Airport Insecurity

The latest attempted airline attack and the subsequent disruption to air travel due to ‘enhanced’ security made me wonder about the true objective of the attack. At the surface, we treat the attack as an attempt to bring down a single airliner — but what if the objective was to disrupt air travel?

Look at the history of airport security responses. A long time ago, when airplane hijacking was in vogue, metal detectors were deployed in airports to prevent passengers from bringing guns and knives on board. Then the plastic gun and glass fibre knife was developed — but we still keep doing the metal detection check. Interestingly, locking the cockpit door was a concept very slowly and reluctantly deployed even though the industry option was that it would be more effective.

More recently we had the shoe bomber and now the underpants bomber — and there was an attempted assassination in Saudi where the bomber had an explosive suppository. So no more carry-on luggage and even larger delays and passenger indignities. And some air transport agencies want to show their zeal for security by outdoing even the most exaggerated checks. [Are full body cavity checks and travelling naked far away?] But as always, the response is to the previous attack — and the usual stories are circulating that there was advanced warning but it was ignored or the process was still considering it. So a fail at catching the bomb and worse on responding to warnings about the bomber.

But maybe the real objective is not to bring down an airliner but to disrupt holiday air travel? The bomb doesn’t even have to work, just suggest that it might have. Remember the 1950’s horror movies — the most terrifying were the ones that suggested what was happening, not the ones that showed it. So we have had a suggestion of an attack and our (by now predictable) response is to impose even more severe ‘security’ measures and really clog holiday air travel. After all, is not the objective of a terrorist campaign to induce the fear of an attack rather than just a high body count? By that standard the attack was wildly successful — with the full cooperation of the air travel security authorities.

And as far as a real hazard to air travel, how much is all this theater diverting from aircraft maintenance? I think the real numbers would indicate that there is a larger risk to passengers of traveling in poorly maintained planes or in planes repaired with counterfeit parts. And would we not do better by spending more money on trying to use all the ‘intelligence’ more effectively to anticipate and prevent attacks? Seems to me that what we really do is help the terrorists achieve their objectives — but I wonder, is anyone thinking about that?


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