Ask the pilot

From shoulder-fired missiles to cargo bombs, passengers face a cavalcade of deadly possibilities. But at least the TSA is listening ... sort of.

Published September 29, 2006 11:30AM (EDT)

"Common sense." That was the term used by Transportation Security Administration director Edmund "Kip" Hawley, in an overdue press conference on Monday. The big news: Airport carry-on restrictions would at last be eased.

Passengers are now permitted to carry small toiletry products beyond the security checkpoint, including hand lotion, deodorant and toothpaste. These items are limited to 3 ounces each and must be screened separately in a clear 1-quart zipper-top plastic bag. Bags are being provided. Additionally, passengers may once again bring beverages and other liquids aboard flights, provided those items are purchased in restaurants or shops beyond the security checkpoint.

Never mind for a minute that many of the employees who work within an airport's secure zone, including those who clean and service your plane, are themselves fully exempt from screening -- something highlighted in this space many months ago. And never mind that the entire liquid bomb scare was, to a large degree, a trumped-up ruse -- something the mainstream media lacks the fortitude to tackle. Instead, let's give partial credit where it's due. "Common sense" is a subjective thing, and calling out TSA for every hypocritical and silly decision is to employ the same pointless micromanaging the agency itself is so fond of. A bureaucracy this dimwitted and lumbering needs to be treated exactly the way it treats us: like a child.

"We now know enough to say that a total ban is no longer needed from a security point of view," Hawley said at the press conference.

Way to go, Kipper. Americans are proud of your progress. We're behind you all the way. And from TSA's perspective, this baby-steps approach allows it to save face. After all, security is politics, and think of how foolish the agency would look if it admitted the whole liquids and gels proscription was a bunch of ineffective hogwash from the beginning.

In the meantime, others are finally piping up. After nearly two months, we're starting to hear grumblings of dissent from airlines and their workers. Most notable among the comments are those from the Air Line Pilots Association, the world's most prominent flight crew union, representing pilots at four of the top five carriers. Nobody would accuse pilots of being soft on security, and it's nice to hear ALPA (of which, in full disclosure, I'm a member) speaking forcibly and sensibly. "Today's TSA action once again underscores the agency's focus on searching for objects," said a statement from president Duane Woerth on the day the changes were announced. "We must move past this limited view of airline security and adapt new methods to keep the system secure. ALPA urges the TSA to do more to create a security screening system that effectively finds those travelers intent on doing harm, rather than the current system that seeks to remove objects that travelers frequently carry."

A bit clunky (usually he's better), but Woerth has it right. Remarks from other sources have been somewhat muted. Although at least three U.S. airlines have admitted that luggage policies were beginning to drive away customers, the president of the Air Transport Association, the industry's largest and most powerful trade group, offered this well-padded response to news of the security revisions: "It is clear that TSA has performed deliberate and careful risk analysis to identify which items passengers can safely bring on board. It will reduce passenger inconvenience."

The last part is a given. The first part raises some eyebrows. If it were true, then according to expert testimony on the realities of liquid explosives, the bans would never have been enacted in the first place.

The new revisions are set to last indefinitely, though it's possible further relaxations will be put in place later. The separate bagging requirement, together with the need to remove laptops, shoes and heavy winter coats, is liable to have dire consequences for security-line waiting times come Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Until then, the changes are only somewhat good news for passengers, but excellent news for airport merchants, who can get back to the job of fleecing us with overpriced water and $4 bottles of juice. (Gratefully, air travel's signature take-along snack, the Chick-fil-A sandwich, was never subject to the TSA's wrath, and remains ever delectable, semi-noncombustible and meatlike.) The government has insisted that in-terminal vendors weren't suffering from the all-out liquids and gels ban. Allegedly, because passengers were setting out earlier than usual to the airport, they were spending more money on drinks, food and souvenirs once they got there. I'm not sure I believe that.

