Ask the pilot

Has the U.S. met its match in airport-security craziness? Plus: NASA's pilot survey coverup.

By Patrick Smith
November 2, 2007 3:06PM (UTC)
main article image

Come to find out, America is not the only crazy country when it comes to airport security. Based on what happened to me in London a few days ago, I'd say the U.K. is a close runner-up. Working a trip from Gatwick, I was forced to remove my shoes and put my liquids into a Ziploc bag. This is routine for passengers, but I was in full uniform at a crew-only checkpoint. My Rollaboard and flight case were hand-searched top to bottom, and a nearly empty, 5-ounce tube of toothpaste was confiscated from my toiletries bag.

The Brits are jittery, and not entirely without reason. The 2006 liquid bomb cabal (daft as its scheme may have been) was organized here, and it wasn't that long ago that Pan Am 103 lifted off from Heathrow with its deadly Toshiba radio. I'm willing to grant some slack, but I draw the line at seizing empty containers from pilots.


"Why are you taking that?" I ask the guard. "There's almost nothing in there."

"I don't know that for sure," she replies. "I can't tell how much is inside."

The rule is 100 milliliters. I stare down at the rolled and emaciated tube. It can't contain more than three brushings' worth of paste. I wanted to ask this woman how she could say a thing like that and continue to take herself, and her job, seriously.


Still, though, while it's tempting to award first prize to our European cousins, it's our own United States that retains the crown for loopiest behavior. Any argument was put to rest earlier this fall, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security presented the latest version of its "Secure Flight" anti-terrorism program, requesting that governments hand over a docket of personal data on all foreign airline passengers bound for the United States. (This would affect not only commercial flights arriving in the United States but those merely overflying U.S. territory -- an Air Canada plane, say, flying between Toronto and the Caribbean.) This data may include, among other things, a flier's union affiliations, reading preferences and -- look it up yourself if you don't believe me -- sexual habits. What somebody's sex life might have to do with blowing up a plane is something I can't begin to fathom; how any government might actually get wind of this information is even more troubling. Fortunately, others feel the same way, and the details of this proposal have provoked the ire of certain lawmakers. It remains to be seen how much of it becomes policy.

This would be the second dose of bad press for the Homeland Security hacks in recent weeks. Last month, you might remember, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA is a branch of DHS) got a media scolding after it came to light that TSA airport screeners had failed to detect up to 75 percent of phony bomb components smuggled through terminal checkpoints during tests.

I don't normally rush to the defense of TSA, but am I the only one who finds this revelation overblown and irrelevant? This is a clear-cut case of workers being asked to do the impossible, then criticized when they fall short. Think for a moment about the countless ways in which dangerous materials can be smuggled through security. A bomb component, no different from a knife, a gun or a dangerous liquid, can be hidden, disassembled, improvised from and/or disguised any number of ways -- most of them undetectable. Attempting to ferret out every potential weapon is a lost cause from the beginning. I've said it before: The dirty work of keeping terrorists away from planes takes place out of view -- as the job of intelligence agencies and law enforcement. Airport screening exists as a last resort, and it should not be held responsible for failing to meet absurd and useless standards of zero tolerance.


Not everybody agrees, I know. I'm continually startled by the number of otherwise smart and reasonable people who believe that concourse security actually needs to be more intrusive and rigorous. I was dismayed by a recent installment of the PBS television show "America's Investigative Reports," for example, which ran an exposé about after-hours airport workers not receiving tough-enough checkpoint scrutiny. PBS's Friday night lineup has gone sharply downhill since the departure of Bill Moyers, but this was an especially disappointing segment. Instead of an exposé on how easy the system is to skirt, how about one on how misguided it is to start with?

For those who agree with me, I urge you to take a more active role. Write a letter; complain to your representative in Congress; and when you can, speak up. It remains my philosophy that if more people don't protest the silliness of current procedures, things are never going to change. Contrary to what some people think, voicing your opposition will not get you shipped to Guantánamo or placed on a no-fly list.


I confess to having initiated my share of robust and provocative discussions at various airport checkpoints. The latest of these took place a week ago at a major airport on the East Coast, when yet again I was faced with the annoying requirement that airline crew members be in uniform in order to bypass the shoe inspection -- a policy discussed here a couple of weeks ago.

With my credentials prominently displayed and my sneakers still on, I head for the metal detector, hoping for some of that special treatment I'd seen on PBS.

"Hold it," snarls a guard. "You gotta take your shoes off."


"But I'm a crew member," I answer, showing the gentleman my I.D. badge and pilot certificates.

"Yeah, but if you wanna keep your shoes on, you have to be in uniform."

"Well, OK, but how come? What difference does it make?"

"Those are the rules."

"Why, though? Am I not a crew member?"


"Those are the rules."

"I know that. But can you tell me why?"

