largely of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational, wasteful and pointless. The first variety have taken place almost entirely out of view. Armored cockpits and explosives screening for checked luggage have been the most welcome and, frankly, the longest overdue implementations. The latter remains something of a work in progress, with a goal toward comprehensive scanning of all checked bags, as was introduced in Europe on the heels of terrorist bombings in the late 1980s. Until that time, partial scanning is better than none, and we are safer for the effort.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for the madness going on in plain view on concourses all over America. After enduring pointless pat-downs and the senseless confiscation of pointy objects for more than four years, passengers now face the prohibition of liquids, gels and even cosmetics.

To understand what makes these measures so absurd, we first need to revisit the morning of Sept. 11 and grasp exactly what it was the 19 hijackers so easily took advantage of. For regular readers of my column this will make your ears ring, but for the benefit of newcomers, here's a review.

Conventional wisdom says the terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard box cutters. This is bollocks. What they exploited was a weakness in our mind-set -- a set of presumptions based on a decades-long track record of hijackings. In the past, a takeover meant hostage negotiations and standoffs; crews were trained in the concept of "passive resistance." All of that changed forever when American Airlines Flight 11 collided with the north tower of the World Trade Center. What weapons the 19 men had in hand mattered little; the success of the attacks relied fundamentally on the element of surprise. And in this respect, their scheme was all but guaranteed not to fail.

In 2006, for several reasons -- from hardened cockpit doors to, especially, the awareness of passengers -- just the opposite is true. "Any hijacker will face a planeload of angry and frightened passengers," says Ross Johnson, a former Canadian intelligence officer and aviation security consultant. "And he will be badly injured or killed by the mob. That introduces significant doubt into his plan." Say what you want of terrorists, but they cannot afford to waste time and resources on schemes with a high probability of failure.

We, by comparison, are more than happy to waste billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that, in some sense, has already happened. No matter that a deadly sharp object can be fashioned from almost anything found on a plane -- from a wine bottle to a piece of plastic moulding -- we are nonetheless asked to queue for absurd lengths of time, subject to embarrassing pat-downs and confiscation of our belongings, lest anybody make it onto an aircraft with a pair of pointy scissors or a screwdriver.

With respect to the newly introduced rules banning liquids and gels, the folly is much the same. Regardless of how many hobby knives and shampoo bottles we confiscate at the X-ray machine, there will remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle items onto a plane. We are not fighting materials per se, we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur who would make them dangerous. These people are the target.

As security expert Bruce Schneier has remarked, "Terrorism needs to be stopped at the planning stages. That's where our security can do the most good." Few would argue the value of keeping firearms, for instance, out of people's carry-ons, and there's something to be said for the deterrence factor that results from visible inspection. But reliance on airport X-ray screeners as a front-line anti-terror measure is at best naive.

"Hand-searching passengers who can be pre-screened and positively identified beforehand only diverts resources," says Johnson.

It's not very glamorous, but according to Johnson, the grunt work of rooting out terrorists relies on pre-gathered intelligence and, as a last resort, the on-site use of what experts call "behavioral profiling."

Behavioral profiling, used by authorities in Israel for many years, demands that airport staff be versed in the finer points of behavioral pattern recognition. To its credit, the Transportation Security Administration has introduced such training, but apparently without the same vigor it applies to confiscation of sharps and hairspray.

As a traveler, it's frustrating to see firsthand the ways in which other countries have streamlined their security protocols. I have traveled extensively since Sept. 11, to Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and based on anecdotal observation America's protocols feel the most jury-rigged and chaotic.

Alas, a frightened American populace seems to demand not actual security, but security spectacle. We equate nuisance with safety: If it is inconvenient and highly labor intensive, our thinking goes, it must be helpful. And although a reasonable percentage of passengers, along with most security experts, would concur such theater serves no useful purpose, there has been surprisingly little outrage, little protest -- not from passengers, not from the airlines, not from the media. In that regard, we've gotten exactly the system we deserve.

It's worst than that, actually, as a fog of paranoia has begun to exact a toll on our freedoms. These days, the mere act of taking a photograph through an airplane window might get you on a government watch list. Snap a picture of a terminal building, and you're liable to spend some time with airport police, as has happened to this author while researching a story for a newspaper travel page.

There are those of us cynics, of course, who predicted it would come to this. As the debris in lower Manhattan smoldered, a giant and ungainly security apparatus was already swinging into place. At the same time, analysts and economists foresaw the coming bloodbath among the airlines, with prognosticators calling for multiple bankruptcies and the unchecked rise of budget carriers.

One thing nobody saw coming, however, was an unprecedented streak of near-perfect safety. Here we are amid the safest-ever stretch in the almost 90-year existence of commercial aviation. The fatal accident in late August involving a Comair regional jet was a tragedy, but our record for the past five years remains unprecedented. This Nov. 12 will mark the fifth anniversary of the last large-scale crash of a commercial airliner on U.S. soil, that of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York City. For all the nervousness, fear and loathing we direct toward the idea of stepping on a plane, more than 2 million people depart aboard more than 20,000 commercial flights in the United States each day, virtually every one of them arriving unscathed.

