Air Travel Security: Is It Time to Start Over?

Rob Enderle

My grandmother used to tell a story about a not particularly smart lady who put salt instead of sugar in her tea. She then added herbs to the tea to offset the salt, but the tea only got worse. She went door to door and collected suggestions; each made the tea even more undrinkable. She finally went to the smartest person in the town and he said (OK, she said) to pour it out and start with a new cup.


This is a good lesson for a lot of things. We sometimes work so hard to fix something, but after awhile we simply are making things worse, and maybe we should step back and start over. This came to mind as I watched folks talk about air travel security and implementing backscatter x-ray machines that will effectively show us in our naked glory to folks we are sure won't ever chat or joke about what they see, let alone put the images up on the Web.


We are also assured that these machines won't tear apart our DNA and, given the risks typically associated with x-ray radiation, that we should feel safe that this time the experts actually know what they are talking about. That's me being sarcastic, but I think governments are being idiotic.


Earlier, I suggested that we needed better causal analysis. I'm thinking now that this has become such a big mess, we first need to think about starting over.


Thinking Back


We started with a fear of hijackers and put in place limitations on carrying guns on planes, a process to search luggage, and eventually to scan for metal on our bodies. We moved to a fear of explosives and technology that would look for explosive residue, none of which has been particularly effective at preventing things like 9/11, the idiot who tried to explode his feet, or the idiot who recently tried to explode his privates. (The History of Airport Security is worth reading and it is filled with a mess of decisions that eventually took much of the fun from flying.)


With the massive investment in scanning, luggage continues to be stolen, suggesting that security isn't that tight and folks keep doing things on airlines that put travel at risk. To net this out, we seem only to have spent billions of dollars to make travel less comfortable and nearly bankrupt the airlines. Now we seem hell bent to put in place technology that may only entertain a whole new class of badged peeping toms.


What If We Started Over?


What if we took this massive pool of money and applied it to technology that didn't make us feel the need to take our bags on the plane? What if it got drop-shipped to our destination and the airline provided in-flight entertainment and in-bathroom toiletries, and the only exclusions would be for medical needs? For folks that needed e-mail, in-seat e-mail terminals could be used. If you needed a laptop, you would carry your stuff on a thumb drive and the airline would loan you a machine for the trip for a nominal fee. They could probably provide it as part of the fee for the in-flight wireless service. A similarly approved eBook could be used for reading material.


Much like driving a car, you could get a license to travel by air. That license would need to be renewed and have a required background check that would assure you hadn't been radicalized. As when the Clear travel service was operating, this license would be connected to you biometrically to significantly reduce the chance of forgery.


Another way to limit risk is to provide approved carry-on luggage at the airport and sell reusable bags (like the green shopping bags) that could be turned in at departure and then reissued on arrival. Security personnel would do the transfer themselves as part of the hand search and the resulting bags would be assured to fit in the overhead space and assure hard limits on carry-on luggage were enforced. This seems vastly better than what Canada recently did by banning carry-on luggage outright.


No card -- no airplane trip or heavy personal scanning.


Risk Accept


Life isn't without some risk and there is a risk that someone could get on a subway, train, ship, or bus with a bomb or gun, and they often do, but we don't even scan for metals for most of these. We, as a society, accept the fact that there is the chance that someone will do something inappropriate. We just accept the risk and move on with our lives. We effectively do this for safety belts in school busses, most active sports, and when we live in areas known for natural disasters or high crime rates.


Train Passengers to Respond to the Threat


Of all of the things that we have put in place, the only thing that seemed to work both recently and during the 9/11 event was a passenger response. So train people to do this, you could provide stronger mileage perks and upgrades to those who would voluntarily go through advanced training and screening, effectively putting more trained low-cost air marshals in planes much like law enforcement and the military use reserves.


Rather than passengers being part of the problem, make them part of the solution. Rather than focusing on creating the illusion of safety, actually make them safer by training them to know what to do in an emergency. Part of the training would be to engage other passengers, to get to know them personally and assess whether they are a threat.


Wrapping Up: A Smarter Approach to Airline Security


We seem to be on a path of constantly throwing expensive and largely ineffective technology at the problem of in-flight security when we should be using our brains instead. This is partially because we really can't afford this expensive and apparently largely ineffective approach. But this is also partially because we are destroying air travel and any enjoyment we might get from it. In the end, doesn't it seem just a little bit nuts that every time something like the latest terrorist attempt happens, we punish every other traveler even before we convict the terrorist? Where is our due process?


I think it is time we went back to the drawing board and made planes into less-attractive targets while focusing on making air travel more enjoyable again. I'm tired of being punished for something someone else did and think there must be a better way. I hope we find it before someone comes up with the likely scary solution to internal explosive devices.


What do you think?

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 31, 2009 11:38 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to Francis Carden

Wow no kidding, thanks for posting and almost Happy New Year!

Dec 31, 2009 5:27 PM Francis Carden Francis Carden  says:

If you read this, you have to say yes.


This is pathetic, which all the money we spend. Sigh.

Jan 8, 2010 8:41 PM Bryan Moore Bryan Moore  says:

I think you are on the right track with this one.  Money is being thrown around in all the wrong places.  Another sad point to make out of all this is the fact that anytime I get into a comercial jet I feel like I'm going back in time.  How long have some of these jets been in service?


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