Ask the pilot

Why have the airlines, who have the most to lose, been silent as flying becomes an increasingly squalid and unpleasant experience?

Published September 8, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

The timing of last month's regional jet crash in Kentucky couldn't have been worse -- not only for Comair in particular but for every airline. On the heels of the alleged London bomb plot, the last thing the industry needed was a deadly crash. On the other hand, it was perversely relieving to watch the focus of people's anxieties so quickly shift to something tangible and immediate, instead of stuporously obsessing over whether nasal spray is a deadly weapon, and whether one's seatmate is an al-Qaida operative.

In the larger picture, however, little has changed. The Transportation Safety Administration's witless crackdown on liquids and gels remains in place, and a disturbing pattern of passenger vigilantism shows few signs of relenting. Thus far, no fewer than a dozen flights have been diverted or canceled over false alarms. On Aug. 12, a man was removed from a JetBlue flight at JFK airport in New York for wearing a T-shirt with Arabic script on the front. Several passengers became worried and complained to security. Raed Jarrar, an architect and project director for the human rights group Global Exchange, was denied boarding until he agreed to remove the black cotton shirt emblazoned with the phrase "We will not be silenced."

On the ground and in the air, we're progressing rapidly from a state of acceptable anxiety to one of mass hysteria. Such reactionary and self-defeating behavior puts much at stake -- your time, your tax dollars, your liberties and your toothpaste -- but what's scariest of all is that the traveling public appears perfectly content. One major newspaper, reporting recently from an airport, spoke of passengers graciously acquiescing to the new carry-on prohibitions, as well as to their own silly behavior, in nonchalant deference to "this era of terrorism." (And while cases like that of Jarrar and his T-shirt have the sympathy of many Americans, check out some of the hate.)

Never mind for a moment that murderous air crimes have been with us since the invention of the propeller, but what ought to make the hair of every American stand up and vibrate is how quickly the new protocols have solidified into what appears to be indefinite policy, with little or no opposition. There ought to be a tide of protest rising up against this mania. Where is it? Where is the outrage? At its loudest, the voice of the traveling public is one of grumbly resignation. The Op-Ed pages are silent, the travel periodicals have nothing to say, and the talk shows are busy analyzing Katie Couric's hair. Why aren't journalists, called in to report on these affairs, asking the obvious tough questions?

For instance, TSA's new carry-on rules aren't just stupid, they are so stupid that it's hard to believe the agency hasn't yet been called to the carpet. As I learned a week ago traveling to San Francisco, not only is it forbidden to bring a beverage through the security checkpoint, it is forbidden to bring a beverage that has been purchased in the secure zone onto a plane. The lack of logic is absolutely maddening: If somehow saboteurs were able to get a workable liquid explosive into the gate-side Burger King, and from there into the hands of a passenger accomplice, could they not do the same with other forms of explosives -- or for that matter with knives, guns, pipe bombs and bags of anthrax? Airlines have begun making public address announcements encouraging passengers to finish their drinks in time for boarding. The sight of businessmen, clustered at the mouth of the boarding bridge, gulping down coffee at final call was equally amusing and pathetic.

I feel bad for the airport terminal merchants, like the wine stores you see in places like Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile, whose souvenirs are now considered contraband on flights to the United States, but they are hardly the only ones paying a price. And what's next? It would only take a prankster hiding a firecracker inside a tomato before food is banned. Should the next Richard Reid decide to slip a bolt of plastique between his gum and upper lip, we'll all be undergoing oral inspections with a penlight. Far-fetched? Not really.

And imagine the outcome if, somewhere in the world, bombers decide to target an airport, rather than an airplane. The way our security apparatus is currently deployed, this would be far easier, and the net effect on air commerce would be no less crippling. There have been plenty of terminal bombings and killings in the past -- Rome, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles -- except this time our response would be an over-the-top spectacle: We'd have the National Guard cordoning off huge perimeters. The checkpoints that are now in place on the concourse would be moved to the sidewalk. Parking lots would be closed. In many countries today, only ticketed passengers are allowed on the departure level, and one often finds X-ray scanners just inside the main lobby doors. We'd take this to an extreme and fence off the arrivals level too. No more meeting friends or family at baggage claim -- they'll be shuttled to a designated pickup area guarded by soldiers or policemen.