"Obviously, in certain product categories, concessions were definitely taking a hit," says a spokesman for Massport, operator of Boston's Logan International Airport, the nation's 18th busiest. "Water is the No. 1 product sold in terminals."

And some concourse shops, such as the wine sellers popular at airports in South America, and duty-free stores hawking liquor and perfume, specialize solely in the types of products that, until this week, had been prohibited. Was there an organized effort to change things?

"Not that I'm aware of," says the Massport source. "Certain merchants suffered more than others, but their losses were manageable."

Canadian and European airports are expected to align their policies with the amended U.S. rules. (No word yet if authorities in Argentina have similarly seen the light, backing off from their crazy prohibitions of empty cans of shaving cream and blunt-tipped scissors.)

So, if nothing else, and if not necessarily for the best reasons, TSA is moving in the right direction. But before pouring 3 ounces of champagne into a baggie and heading to the airport for a toast, I wonder if we're not beyond the point of redemption, now that our security apparatus has fallen into full dystopian comedy. At this point, if Kip Hawley and the TSA didn't already exist, somebody would have to make them up, simply for their value as entertainment. I was not present at Hawley's press conference on Monday morning, but one imagines a certain comic tension in the air as he stood at the lectern, talking to reporters about zipper bags and beverages and lip balm. My question would have been this one:

"Excuse me, Director Hawley, regarding that 3-ounce limitation: What if a person has a 4-ounce container, but only 3 ounces of liquid inside?" Maybe that's the TSA's problem. It needs to laugh more.

Q: With the liquid bomb scare somewhat debunked, together with intensive luggage screening and a diminished hijacking threat, it would seem that air travelers are pretty well protected. Where do our weaknesses lie, and will future acts of air terror depend on methods yet unseen?

The threats we face, and the measures we take to thwart them, are both in a competitive state of flux, making safety, or the lack thereof, a tough thing to quantify. And, as airline passengers, it's important to bear in mind that we've never been in particularly grave danger to begin with. That being said, assessing the future of air terror first requires us to remember and understand the past. Terrorism and civil aviation have shared a violent, decades-long relationship, and our adversaries have learned to rely on proven techniques and tactics. But although we ignore these time-tested methods at our peril, newer and more nefarious technologies are also at the disposal of terrorists.

By far the most worrisome is the proliferation of portable, heat-seeking rockets. These compact, lightweight and easily concealable weapons -- known alternately as shoulder-fired missiles or MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) -- have been a danger for decades, but since Sept. 11 they've become the focus of intensifying worry. Most common are the Russian-made Strela and U.S.-manufactured Stinger. Tens of thousands of these and other models are believed to be available via black markets around the world.

The good news is that a degree of myth surrounds their efficacy. They are notoriously inaccurate, especially in the hands of untrained criminals, and even a direct hit doesn't guarantee destruction. In 2003, an Airbus A300 operated by cargo carrier DHL (narrowly) escaped disaster in the skies over Baghdad, Iraq, after being hit in the left wing by a 23-pound Strela-3. A year earlier, two missiles were fired at an Israeli 757 packed with vacationers on takeoff from Mombasa, Kenya. Both missed.

Still, portable missiles are potentially very lethal, as various shoot-downs in the past -- mostly in Africa, involving guerrillas targeting government or military planes -- have proven. I hate to say it, but with so many of these devices in so many countries, it's possibly just a matter of time before a commercial airliner is destroyed. Smart money says an attack would almost surely take place outside the United States -- in one or more nations where these weapons are more easily available and their movements harder to detect.

The best way to avoid a catastrophe, obviously, is to prevent strikes from ever happening -- or at least reduce their likelihood. To this end, there has been talk of outfitting all commercial airliners with antimissile systems. The technology exists; aircraft-mounted units use multiband lasers to foil a missile's infrared heat sensors. This seems like a workable solution, until one beholds the industry-wide cost of such a program, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has partnered with Northrop Grumman and Federal Express in a $109 million feasibility study to determine if missile defense can be made cost-effective. FedEx is outfitting 11 of its widebody freighters with a bathtub-size system called the Guardian. The Guardian's maker, Northrop Grumman, says the technology can be mass marketed to airlines with a pass-along cost to the passenger as low as .003 cents per seat-mile. Many experts, however, scoff at this claim.

