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As described by my father and grandfather, they knew of a time when the only fear associated with flying was a mechanical failure. Today, after 50 years of terrorist and criminal activity impacting air travel, the world's fear of flying is now linked to bombings and hijackings. Every day, the United States government strives to ensure the safety of its traveling citizens and foreign visitors. This includes measures against any form of domestic tyranny or international led conspiracies. Our recent history suggests that destroying an aircraft in-flight or using such a platform as a vehicle of destruction continues to be a method of political expediency used by anarchists, criminals, and fundamentalists. The United States realizes that it must protect and safeguard every inbound and outbound airline flight. If not, the loss of life and the subsequent economic instability would be staggering. The United States, in its efforts to secure airline travel, created the Transportation Security Administration almost 10 years ago. As described on its web site, the TSA has approximately 50,000 employees that protect our transportation systems. Their jurisdiction not only includes airline safety, but shipping, urban transportation, and rail. This paper will try to measure the relative safety of air travel today and ifour governments effort to protect the flying public is sufficient. I will examine the history of criminal activity impacting air travel and associated international counter measures. I will focus on today's TSA and their measures to keep airline travel safe. Finally, I will project into the future and determine if indeed we can now be like my father and grandfather 50 years ago and just worry about the mechanical safety of the aircraft.
The TSA was created on Nov 19, 2001 in response to the events on 9/11. Originally organized in the U.S. Department of Transportation, it now operates under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Prior to 9/11 and the existence of the TSA, Airport security was run by private companies who would create contracts with either an airline, or an alliance of airlines.
Before the 1960's, there was basically no airline security. Talking to my father and grandfather, they remember quite clearly a boarding process with no x-ray machines, police officers, pat-downs or any other perceived inconvenience. Simply put, aviation security was not high on the list of priorities of air travelers, the Federal Government, and the international air community. Starting in the 60s and escalating in the 70s, aircraft safety now included protection from forces not related to aircraft performance.
To summarize the extent of criminal activity (hijacking, assault, bombings, and destruction) against commercial airlines for the past 50 years, it is estimated that approximately 70 significant events have occurred. Only one significant criminal event occurred in the 50's, six in the 60's, 22 in the 70's, 17 in the 80's, 13 in the 90's and 11 during the past 10 years (Wikipedia, 2010). What is interesting about the history of criminal activity targeting aircraft is that all government responses seem to be reactionary. The criminal or terrorist seem to always exploit a weakness in the system not previously defended. By looking at the history of violence against aviation, we can see this exact pattern unfold.
After the successful coup by Fidel Castro in 1959, the number of hijackings increased. People wanted to escape from Castro's repressive regime and as a course of action, hijacked aircraft to the United States. The pattern was altered in May 1961 when the first American airliner was diverted to Cuba. This prompted the Federal Government to supply armed guards on commercial planes when requested by an airline or the FBI.
Following the hijacking of eight airliners to Cuba in January 1969, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created the Task Force on the Deterrence of Air Piracy. For the first time in America, metal detectors were used to screen passengers. Additionally, the FAA created a hijacker profile database.
Criminal activity began to escalate in the 1970's. In September of 1970, a Palestinian political group hijacked four aircraft simultaneously. Three of the aircraft were forced to fly to the Jordanian desert. They were destroyed by the political group after releasing most of the hostages. They exchanged the final hostages for seven Palestinian prisoners. This attack convinced the White House that stronger steps were needed. President Nixon announced a brand new anti-hijacking system on September 11, 1970. This new system included a Federal marshal program.Â
Another hi-profile incident occurred just 11 months later with the hijacking of Northwest Orient Airlines Flight 305 by a man who became known as D.B Cooper. He showed what resembled a bomb to the flight attendants, and demanded $200,000 and parachutes. After landing in Seattle, the FBI gave this individual $200,000 and parachutes. After refueling, the aircraft took off, headed towards Reno, Nevada. Cooper jumped from the plane during a heavy rainstorm through the aft stairs. This forced the aircraft to land, with the aft stairs being deployed. The F.B.I believes that Cooper didn't survive the jump, however the case remains unresolved. Shortly thereafter, all of the airlines worldwide secured the aft stairs to their planes.
After more hijackings to Cuba in the early 70's and an actual shoot-out between the FBI and criminals aboard a Southern Airways Flight, the FAA issued an emergency rule making inspection of carry-on baggage and scanning of all passengers by airlines mandatory. The universal screening was sanctioned, after a bill that involved anti-hijacking was signed in August of 1974. In 1976, the world watched in horror as an Air France plane with 300 passengers was hijacked by Palestinians and flown to Entebbe, Uganda. After the aircraft landed, all non-Jewish passengers were released. After being Hijacked by members of the militant organizations, they threaten to kill the remaining hostages (most of them Jewish) if their requests were not granted. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) planned a rescue operation. The operation, which took seven days to plan, and lasted almost two hours, resulted in over 100 freed hostages. Based on the Israeli plan, the U.S. developed rescue teams.