Until that time, knock on wood, it's probably not realistic to expect street protests or airport sit-ins from citizen fliers, and maybe we shouldn't expect too much from a press and media that have had no trouble letting countless other injustices slip to the curb. But if you ask me, the most deafening silence is coming from those who, ironically, stand to lose the most: the airlines.

The willingness of our carriers to allow flying to become an increasingly squalid and unpleasant experience suggests a business sense of masochistic capitulation. Why wasn't United, to pick one, screaming over the response to last month's emergency diversion to Boston caused by an agitated passenger? The aircraft was evacuated on the runway, and passengers were delayed several hours while canine units inspected hundreds of suitcases -- all because a deranged woman threw a fit. The publicity debacle is reason enough for United to be upset, but the trickle-down costs of such disruptions -- in fuel, crew and downstream delays -- can be enormous. The tab for diverting a wide-body airliner can run $100,000 or more.

Americans haven't been the only ones acting foolishly of late, but carriers in Europe have reacted strongly to what they believe has been a badly bungled security situation. No sooner had word of the foiled liquid-bomb plot ignited pandemonium at airports in the U.K. than British Airways was threatening to sue the British Airports Authority, overseer of London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports, for not having a contingency scheme in place. For several days, carry-ons were banned completely on flights from the U.K., resulting in scores of cancellations and massive delays.

Within a week, a group of airlines led by budget carrier Ryanair were preparing a half-billion-dollar lawsuit against the British government, hoping the threat of legal action might inspire ministers to rescind some of the luggage restrictions. In a statement obtained by the London Times, Ryanair wants the government "to remove some of the illogical and unworkable restrictions at airports that are leading to large-scale disruptions and flight cancellations."

A spokesman from easyJet, another popular European budget airline, was slightly more diplomatic. "We will consider whether either BAA or the government has a case to answer. We have had to cancel 500 flights and put people up in hotels. Why should we have to pay for that?"

Virgin Atlantic was cagier still, but you can read between the lines: "We would prefer a cozy chat with the government," said a spokesman, "rather than suing them."

I'm unaware of any cozy chats taking place between U.S. airlines and either Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff or his underlings at the TSA, who so enthusiastically put us into this mess. If any are going on, it hasn't been reported.

That itself isn't surprising, as airlines in this terror-fixated nation, themselves violently victimized on Sept. 11, aren't prone to speaking out publicly against measures even tenuously construable as bettering security. Backstage, however, they have every right and reason to be fuming, along with their employees, unions and all of the many businesses -- and their employees and unions -- who depend on them. The airlines and their workers already shoulder a considerable portion of the security bill -- passed along to consumers through higher fares and surcharges. They have spoken out vociferously on a number of other issues, but are conspicuously silent on this one.

No airlines responded to requests for comment, while one well-placed industry source said only: "Given your clear extremist views and totally skewed understanding of the facts, I find it best not to respond on the record."

No offense, but if anything is "extremist," it's the notion that confiscating coffee cups and hand lotion truly makes us safer, and that subjecting millions of fliers to security theater, rather than actual security, is in the airlines' best interest.

Another source, who asks not to be identified, was more forthcoming. "The industry hasn't been supine on these developments, but they haven't been very high-profile, either," the spokesperson said. "They have sporadic public relations efforts, talking to the media, testifying in Congress, etc., about things such as the extraordinarily high amount of taxes on tickets, and the costs of airline security in terms of both cash outlays and lost revenues. They weigh in on rule proposals, and I think they've even filed a lawsuit or two.

"Another difference is that Congress gave the airlines $5 billion in cash to cover expenses arising out of September 11, plus $10 billion in loan guarantees. (The Bush people saw to it that only 16 percent of the loan guarantees were granted, but that's another story.) There's also the public perception factor. How would airlines look if they tried to resist? They'd get slammed for putting money above their passengers' safety."

Ultimately it's not about the airlines, it's about us. The people have the power, and we're cowering rather than fighting.

It dawns on me that as I've spent thousands of words and, probably, too much of readers' time analyzing this stuff over the past few weeks, I've danced and dallied around the central point. Allow me to quote Bruce Schneier, the author and security guru, who in a recent blog entry more elegantly sums things up:

"The point of terrorism is to cause terror. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act. And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

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.

MORE FROM Patrick Smith

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

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business Terrorism