This excellent article on airline security from Vanity Fair features one of my favorite bloggers/authors, Bruce Schneier. It’s worth a read in it’s entirety, and I’ve put my favorite quote at the end of this post.
The $1.1 trillion number is staggering and sobering – that is an unbelievable waste of money. The problem as Schneier eloquently puts it, is that we are much more obsessed with APPEARING secure than actually being secure.
To me, it’s worth looking at three things that seperate airlines from other potential terrorist targets:
1. Airlines can be used as weapons like on 9/11
2. The total amount of explosives needed to kill a couple of hundred people on an airline is relatively low – the same number of deaths from a terrestrial attack would require substantially more explosive material.
3. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have shown an intent to target airlines in the past.
Of these, only #1 justifies what I would call “extraordinary measures” – airlines have the potential to be turned into weapons, so need to be safeguarded more than do trains or other forms of mass transit. With that said, and as Schneier points out, that threat is essentially gone – cockpit doors are now extensively reinforced, and the aftermath of 9/11 has ensured that a would-be hijacker would have to contend with a plane full of angry passengers convinced that fighting back is the only hope of survival. Hijacking a commercial aircraft is essentially impossible now (though freight and private planes are a different matter).
#2 does make airlines a target but only marginally so – while it’s easy to take down an airplane with a small amount of explosives, the limited access to them makes it exponentially more difficult to actually get that explosive to the target. A truck full of explosives could easily be used on a high-density target for the same result as a downed airplane.
And #3 is an argument for intelligence gathering, not just blindly protecting airlines. We would be much better served if that 1.1 trillion had been spent on spies and informants throughout the world, trying to actively determine what Al Qaeda is planning, instead of just blindly assuming that they will keep trying to attack the same target. Or we could, you know, not have spent the $1.1T that is sending us deeper and deeper into debt.
All of that aside, even if airline security WERE a dire national security priority, we’re bungling it nearly every step of the way – many of the billion dollar pieces of high-tech screening equpiment can be fooled with laughably simple work arounds, and we end up spending billions of dollars and countless wasted man hours taking off our shoes and sealing our liquids in zip loc bags.
The quote of the article:
Not only is it not done right, but even if it was done right it would be the wrong thing to do.