Worldwide, boardings in 2005 broke the 2 billion mark for the first time. Although raw fatality totals were up slightly (as misleadingly analyzed by several sources in their end-of-the-year roundups for '05), they have fallen substantially as a percentage of total flights. Flying is approximately five times safer than it was a quarter-century ago, when half as many planes carried half as many riders. Any number of factors have been responsible for this trend, from improved cockpit technology to better crew training to, well, just plain luck.

So, yes, we are safer today in the skies than we were on Sept. 10, 2001 -- both because and in spite of ourselves. Five disaster-free years are, or should be, cause for pride and some cautious celebration among America's airlines. Unfortunately, one streak of unprecedented fortune has coincided with another of apocalyptically dismal proportions. Four of the country's seven largest carriers, representing more than 50 percent of our air system's total capacity, have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection during the past five years. Two of them continue to operate at or around a point of insolvency. All told, U.S. carriers have accumulated $35 billion in losses, displacing tens of thousands of workers.

But how this came to be has both everything and nothing to do with Sept. 11 itself. The attacks were a catalyst of tremendous speed and violence, both literally and otherwise, but their direct influence is routinely overemphasized.

Prior to the autumn of 2001, America's old-guard carriers, led by the Big Three of American, Delta and United, were already suffering. A slumping economy, together with voracious competition from a growing cadre of nimble youngsters (Southwest, JetBlue, et al.), and systemwide overcapacity, brought down the curtain on what was, for much of the 1990s, the most profitable era the airlines had ever seen.

"You could see things cracking as far back as the fourth quarter of 2000," says John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist for the Air Transport Association, the industry's largest and most powerful trade group. "A multitude of factors were in play affecting both supply and demand, from soaring labor costs at the airlines to a structural shift in the buying behavior of the business traveler."

It's entirely possible that the airline industry in 2006 would look essentially the way it does had the attacks never happened. "I doubt the degree of restructuring would have been the same," says Heimlich, "as the attacks created a huge liquidity crisis for so many airlines at once. But there's no doubt we were headed for tough times."

In the short term, planes were grounded and passengers stayed away, but there's a common misperception that the numbers are still in recovery. Not so: By 2004, traffic levels surpassed those preceding the attacks.

And why not, when a super-saver fare from New York to San Francisco, or even from New York to Singapore, costs about 6 cents per mile? The world has never been smaller, or more affordable. (Take a look at this American Airlines ticket coupon found at a flea market. In 1946, James Connors paid $334 to fly one-way from Shannon, Ireland, to New York. Using the Consumer Price Index conversion, that's about $3,290 today.) According to the ATA, fares in 2006 are, on average, 11.8 percent lower than they were in 2000. This, in spite of a 142 percent rise in the cost of jet fuel over that same time.

Low fares and heavy losses would seem to be a mutually exclusive combination, but in the airline business anything is possible, up to and including pricing yourself out of business. The core reason for continued red ink is the insane relationship between fares and fuel. In isolation, according to Heimlich, neither is catastrophic, but when you have historically low fares, which are at 1988 levels, overlapping with historically high fuel tabs, every airline has a problem.

The pressure to maintain the status quo comes mostly from the bottom, so to speak -- from the likes of Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue. As the injured giants have tottered and teetered and tried to collect themselves, these mavericks, known in the vernacular as low-cost carriers, or "LCCs," have been able to achieve critical mass. They too have been battered of late by soaring fuel bills, but their streamlined fleets, infrastructures and salaries keep expenditures to a minimum. And rock-bottom costs have allowed them to sell passage at rock-bottom fares.

For the legacies, trying to compete has been lose-lose. They can hike fares to cover expenses, thereby driving away even more business, or keep fares down and take the hit. All the while, their boardrooms buzz with schemes on how to successfully mimic the LCCs. To this point, strategies have included which pension plans to default on, and how many collective bargaining agreements to torpedo, but in a lot of ways the overhaul has been constructive. "If there was any economic silver lining to 9/11," says Heimlich, "it gave the airlines enough cover to attack corporate bloat. They simplified fleets, rationalized salaries, and made wholesale changes to the way they do business."

The ability to travel on the cheap hasn't kept people from lamenting a precipitous drop-off in service standards. Southwest, for its part, has mastered the art of get-what-you-pay-for satisfaction, but collectively the U.S. airlines are, let's just say, no longer in the business of making people happy. Globally, where even many carriers of Africa and South America are held in higher esteem, ours have become pariahs.

Then again, it has been this way for a very long time. The security charade has made a bad situation worse, but the slide in service began well prior to Sept. 11, and its origins are a lot more complicated than a simple correlation between profit and product.

Which underscores a frustrating reality: The new world of flying, while at once safer, less expensive and more aggravating than it used to be, isn't drastically different than the old one. Granting that civil aviation is, has been and ever shall be an irresistible target for sabotage, and that the occasional accident will occur no matter what, we face essentially the same threats and challenges we've always faced.

But it certainly feels different.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

9/11 Terrorism