The rocket threat might be one of those cases where the best defense is a proactive offense. Instead of shielding aircraft, we could concentrate on keeping missiles out of the wrong hands. Maybe that's naive, but if we accept that the goal of terrorism is to inspire panic and bad behavior, we risk granting the enemy exactly what it wishes, giving untold billions to vendors of elaborate technology instead of spending it more wisely. On the other hand, the socioeconomic impact of a large-scale civilian shoot-down would itself be colossal.

Elsewhere on the security front, it's maybe not wise to speak of pinpointing our "weaknesses." That isn't a good word in this context, because in the minds of many, deficiencies in the safety chain become exaggerated and equated with imminent danger. Take the air freight loophole, for instance. It's true that although we dig through luggage and put passengers through everything short of a body cavity search, air cargo has remained mostly free from physical inspection. Some politicians and security advocates have made a lot of noise on this issue, and while I wouldn't shout them down or accuse them of fear mongering, the situation has been less than an all-out crisis.

Tighter restrictions are being put into place as we speak. Effective last week, all packages delivered to airline counters for shipment aboard passenger planes must now be screened for explosives. This announcement was made by Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff in a news conference held at Boston's Logan Airport, from which two of the Sept. 11 aircraft departed. Already most airlines have been scanning packages on a voluntary basis with the same CT-scan type machines used to inspect passengers' checked luggage, but now the screening is mandatory.

Approximately 15 percent of air cargo is transported in the lower holds of passenger aircraft -- up to several tons on some flights. The new requirements primarily affect smaller express packages and envelopes brought to ticket or cargo counters by individuals. Larger shipments continue to fall under jurisdiction of the TSA's "Known Shipper" program, put in place after Sept. 11. Known Shipper has its own set of regulations, and its own set of problems. The Known Shipper protocols, conceived as an alternative to physical screening, rely mostly on paperwork verification. And by putting the onus of security on the shipping company rather than the airline, it somewhat sidesteps the matter of responsibility. Rumored changes might limit Known Shipper authorization to U.S. companies, meaning freight coming from overseas would be restricted to cargo-only aircraft. For now it remains a comparatively porous avenue for sabotage.

Q: No matter how strongly reinforced cockpit doors are, they can still be accessed from within by a committed hijacker. Why not retrofit planes with an inaccessible cockpit -- one with a door on the outside, but not on the inside? Food and drink could be delivered through a small, prison-style hole.

The inaccessible cockpit concept is bandied about now and then. For several reasons it's a bad idea. To begin with, for reasons I've discussed a number of times, I beg to differ that a terrorist in 2006 would consider a hijacking. The Sept. 11-style takeover scheme is all but impractical now, and an armored door is plenty enough protection. If somebody wants to hijack a plane in the old-fashioned sense, God help him, but door or no door, he has what he needs -- passengers to hold hostage. Lack of cockpit access is irrelevant. If anything it'd be prone to make a bad situation more dangerous.

Then you have entry and egress issues. You can't just add a door to the side of an airplane the way you build one into the side of your garage. It would be an extremely expensive and time-consuming undertaking for each and every airplane, if possible at all considering the small size of many cockpits, and then only minimally useful. You'd also prohibit the flight crew from assisting with critical issues that might erupt in the cabin.

Lastly, but not insignificantly, are matters of the lavatory and crew rest. On longer flights, crews routinely swap out, with one or more pilots retiring to bunks or designated rest areas. Much as they might like each other, you can't have four or five pilots crammed into a two-pilot cockpit for 15 hours.

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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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