Moving into the 1980's, although most Americans felt relatively secure with air travel, an Ethiopian flight crashed into the Indian Ocean after hijackers refused to allow the pilot to land and refuel the plane. 125 passengers died with 50 passengers surviving.
In December June 1985, terrorists from Lebanon diverted a TWA plane leaving Athens for Beirut. These terrorists murdered one passenger during this two-week dilemma, and the 155 that remained were released. This hijacking, as well as an increase in Middle East terrorism, resulted in several U.S. actions, including the International Security and Development Cooperation Act of 1985. This act made Federal air marshals a permanent part of the Federal Aviation Administration.
On December 21, 1988, a Pan American Airliner left London enroute to New York. Over Lockerbie Scotland, the plane was torn apart by a bomb. All 243 passengers and 16 crew members were killed and eleven people on the ground were killed as large sections of the plane fell in and around the town of Lockerbie. This incident prompted all U.S. carriers to have x-ray machines and 100% checked baggage matches at all European and Middle East airports.
With such intense violence occurring in the skies, the FAA sponsored research on new equipment to detect bombs and weapons. They also made improvements on screening prospective airline and airport employees. The FAA also created a list of hazardous materials banned from passenger aircraft and in 1997; a Federal appropriation bill provided more funds for airport security personnel and equipment.
On September 11, 2001, four U.S. aircraft were hijacked over the east coast. Two crashed into the World Trade Centers, a third into the Pentagon, and the final aircraft into a Pennsylvania field. As a result of these horrors, the cockpits were reinforced to prevent access by passengers, passengers could no longer bring anything into the passenger cabin that could be used as a weapon such as tweezers, scissors and nail files, and the U.S. military would now intercept and destroy airliners presenting a threat to urban areas.
In 2006, a passenger by the name of Richard Reid tried to light a fuse protruding from his shoe during a trans-Atlantic flight. The FBI said the sole of his shoe was packed with enough high explosives to blow a hole in the aircraft. Now airline security was faced with an entirely new threat, a suicide bomber, and needed new strategies. Immediately after, the TSA made it mandatory for all passengers to have their shoes inspected before boarding.
Finally, on Christmas Day 2009, an individual with Al Qaeda connections, tried to blow up a Northwest flight to Detroit from Amsterdam. He had plastic explosives in his underwear but failed to detonate them properly. If his plan succeeded, he was to die as a suicide bomber killing all 289 people on board. The director of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, stated the current systems to protect the public failed miserably. Most glaring in this failure was the inability of intelligence sources to merge data, filter information, and deny the individual a boarding pass in Amsterdam. As a result of this attempt, the U.S. began to increase the installation and use of full-body scanners in many major airports, and the use of more officers and security dogs at airports. Dutch officials also said that they will now use 3D full-body scanning X-ray technology on flights departing to the U.S. Dutch officials also stated that security must take priority over the privacy of individuals. In response to this attempted attach, Canada would now install full body scanners at major airports and not limited their use to secondary screening of passengers.
In summary, by reviewing these high profile airline cases, the pattern of response by airlines and governments to these criminal activities appears to be reactionary. Terrorists, hijackers, and bombers continue to exploit system weaknesses. Those involved with airline security, governments and their agencies, fail to anticipate the next form of attack. The above timeline now leads us to TSA's current security measures.
Airline security today involves a number of procedures and methods, created for the one purpose of preventing unwanted items, and in some cases, unwanted people from boarding airlines. Many of these procedures involve pat downs, metal detectors, baggage check, and completely random searches. In heavy cases, police dogs, such as k-9 units, will be taken to the scene. Though there are still many cases today of security problems in airports, and present-day incidences, airline security has come a long way, but still has a distant road ahead of it.
As mentioned above, there are many steps taken to avoid unwanted items or individuals in the airport. The government currently holds the "no-fly" list, with a list of people's names that are banned from all airline flights, domestic or international. This list contains the individual's name, along with all of their information. Many people will confuse this list with the Terrorist-Watch list. These are two completely different lists. This list contains about 3,800 names. This list was created after the attacks of 9/11. The one flaw with this list is that many of the names appear identical to American Citizens, who are in full capability of flying. Many of these legitimate flyers will find themselves being overworked by security at the airport, just because they share the name of a suspected terrorist on the no-fly list. Many proof-measures are taken to prove that the individual is in fact not a terrorist, and just an average airline flyer. In addition to the no-fly list, there is also an "extra inspection list." This list is very similar to the no-fly list, however, the people on this list still have the capability to fly, but are required to go through extra screening.
