William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Most Visible Airport Security Rules Cannot Prevent Another Fruit-of-the-Loom Bomber

I sincerely hope that somebody doesn’t think I am exposing any secrets. Each point below is obvious to anybody willing to spend five-minutes thought. I obviously have nothing to say about invisible procedures.

If we limit the amount of liquid that each passenger can carry on board to X ounces so that no person can carry enough explosive to blow up or blow a hole in an aircraft, and it takes Y ounces to do so (with Y > X), then all terrorists need to do is to buy N tickets, where N * X ≥ Y, with each of the N terrorists carrying his limit of the explosive, which can then be mixed together in the aircraft toilet. To say that terrorists limit themselves to no more than one per flight is to, at least, neglect history.

In any case, preventing a large conspiracy to smuggle explosives is difficult. For example, any passenger can buy a large container from an airport shop behind security, and can carry that container on board. Presumably, the invisible aspects of security minimize this threat (I speak from hope and not experience).

TSA

Having a gloved TSA agent check your boarding pass so that the printing on the boarding pass matches that of your identification is useless. It is trivially easy to create a false boarding pass. Or even easier to buy a genuine ticket in the name that matches the identification, just as the 9/11 murderers did.

It is useless to limit passengers’ movement in the cabin for the last hour of the trip (except for reasons of turbulence, landing, and so forth). It is just as useless to blank out the airplane tracking graphics available in some aircraft. Banning radios (receivers) is useless in the same way: I have tried to listen to FM radio while aloft, but have been told this is illegal. A trip to the toilet allows anybody to communicate with the ground undetected.

Removing toilet doors and replacing them with curtains, secured with a strap to indicate occupancy, would have minor use. This is not drastic as it sounds: airport toilets would become like any public restroom.

Banning blankets, pillows, and other objects that cover passengers’ laps is useless.

Metal detectors are useful, but imperfect and limited.

Patting down passengers before they can board can be useful, but it is not an exact procedure, especially with fat passengers. The usefulness of this procedure can be greatly enhanced if it is combined with profiling.

It has been suggested that passengers be allowed to carry firearms on board because terrorists won’t strike when they fear other passengers might be armed. This is obviously silly. A gun needed only be used to threaten or take another’s life: it can also be used to poke holes in mechanical objects.

What would be useful, and expensive, is to install obviously (and properly) armed security guards on each flight. Airlines that take this step could boast of this. President Obama ended the program the allowed trained pilots to carry guns.

Most useful would be to extend profiling in combination with traditional procedures. Obviously, some profiling is already conducted; no-fly and watch lists exist, for example. Profiling at the security check point has some use, but it is limited: e.g., TSA guards could more assiduously search certain passengers. Better would be to beef up the behind-the-scenes profiling where passenger’s names are checked when the ticket is issued.

I do not say that the TSA should be given more power. Their mandate should be narrowed, and limited solely to making individual flights (or trains, etc.) safe. They should not be given powers that are already in the hands of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Once a passenger has been determined to be free of weapons, explosives, and so forth their authority should stop absolutely.

What happened to reporter and American citizen Michael Yon should not be allowed. Among other things, the TSA agents asked the handcuffed Yon, “How much money do you make?” Any citizen should be allowed to say, “None of your damn business”, or even refuse to answer. This question is irrelevant to the safety of an individual flight.

No matter what the security, foul ups are inevitable. Like in Newark, where the security cameras weren’t working when a man ventured into a forbidden area. (Hat tip, Instapundit.)

What’s most interesting about this is the response from Senator Frank Lautenberg (D). He was careful to be quoted as saying, “This system was broken.”

26 Comments

  1. “Patting down passengers before they can board can be useful, but it is not an exact procedure, especially with fat passengers.” Was there ever even one fat – even chubby – suicide bomber?
    Fat people like their beer and barbecue too much. Mmmm…Duff!

  2. “invisible procedures” presumably include the supercompetent way that the US Intelligence services put together deeply subtle clues, such as someone’s father saying that he fears that his son may be training to become a terrorist, that said son buys tickets for cash, and carries no luggage? And, insofar as one can make out what happened from the chaotic public statements, that same son had been identified to them as a worry by British Intelligence. I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that the system is hopeless – just hopeless. Thank God that most of the terrorists seem to be hopeless too – but you can’t bet on that remaining so indefinitely. You might care to offer odds?

