In Search of the Security Utopia
The challenge of an economically efficient airspace security system
Timothy McCulloch | University of California, Davis, School of Law
Posted Tuesday, January 1, 2002

On September 11, 2001, the airspace industry in the United States received a fearful blow. Widely recognized symbols of American aviation obliterated the World Trade Center buildings on national television. Those awful events have sparked much debate about how to stop another attack of this kind from happening.

Unfortunately, the debate seems only to consider how to mitigate or stop the social and economic harms caused by the attacks. Consequently the economic implications of the security measures being put into place are not being considered. What seems problematic is the debate does not consider the system as it really is. Any examination of a conception of the airspace system will reveal that its very nature is to blame for the security deficiencies in that system. The airspace system in this country is predicated on the conception of it being a convenient and fast form of travel. In light of this conception, the argument to be made here is that substantially changing the safety structure may have little or no impact on stopping another terrorist event. Worse still, in addition to not stopping a terrorist event, the security changes will have dramatic and adverse repercussions for the economic well being of the airspace industry in this country.

The airline industry in the United States is an integral part of the economy and has become a crucial component in our transportation system. The Airlines are now responsible for almost $976 billion worth of economic activity, pay approximately $280 billion in wages, and employ almost 10.9 million people. The airlines role as a major transportation system increased as the cost of use for individual passengers decreased. As costs decreased, more people used the airlines as a reliable, efficient, and cheap means of travel. The amount of airline traffic in this country is staggering, as are the resources needed to keep a system strained to the limit running efficiently. Prior to the September 11, the overriding concern of the industry was how they were going to expand the components of the airspace system in order to accommodate the growth of that system. As a result of the attacks the airline industry changed its focus from expanding the system to safeguarding the system from terrorist attacks. This was natural since the terrorist attacks threatened to destroy the system. However, what is forgotten, and what this article seeks to remind is that the growth of the system is crucial. This fact should be considered as one of the most important factors when implementing any new security system. When surveying the security measures implemented after the attacks it becomes apparent that the growth and the efficiency of the airspace system are not part of the equation in formulating airline security systems. I believe this conception of security may well deal a greater blow to the airspace system than any terrorist event ever could, because most of the new safety schemes will have the effect of lowering the efficiency of the system while also raising the cost of using the system.

Much attention has been focused on the security personnel at the entry to the airport gates. Most of the discussion dealt with the competence of the security personnel and the economic cost of upgrading this security component. As of yet, there seems to be no discussion on the costs to the airlines in an economic and efficiency sense. At first glance the cost appears minimal to the airlines, since they do not pay for the new security. However, any trip to an airport will reveal a significant loss in time for each passenger and airline. Prior to the events of last year, most business travelers did not arrive much then a half-hour to twenty minutes prior to a flight. Currently, it is required that passengers arrive two hours before any flight. The flights where this has the most impact is in short commuter flights, such as those between New York and Washington D.C., or Los Angeles and San Francisco. On these short flights, the time to clear security may be longer then the flight itself. The primary users of this type of flight are business travelers. Business travelers are the most profitable for the airlines. Business travelers use the system far more then casual users in number of flights taken, and percentage of travelers . However, now this type of traveler is finding that flying is no longer a quick morning trip, where the majority of the travel time was spent in transit, but is instead an all day event, with the majority of time spent in clearing slow moving security lines. This form of traveler is now less likely to use air transportation like they did before, and this is bound to adversely affect the airline industry.

The ground security system used to be funded by the airlines at each airport. The outcry after the terrorist events seemed to suggest that the system was ineffective. However, it must be remembered that none of the hijackers attempted to board the aircraft with a firearm, a large knife or a bomb. The hijackers had nothing that could have stopped a determined attack from the passengers. The hijackers were able to board the airlines with box cutters that were allowed by federal air regulations. If the security system had been hopelessly ineffective, the hijackers would have attempted to sneak at least one firearm on board the aircraft. They obviously thought that the risks of attempting to sneak a firearm on board were too severe for even one member of the team to try. The hijackers were taking advantage of the current system as it stood, and had not planned to do anything that would get them arrested prior to boarding the flight.