The two lists mentioned above are measures taken to expel unwanted people from the airport. Unwanted items however, are ransacked in many different ways. The most common ways of finding unwanted objects on flights are metal detectors, baggage x-ray machines, and show checks. If something suspicious is seen using the baggage x-ray machine, bags may undergo hand searches by members of the TSA. If an individual has to go through additional security measures, they are usually scanned by TSA members with metal detecting wands. There are also x-ray machines for people, but these aren't used often, and only used in critical situations. These full-body x-ray machines would have been the future of airline security, but many people complained that it is a violation of privacy. The TSA also holds many random searches, which involves the selection of a completely random individual, and then searched using the methods mentioned above. In extreme, but incredibly rare cases, some individuals may have to undergo a full-body search. This includes somebody getting searched everywhere on their body. This could be a physical search, or a visual search. Many people say that the security system in airports has come a long way, but still has many flaws, and needed improvements. Some complain that the "1 in 4" search rule isn't effective. This rule is that everyone 1 in 4 people receives extra screening in the airport. Many people think that they should just require everyone to receive extra screening, but the government doesn't have the funding for this, and it would be way too time consuming, considering the current security procedure already takes a large amount of time to complete. New methods are being searched for everyday, and money is being funded into new security protocol.
Nobody knows what the future of airline security holds. An ideal possibility for the future of security screening is the full body scanner. These full body scanners would use completely different systems than the current screening systems that airports currently use. (Baggage x-ray, wands, etc) The two systems used in the full body scanners are an x-ray system known as "Backscatter" and millimeter-wave. Both of these use a non-harmful type of radiation that will penetrate clothing. The difference between "Backscatter" and a regular baggage x-ray is "Backscatter" fired a much gentler burst of x-rays, and then catches those that are sent back, or "Backscattered" from one's body, or that are concealed on the person being scanned by the machine. Concealed explosives, forms of drugs, and non-metal knives could potentially make it through the metal detectors undetected, but these same objects would scatter the rays of the full body scanner, and then be revealed on screen. Millimeter-wave uses a similar technology. So to say, it works the same way as the "Backscatter" and bounces back rays that are transmitted to a target. Millimeter-wave however, borrows a military radar design, which projects a detailed "radar image" of your body on a computer monitor. The only difference is that the rays are instead fired using radar instead of x-ray. The detection of objects concealed on the body works the same. There is a major controversy with this technology, however. Many say that it is a vast invasion of privacy, and that it should have some slight modifications to how it deciphers "private" areas on people. Some people also think that this shouldn't even be a problem. The person reviewing the images created by the full body scanner is in a completely different part of the airport from the machine. Secondly, the person reviewing the designs created by the machines is searched of electronics and cameras before operating the machine. It is the airports job to make sure the customers are safe, so these measures should be taken. If this machine was implemented in airports prior to the Christmas Day "pants bomber," he may not have gotten away with the bomb concealed in his pants to easily. If people have personal issues with it, they can simply choose not to fly.
There is one more issue however, based off of perspective. This new systems of "full body scanning" was only available in 11 airports as of March, 2009. Over 150 new full body scanners were said to be deployed by the end of 2010. Terrorists are extremely sophisticated and intelligent. They will find the weakest links by any means necessary. They will start to avoid any airports that have this technology, and target the ones that still have yet to receive the scanners. Airports are gaining these at a very slow rate, so terrorists will eventually find which airports still lack the full body scanners. Many think that the full body scanners are very effective, but they really seem obsolete to most if not every airport has one. It will be very difficult to deploy these machines to every airport worldwide. Besides the cost and training issues, many countries will determine their use as an extreme invasion of privacy.
So are we safe? It appears from history that criminals always seem to thwart existing technology. It also appears that those protecting us cannot think proactively. Some questions to consider about your relative safety on an airplane:
How effective are these new body scanners if they are not deployed at every airport?
Why doesn't technology exist to discover composite bombs?
Is the government being too politically correct by not profiling potential terrorists and criminals?
Are valuable resources being wasted by focusing on 80 year old Swedish Grandmothers as a potential airline threat?
Are nail clippers a threat to airline safety?
Why isn't all baggage and cargo x-rayed and inspected before put into an aircraft's cargo hold?
What defense does an airliner have against a shoulder launched missile?
Finally, those on the front lines, the TSA agents, they make approximately $14.00 an hour. Is there ability to analyze and filter information the same or even better than a college graduate who has demonstrated an ability to think rigorously?
Despite the billions of dollars spent on machines and people, it's concluded that we are not any safer now than 50 years ago. Terrorist are intelligent and professional. Until every country has the same resources, share intelligence data, access a worldwide terrorist database, and prioritize the safety of each and every aircraft as opposed to individual freedoms, individuals are doomed for more disasters in the air and on the ground.