  3. Briggs

    January 6, 2010 at 7:28 am

    dearieme,

    Good grief! Besides the legality, what would have happened if the poor guy decided to light up?

    liamascorcaigh,

    Free beer might dissuade many a potential bomber.

  4. Hi Briggs. Thanks for yet another thoughtful post.

    The current approach is to ensure passengers are not on a “blacklist” and are not carrying a weapon. If this approach is found to be inherently ineffective, too costly, or too inconvenient, then it is time for another approach.

    If the current approach is inherently ineffective, it is usual to first consider an opposite approach. In this case that would mean an approach that ensures passengers are on a “whitelist” and are carrying a weapon. (I guess every passenger is a “soldier” against terrorism — complete with uniform and sidearm?) Failure here means not enough people are permitted to fly. Just our military and police I guess.

    If the current approach is to costly then I suggest turning security back over to the airlines. In a competitive environment, this pretty much guarantees minimizing costs.

    If the current approach is too inconvenient, then using small aircraft is the answer. No need for a security check at all if you are flying with someone you know.

    George

  5. Couldn’t agree more but a couple of observations:

    1) I think the name/ticket correspondence was pushed by the airlines. As you mentioned, the 9/11 terrorists used their own names to purchase tickets and fake identities are easy to come by. The name check has the curious side effect of squelching the cheap ticket market where someone buys a discount ticket, say a month in advance, then resells it two weeks later to a third party, sometimes for profit. There used to be ads for these in the New Yorker and Washingtonian magazines.

    2) The FM radio rule is long standing and far predates 9/11. The operation of electronic equipment on an aircraft is against FAA regulations. The rationale is the prevention of interference with the aircraft electronics and, indeed, many communication receivers have an intermediate frequency of 10.7 Mhz as do common FM receivers. It’s actually up to the pilot to make the determination of safety but don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Just be happy you can still use your iPod.

    3) Police-like empowerment seems to feed on itself. After all, a police force is a bureaucracy. Fire marshals in Maryland are permitted to carry firearms in conducting their business and many do. The IRS has several hundred agents who are “qualified” to carry firearms. And as always, jobs carrying authority seem to attract the narrow-minded and those with a bully mentality.

    4) The growth of TSA powers is also going to happen from outside the agency. No politician will risk calling for a reduction of its powers. Look at the FBI’s growth for a lesson.

    4) The current measures are really a feel-good action. All of them can be circumvented by determination — some of them laughably so. Hell, people get assassinated in prison where the measures are presumably tighter.

    5) The current “safety” measures are a step toward requiring travel papers. The 9/11 terrorists may have won.

  6. Not sure if we can catch Black Cheetah Man, Wedgie Woman and The Robo-Boogers with more security checks and rules. Hey, let’s fly wearing a plain star trek uniform and go commando!

  7. DAV,

    It’s no problem when TSA gets big and unwieldy! We’ll just privatize it, and then it will run efficiently and smoothly.

  8. Perhaps the most effective TSA procedures would be to borrow some from the Israeli playbook.

    I visited Israel once, on business, a few summers ago. I had an invitation letter from both my company and the hotel at which I was staying. My company name doesn’t matter, suffice it to say it’s a large American-based multi-national corporation whose name you would recognize, and the hotel was the Sheraton Tel-Aviv, nicely located on the Mediterranean.

    I marveled at both the thoroughness and effectiveness of their approach; the thoroughness was observed empirically, and the effectiveness is seen in their track record.

    On the way INTO Israel, I was met with surprisingly little screening. I left a major US city on AA, connected through Heathrow onto a BA flight, and landed in Tel Aviv. I had my paperwork, but nobody even asked to see it – they just stamped my passport and welcomed me to Israel.

