Delta Terrorist Showcases Need for Causal Analysis

Rob Enderle

When I see the lack of causal analysis of travel security policies, which seem to be based on the theory that the more uncomfortable and annoyed the passenger is the safer they are, I wonder about our sanity. Let's chat about security and why you might want to start considering trains, boats or video conferencing as alternatives to planes to travel next year.


What Happened


A boy who had been on the terrorist watch list, had been identified as a suicide bomber risk, purchased a ticket with cash, and checked no baggage tried unsuccessfully to bring a Delta flight down. He was stopped, much like on the one plane that didn't hit its target on 9/11, by the passengers.


What Should Have Resulted


Given that existing security processes should have flagged the passenger before he got on the plane and that passengers reacting promptly limited the damage, the right response would be to correct existing processes and to train passengers in this best practice. That's how you do causal analysis based correction; you look at the cause of a problem and then design a correction that has the least business disruption while effectively addressing the cause. This wasn't what was initially done.


What Actually Resulted


New processes were rolled out, preventing people from getting out of their seats in the first and last hours of flights, turning off internal seat-based maps and often entire media systems, eliminating under seat storage, and preventing the use of personal electronics for extended periods. While increased scanning in the airport, which was also implemented, might have caught the terrorist, these in-flight procedures would not have limited impact except on the poor folks who are trying to get to their destinations and regretting using air travel. The recoving U.S. airlines are now once again on death watch. If the terrorist's intent was to put lots of U.S. people out of work, he may have been successful, but only with the help of the U.S. government.


What Wasn't Anticipated


The obvious place to put explosives is in the body. One such explosive device was targeted at a Saudi prince back in September; prevention mechanisms should be moving to this level of detection immediately. But we tend to operate on a reactive stance, until such an explosive is used on a plane, we pretend it doesn't exist and continue to run around trying to look busy until a plane attempt is actually made and politicians can have that wonderful look of surprise on their faces as they scramble for the next Kodak moment.


What Should Have Happened


The U.S. government should have immediately blocked everyone on the terrorist watch list from traveling without extensive personal searches. They should have updated the chemical sniffers and trained the dogs on the new chemicals, and they should have started to train passengers in what to do in case of a problem like this -- all of which would have had limited impact on people who aren't on the watch list or airline survival.


What You Can Do


If you are traveling internationally, think about going on a non-U.S. airline. For some reason, they are typically less strict (as of this writing some of them had already turned entertainment and seat back map systems back on), and while U.S. airlines were using plastic utensils, the non-U.S. airlines had moved back to using metal. Pick up a T-Pass bag for stuff you carry on the airplane. It allows you to more quickly go through security. Think about having your luggage shipped to your destination so that it is less likely to be destroyed during some random search. Avoid overseas air travel entirely (so far the changes are mostly focused on flights coming in to the U.S.). If there are alternatives to air travel for your return, consider them. Video conferencing and telepresence have improved a great deal over the last decade and can be a great alternative to the aggravation you are likely to have on an airplane.


Wrapping Up


How the U.S. government responds to a terrorist threat remains an example of what not to do with security. Overreact, don't focus on the causes, and don't anticipate future problems while forgetting that related business needs to be able to continue to operate successfully. It isn't hard to imagine two possible futures: one where we all travel naked sitting on wooden seats that don't recline and one where there are no more airlines. A better future would be one where the threat is mitigated without destroying the travel business or the joy of air travel. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the path we are on.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 29, 2009 5:52 AM Ann All Ann All  says:


Good recommendation, except for the one about the list. As has been widely reported, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was on a broad list of 500,000 folks flagged as suspicious but not the much smaller 'no fly' list. These lists are highly flawed.

I am on the list and have been for several years despite contacting the TSA via its Web site. I'll be damned if I know how I got on it. Maybe because my name could seem foreign if you juggled the letters a bit? Or perhaps because I had to switch flights right before takeoff on a business trip several years back through no fault of my own. (It was airline error. I got searched 3 times on that trip. An attendant finally told me it was because of the last-minute switch.)

I think a big problem is that no one reacted to the obviously weird situation of this guy flying on a $3,000 one-way ticket w/ no checked bags.

I expect it's only a matter of time before the terrorists decide to just take out a bunch of people at a major airport instead of in the air. None of these new procedures seem to address that.

Dec 29, 2009 6:52 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to Ann All

It makes more sense to put the folks on the list under search than everyone under search until the problem can be sorted out given the cause.  I can think of no reason why you'd need an indepth search of everyone because of this incident because he was on a list.   Agree the list is flawed but right now folks are reporting having to arrive at airports up to 6 hours early and that's just nuts.  Now that we know what happened they could back down to just ensuring folks follow the existing rules which should have kept him off a plane.  This wasn't a rule problem but an enforcement problem. 

Dec 29, 2009 10:21 AM a. asdf a. asdf  says:

Typical government overreaction, "rather safe than sorry" taken to the extreme. I'm still trying to figure out why people can't go to the restrooms during the final hour of the flight. If there is a danger, why not ban restrooms for the whole flight, just sedate people before takeoff and be done with it.

Seriously, the current trend is unsustainable. At this rate, flying to your destination is going turn into something out of the movie 'Spies Like Us'. People are just going to lock themselves into a shipping container with a six pack and a bag of chips and FedEx themselves to their destination.

Dec 30, 2009 1:59 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says: in response to a. asdf

That'd work for me FedEx or UPS couldn't be any worse and at least I'd get to bring my own drinks.


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