"Those are the rules."

"Right, I know. I'm curious what the reason is. Why does having my uniform on matter? If I take a white shirt from luggage and put it on, suddenly my shoes aren't dangerous anymore?"


"It's protocol."

"But that's not a reason."

And that's all he's going to take. "Supervisor!" he bellows. "Su-per-vis-or!" His voice is much louder than it needs to be, and is obviously designed to intimidate me. I'm reminded of a child calling for his mother to ward off a bully. "Su-per-vis-or!"

Over comes the supervisor. He's a tall, well-built guy who looks like an ex-Marine.


I introduce myself. "I just have a question, that's all." He nods and shakes my hand.

"This guy won't take his shoes off," interrupts the guard. "He says we have to give him a reason." The word "reason" is snarled and sarcastic.

"Excuse me," I answer. "First, I didn't refuse to take my shoes off. I was asking a question. And this is the United States of America. If you're going to search a person or make him remove articles of clothing, then yes, I think you do need to give him a reason."

I'm startled when the supervisor lets me through. "It's OK, he can pass."


His lackey gives me a look, then pulls away like he wants to go hide under the X-ray machine.

I spend a minute or so talking with the supervisor. "I wasn't trying to be a jerk," I tell him. "I'm just mystified as to why a uniform is more important than actual credentials. Or maybe there is a legitimate reason ..."

"You're supposed to be in uniform, technically," he says. "But it doesn't make any sense, I know." He shrugs and shakes his head. "Look, this is the government. You're dealing with the government."

I have to say, that was the most refreshingly frank thing I've ever heard from a TSA employee.

We have come to expect bad policy from DHS and TSA. One organization we don't expect it from is NASA. Yet NASA too has found itself in the middle of a P.R. imbroglio.

Best known for its work in space, the agency also does a fair amount of air safety research. Last week, in a report by the Associated Press, word broke that NASA had withheld the controversial results of an extensive four-year pilot survey. Apparently, interviews with some 24,000 private and commercial pilots revealed disturbing trends -- particularly, a marked increase in the number of near collisions both on the ground and aloft. NASA chose not to disclose the results and ordered that all data be scrubbed from its computers.

"Release of the requested data, which are sensitive and safety-related," wrote Thomas Leudtke, a senior NASA official, in a letter to the AP, "could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers and general aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey."

It's a strange story, though not necessarily an alarming one. For starters, it's critical to note that along with airline pilots, the survey included general aviation (private) pilots, as well as those employed by smaller, nonscheduled commercial operators. And although any uptick in near collisions is worrying, it is not altogether surprising given that the number of flights continues to increase. I'm uncertain whether the rise has been proportionate -- such data is difficult to parse because the definition of "near miss" can be subjective and inconsistent. (The public pictures two airplanes missing each other by inches. In reality, most incursions are unnoticeable to the naked eye, involving minor breaches of airspace or runway boundaries. They can be dangerous, but usually they aren't.)

Are there problems? Absolutely. More planes are flying than ever. That alone presents an inherently greater chance of there being an accident. Our air traffic control system has not kept pace. It is old, understaffed and underfunded. Maintaining a safe system will demand a high level of vigilance and substantial material investment. But is there a crisis? The numbers speak for themselves: More than 25,000 commercial flights operate daily in the United States, yet there has not been a crash involving a major U.S. carrier since November 2001 -- the longest such streak in the history of modern aviation. Neither has there been a serious runway collision on American soil in 16 years; the last midair catastrophe occurred in 1986. Maybe we've been lucky -- luck will always have a role in air safety -- but it's ironic that even with accidents down substantially, there's a perception that our skies are percolating with danger.

Stories like this, unfortunately, nourish that perception. The real scandal isn't the data itself, in all likelihood; rather, it's that NASA went through such pains to conceal it. Given the immense reservoir of distrust people already hold for the airlines, it was, if nothing else, a terrible public relations move.

Why it happened, however, is perhaps more complicated than an attempt to protect airline profits. At heart, this is possibly an issue of trust between pilots and NASA. We'd be remiss in not mentioning NASA's successful ASRS (Aviation Safety Reporting System) program, a valuable data-gathering tool that for years has allowed pilots to report errors and infractions with a guarantee of immunity from Federal Aviation Administration enforcement action. ASRS provides regulators with unique insights into safety issues, while allowing pilots to avoid possible suspension or revocation of their licenses. If publicizing the results of this latest survey were to violate the participants' confidentiality, it could undermine this long-standing mutual trust, jeopardizing future research.

This week, under pressure from lawmakers and the media, NASA announced it will release details of the survey later this year, provided that the identities of all 24,000 pilots can remain undisclosed.

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

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

MORE FROM Patrick SmithLIKE Patrick Smith

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

Air Travel Ask The Pilot Business Nasa Space Terrorism