    On the way OUT of Israel was a completely different matter. My company, being multi-national, is used to employees entering and leaving Israel. As such, there is a procedure our security department uses with the government to pre-clear much of the screening [I can only imagine how thorough it would have been if I hadn’t been pre-cleared; we’ll get to that in a minute]. Armed with that paperwork, along with my entry paperwork, I arrived at the airport. I checked into my flight – no excitement there – and then took my checked and carry-on baggage to the security screening point. Three different guards asked me some interesting questions, like “Why were you in Israel?,” “How long did you stay?,” “What did you do in Israel?,” and other detailed questions. They did examine my exit letter and were happy with that, yet there was still a bit of screening. I wouldn’t meet the simplistic “profiling” of a Muslim terrorist – no turban, no dark hair or skin, … – yet I got the full treatment.

    But wait, there’s more. Once I passed this screening, my luggage got screened. That created another set of questions. I’m an engineer, and part of what I was doing there was testing some equipment deployed by a customer. As such, I had my own test equipment along with several laptop computers. This raised a lot of interest of the security team – why so many computers, we’re going to re-screen those all by themselves, “is that OK” [which I’m sure means we’re going to do it or you’re not leaving, where are those rubber gloves, …].

    The bottom line is that the Israeli airport security, based on my one observation, is not a bunch low-paid government drones clicking through a lame bureaucratic process, watching passengers take off their shoes, rather it’s intelligent highly-trained screeners looking for things that are meaningful and interesting.

  9. One thing is for sure. No matter what changes the current administration implements will be deemed foolhardy for being either ineffective, counterproductive or intrusive.

  10. Thanks for including your comments re: Michael Yon. An (almost) unbelievably bureaucratic demonstration of the evils of power. If there actually were such a thing as justice, heads would roll.

    The major problem with pistol-toting passengers is that we are talking mostly about international flights, and there is no way in the majority of foreign jurisdictions for a passenger to possess a weapon prior to boarding. So the issue is moot. Because of modern load and projectile technology the “bullet doing major structural damage” issue is more manageable, but having said that I still agree with your conclusion. Except, of course, for me.

  11. Anyone seen the episode of MythBusters where they shot holes in the fuselage and windows of a pressurized cabin? Turns out that while it would be uncomfortable, it wouldn’t really be much more than a major irritant for the rest of the flight.

    I think my big issue with having loaded or ready-to-load firearms on flights is that I’m sure it would be an onerous process and would probably leave me unarmed and at the whim of plenty of other people who probably shouldn’t have loaded firearms on them.

  12. You wrote “What happened to reporter and American citizen Michael Yon should not be allowed. Among other things, the TSA agents asked the handcuffed Yon, “How much money do you make?”

    I think it was customs people who questioned and handcuffed him, not TSA.

    http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2010/01/war_correspondent_michael_yon.html

    The security check point is for more than just air travel security…I know people who were harassed for carrying large amounts of cash. The DEA likes airport security check points.

  13. This came to me today:

    I had a fantasy in which the Fed and the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) switched roles.

    If a bank failed at 9 a.m. one morning and shut its doors, the TSA would announce that all banks henceforth begin their business day at 10 a.m.

    And, if a terrorist managed to get on board a plane between Stockholm and Washington, the Fed would increase the number of flights between the cities.

  14. Briggs

    January 6, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Ari,

    I wasn’t so much worried about poking a hole in a window, but of a gunman getting to the cockpit and shooting up the instruments, computers, etc.

    Robert Burns,

    Thanks for the correction!

    Ron C,

    Very interesting!

    DAV,

    You’re right about the radio, but small hand-helds just can’t kick out that much radiation.

    I think you’re also right about the name on the ticket. A good way to sell a seat more than once.

  15. Doug M is hereby nominated to be Secretary of How To Make The Government Work.

    Had a fantasy myself today killing time in a waiting room while a ubiquitous CNN screen flashed on the far wall. Scrolling across the screen was their web address, and it dawned on me the “WWW” probably stood for “Wishing the Way it Were”, but that’s probably just me.

  16. Briggs, it really doesn’t matter if a pocket radio will interfere or not. There are a number of CAB and NTSB reports that attribute the respective accidents to communication and navigational electronic interference. No sane airline is going to risk allowing it if only to prevent being hammered in a crash investigation. Besides, at one time (and still, I think) they were happy to rent earphones to listen to their own in-flight selections. Sympathy or coincidence ?

  17. To back up our dear bard, RB, we have from the horse’s mouth:
    http://www.facebook.com/MichaelYonFanPage

    My feeling is that it immaterial who did the detaining. It was done with the authority of the State and should not have happened in the United States of America.

