Ask the Pilot

Why are pilots and flight attendants paraded through metal detectors, but not cleaners and caterers? Plus: Phantom hijackers revisited, and ominous news for your summer travel plans.


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Patrick Smith
June 8, 2007 2:46PM (UTC)

We've been on an airport riff for a couple of weeks now, so let's keep going. Before getting back to the fun stuff, however, time out for a more sobering, if aggravating rash of news stories.

First comes the alleged plot to "blow up" JFK airport. Never mind for a moment the plausibility of the scheme -- the incident brings with it certain overtones of last year's liquid bomb farce -- it nonetheless has everyone yammering again about airport security and how we need more of it. One of the charged conspirators is a former airport worker, and critics are calling for the increased scrutiny not of passengers, but of industry employees.

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Frankly, and maybe you're surprised to hear me say so, this is a good idea. Or, it could be a good idea, provided the Transportation Security Administration has sense enough to figure out which groups of workers it ought to concentrate on. Considering the agency's track record, that's a shaky proposition at best.

This is something I covered previously in greater depth, but most of the public is unaware that thousands of contract airport workers around the country -- the caterers, cabin cleaners, fuelers and cargo loaders who service the nation's airlines -- are subject only to occasional random screenings when they come to work. These are individuals with full access to aircraft, inside and out.

That's not to propose there are terrorists out there refueling and cleaning our planes, and if you ask me, preventing terrorism is the job of intelligence agents and law enforcement, not concourse security guards. But if we're going to screen at all, can we please do it sensibly, and without a ludicrous double standard? Why are pilots and flight attendants paraded through metal detectors and X-ray machines, but not cleaners and caterers? Not to sound snotty, but the fact that airline pilots, many of whom are former military fliers, and all of whom endured rigorous background checks prior to being hired, are required to take out their laptops and surrender their hobby knives, while an immigrant worker from Egypt or Morocco sidesteps the entire process and walks onto a plane unimpeded, nullifies almost everything our TSA minders have said and done since Sept. 11, 2001. If there is a more ringing let-me-get-this-straight scenario anywhere in the realm of airport security, I'd like to hear it.

I'm also curious as to why the rabid right hasn't seized on this issue more vociferously, considering that a very high percentage of airport subcontractors are foreign born. Talk about red meat. They're still too busy, it seems, breathing new life into the cock-and-bull fantasy that Muslim terror gangs are riding around America on commercial flights in order to test our response.

Maybe you missed it, but earlier this month the Washington Times ran a piece reigniting the old "dry runs" conspiracy debate, tackled in this column several times previously. The article covers the investigation of 12 Syrian musicians whose hyperactive behavior caused near panic aboard a Northwest Airlines flight to Los Angeles three summers ago. The paper's analysis has been spun widely and wildly -- even CNN, the American version of which is all but a tabloid at this point, ran a segment on it. But when looked at carefully, it reveals little of concern. On the contrary, the reporters dug up some vague information, biased testimony from a fired air marshal, and crude insinuation to perpetuate the myth that Arab evildoers are racking up millions of frequent-flier miles in preparation for an attack.

Apparently, federal air marshals, along with several crew members and passengers, including Annie Jacobsen, whose published, multipart account of the flight got the whole thing started, found the musicians' behavior highly erratic and unusual. Perhaps, but right or wrong I suggest that a dozen animated, Middle Eastern-looking men on any U.S. domestic flight are bound to seize the attention of passengers, crew and marshals to boot. As for the zealous interpretation of things, consider for a moment the many examples of overreaction and passenger vigilantism documented aboard airplanes during the past five years.

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The story further mentions that "a background check in the FBI's National Crime Information Center database ... produced 'positive hits' for past criminal records or suspicious behavior for eight of the 12 Syrians." It does not reveal what this means, exactly. It could refer to parking tickets, for all we know. And how does "suspicious behavior" earn one a criminal record? We also hear from something called the "Airline Pilots Security Alliance," a group that neither I nor any pilot I've spoken to has ever heard of.

In no way, shape or form is it proven that anybody was up to no good. Alas, such trivial reality is of no concern to the Washington Times, which titled the piece "Report Confirms Terror Dry Run." That's about the most blatantly devious headline I have ever seen. The report does no such thing.

At the risk of repeating myself, it's time for another let-me-get-this-straight moment: The dry run proponents expect us to believe that during the most serious antiterror intel blitz in history, large groups of operatives are flying around on U.S. airliners making spectacles of themselves for practice. The government "knows" this, but hasn't done anything or caught anyone.

Still with me?