  18. Sure, we can learn from El Al, but they’re solving a somewhat different problem and have a much smaller scale to deal with. Are we going to encounter every terrorist attempt or attack with more expensive and invasive security systems that won’t prevent 100% of attacks?

    Another airline terrorist attack just might prompt rules and restrictions on the clothing that we can wear while flying the great skies. In this case, the cost can be passed onto the airline passengers.

    We are losing our freedom little by little.

  19. The importance of an armed guard on a flight is that whilst passengers are aware of the presence they are necessarily visible/apparent to the passengers.

    Good for morale no doubt and political feather preening but not much use otherwise.

    By all means have visible uniformed and armed guards but despite their ability to fight back they are essentially targets to be knocked out by the determined terrorist. As is every other known defence such as locked cockpit doors.

    It makes the job more difficult but it can be planned for.

    No it is the secret, unidentified armed guard unknown even to the aircrew whom the terrorist can neither identify and nor attack who is most effective.

    The terrorist can neither identify them nor plan on how to cope with the inevitable counterattack.

    And best of all this is very cheap since the secret guard might not even exist let alone be on the flight.

    But then again one or more of might just be.

    That’s real deterrence.

    Kindest Regards

  20. Matt,

    To the best of my knowledge, outside of smaller commuter flights, the doors on the planes are pretty sturdy and aren’t likely to be taken down by anything pistol-sized. Pilots don’t leave the cockpit open during flights now thanks to our Saudi friends from 2001. The real concern with a pistol is some idiot actually managing to hit something in the landing gear or antennas on the roof of the plane.

    Also, keep in mind that even if someone did manage to get into a cockpit and shoot something, most of the systems are double and triple-redundant. If Terrorist McMoron shoots the screen, it’s a pain for the pilots, but much of the instrumentation has backups somewhere in another location, and the avionics will take over anyway. Airbus planes are practically self-flying anyway, and outside of particularly crazy situations, the planes are all operated by the pilot within a very small box of parameters.

    It’s a pity you can’t be in a cockpit at all anymore, because anything newer than maybe a 767 is a sight to behold when it’s in flight. The systems are absolutely incredible, particularly in newer Airbus and Boeing designs. I’d be more concerned about pilots getting taken out than instruments, but like I said before, those doors are pretty hard to get past.

  21. DAV,

    Right you are. Most of the bigger planes (basically anything that’s not a commuter plane made by Embraer or Canadair) are pretty well-hardened against interference, but airlines take NO chances with these things.

    There’s a reason why we’re allowed to turn on our equipment during the cruise portion of a flight: very little of a critical nature goes on during cruise. I don’t really take any umbrage with having to turn off my gadgets for what’s a total of maybe 30 minutes of a flight. While I don’t doubt that the planes are designed to handle the interference, all it takes is one problem.

    There are recorded instances of autopilots being mucked up, of instrumentation going crazy, and planes doing unexpected things during non-critical and critical phases thanks to outside interference. What’s even worse is that in many cases pilots will have little control (in larger airplanes) over this initially. Not so bad in cruise, but it could be a disaster during ascent, take-off, descent or landing.

  22. Briggs

    January 7, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Ari,

    Actually, pilots do have to leave the cockpit occasionally. The stewards and stewardesses usually stand guard while the pilots are peeing. Maybe a good security strategy would be to get all pilots those things truck drivers use.

  23. To be fair, I almost always fly transcontinental or commuter, so my experience has been colored by flights shorter than 5 hours. Perhaps it might pay for me to do more flying to someplace abroad.

    Maybe Taiwan?

  24. Not guns, claw hammers.

    Upon boarding, each passenger is issued a claw hammer. They’re cheap and effective weapons. Short range. Deadly. No way a single terrorist or even a clutch of terrorists can overpower a plane load of crabby travelers armed with claw hammers.

    BTW, truckers use milk jugs. That ain’t apple juice in the jug on the road shoulder.

  25. If someone wants to blow up the plane, 100 claw hammers won’t do anything. Weapons on planes may be effective at preventing hijackings, but if the goal is to blow up the plane, you’ll never know until the bomb has detonated or failed to do so.

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