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And the terror gangs are doing this to accomplish ... what? A suicide hijacking in the style of Sept. 11 would be nearly impossible to pull off. Alternatively, if the goal is to assemble a bomb in a lavatory, one component at a time, as some have suggested, what is the point of brazenly rehearsing this, at considerable risk of exposure? Find me one terrorism expert -- not a pundit, a politician or a bureaucrat, but a legitimate and credible expert -- who believes these missions are actually taking place, and I'll give him or her 500 words in the next column.

If ever there was a story that needs to go away, it's this one, but there are too many people out there who keep the coals glowing. Yes, I'm guilty of indulging them, but somebody needs to throw the cold water. There is, it seems, a certain segment of the population that wants to believe these people are out there, despite a lack of evidence, and despite all common sense, indicating otherwise. It's a conviction that is almost religious in the way it submits and justifies itself. Such paranoid pathologies are not unheard of in times of national stress. If left unchecked, they are dangerous.

Getting back to the JFK airport plot, should the next act of deadly sabotage turn out to be an inside job, not everyone will be surprised. But we'll partly have ourselves to blame, for having wasted our time and money frisking pilots, confiscating knitting needles, and chasing spectral boogeymen instead of intercepting the right people.

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Meanwhile, real or imagined, the threat of danger isn't keeping Americans at home. Airfares have tumbled 15 percent from where they were a year ago, and a record 200 million people are expected to fly this summer, in what some experts predict will be the busiest three-month period in industry history.

And the most frustrating. Inspired by my June 1 column on air traffic delays (I should be so influential), USA Today ran a splashy front-page story the following day announcing that the first four months of 2007 were the most delay-plagued we've seen in 13 years. According to a report from the Department of Transportation, only 72 percent of domestic flights operated by the country's 20 largest airlines arrived on time between January and April. What this promises for June, July and August can only be brutal.

What I wish the paper had better explained are the reasons why. The DOT tells us that 40 percent of the delays were "weather related" -- one of the more misleading expressions in all of commercial aviation. I've said it before and I'll say it again: There is almost no such thing as a weather delay, per se. For all intents and purposes, weather delays are traffic delays. That's semantic in some regard, but if it weren't for the inefficient ways in which the airlines attempt to move their customers, jamming them into hundreds of small regional jets instead of consolidating with larger planes, storms would have much less impact. This is especially true in the busy Northeast corridor, where the worst performing airports are located. (LaGuardia, Newark and JFK had the three ugliest records of the entire DOT study.)

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Let's return to last week's list of the top-10 busiest airports in the world, measured by number of takeoffs and landings: Chicago O'Hare, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston Intercontinental, Denver, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Notice that all 10 are in the United States. A number of e-mailers suspected the ranks were in error. Who would have thought that Philadelphia or Minneapolis would have more traffic than Tokyo, Frankfurt or London's Heathrow? But they do. (Salt Lake City sees as many takeoffs and landings as Heathrow, transporting a third as many passengers. If you want to reduce commercial aviation's carbon footprint, there's a place to start.)

If you rejigger to account for total number of passengers, the top 10 is very different. Heathrow, for example, comes in at third place, with Tokyo's Haneda, Paris' Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt and Amsterdam all checking in. Suddenly only five of the busiest airports are American.

This difference is a powerful illustration of how and why our air system is nearing perpetual gridlock. The problem isn't too many people flying, but how many planes they are flying in. Our airlines sell frequency, or the illusion thereof, creating a system so immense, and so precarious, that a single thunderstorm throws the entire thing into paralysis.

How we got to this point is fodder enough for six more columns. In short, it was all about cost. Airline cost structures grew so out of whack that the logical approach to carrying more passengers -- i.e., using bigger planes -- was turned on its head. The cheapest way of moving people turned out to be, and to some extent remains, outsourcing to 50-70-seaters flown by affiliate outfits with rock-bottom expenses. Through the magic of code-sharing, these companies could paint their planes in your livery and pretend to be you. That gave us the explosion of Expresses, Connections, Airlinks and all the other suffixed alter egos now clogging tarmacs across America. (There's a mirage of seamlessness, but apart from the paint job, most of these affiliates are independent entities, with their own employees -- including pilots making 9 bucks an hour.)

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Now that the majors have sliced and diced their way to stability, the advantages of regional-jet farming aren't so strong. Whether the industry's fiscal health, boosted by a merger or two along the way, results in widespread consolidation of flights remains to be seen. I have my doubts. Imagining a sky with fewer planes is a bit like imagining our highways with fewer cars. Short of an economic catastrophe ("peak oil," et al.), chances of its happening are slim.

Next week: Readers chime in. What are the best, worst and weirdest airports in the world?

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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.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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