We naturally have to balance the convenience of the traveler against the safety of those using the traveling devices, but a safety at any cost mantra has no basis in reality. Few people in the mainstream asked whether the federalizing of security personnel would have any effect on the actual competence of the employees, while having detrimental effect on the efficiency of the system? Federal security employees have no incentive to ensure efficiency and may have incentive to make the security system less efficient . Since the security personnel are no longer employed by the airlines, the airlines will have no control over efficiency. One example of the inefficiency is the treatment of the airline personnel by security personnel. Let us proceed from the assumption that if a pilot wishes to take over an aircraft which he or she is flying, it will be very difficult to stop him or her. While having two pilots in the cockpit helps security, that is not the primary reason for both pilots. Most aircraft are difficult for a single pilot to operate, and having two pilots helps safeguard against pilot error. If we cannot trust pilots, then we truly cannot protect the system. Pilots are currently not allowed to carry any type of blade, yet they carry large flashlights, and each cockpit is equipped with crash axe, which could easily be used with deadly intent. A number of pilots interviewed for this article noted how they only faced stringent security at terminal buildings. At other points of aircraft pickup, security was loose or non-existent . This seems to reflect the lack of perspective on the security issue. Why are pilots forced to go through the same lines as the general population? Wouldn't the space be better utilized for passengers to speed up the system? There should be a lowered security standard for the pilots. This should be acceptable, since pilots have already gone through, and continue to go through, the rigorous screening process required to become an airline pilot. Apart from the treatment of pilots, we also see the way that the security system reacts to new threats.

On December 24, 2001, a British National with plastic explosive in his shoes, managed to board an American Airlines flight from London to Miami. The only thing that stopped his plan was the timely intervention of a number of passengers around him. The passengers physically intervened before the perpetrator could ignite the fuses on his shoes. The mind pales to think of what would have happened if the individual had acted with more subterfuge and not tipped off the passengers. For instance, imagine if he had gone into the bathroom and lit the fuses there. The security apparatus responded to this incident by implementing slow and inefficient bomb detection devices. These bomb detection devices require that people remove their shoes, and have them scanned for explosive residue. Security also scans laptop computers, and other electronic devices. The devices are so slow that all people cannot be scanned, merely those that security personnel perceive to be a threat. Shoes have to be removed from ones feet and the other items removed from carry-on luggage with a corresponding slowdown in efficiency of moving passengers from check-in to aircraft boarding. In addition, there is the problem of correct response to the machines output. On January 30, 2002 an employee detected explosive residue on a passenger in San Francisco, but allowed him to depart the area. The result was a massive delay of air traffic, as the terminal was evacuated. The person was not found, and it is thought that he may have got onto an aircraft and left prior to evacuation. Any evacuation of a terminal in a major airport has repercussions around the country for connecting flights, as well as arriving and departing flights. The nature of the system means that it takes many hours for the airport to resume normal operations . The costs to the airlines are staggering. In addition surely those passengers who are delayed many hours, will tend to resist using it until the efficiency problems settle down. However, it is unlikely that the perception of security efficiency will change any time soon.

On January 8, 2002 the airlines were required to screen each checked-on bag for explosives. This was done either by hand-searching each bag, using dogs to sniff for explosives, the use of machines, or by matching the bags to each person. Airlines are loath to search each bag because of the time required, as well as passenger discomfort, that this entails. There are also theft and breakage issues. The use of dogs is also problematic. Dogs are trained to search specific rooms, specific bags, or aircraft for bombs. The repetitive nature of searching all passengers will ensure that the dogs become tired and inattentive, nullifying their advantage. It is estimated that the airlines will need 2200 of the bomb detection machines, while at the moment there are 160 of them in use. The machines are huge, expensive, and frequently give off false alarms. A false alarm will necessitate cutting open the luggage, or finding the owner of the luggage to open it. Most airlines use the bag matching criteria at the present moment, which is the least intrusive, and least effective method of protecting against bombs . All these security functions will have the effect of slowing down the system. Are the delays worth it?

What would be the effect of these measures on a person declaring that they had brought a bomb on board? A hijacker who asserts that he or she has a bomb is going to be believed regardless of security measures. Because there is no way to determine conclusively necessity dictates that the hijacker be believed. This does not make the situation the same as the situation of September 11 though. The second a hijacker attempts to enter the cockpit and take control of the aircraft, he will face open revolt from the passengers no matter what threats he or she levels. To me this indicates that the events of September 11 are unlikely to be duplicated. This fact does not seem to be recognized, either in ground security, or the new security arrangements on the aircraft. Recognizing the fact that the passengers are in fact a security measure will allow us to explore other avenues of security. This is particularly true in regards to aircraft security.

The first line of defense on an aircraft consists of pilots and flight attendants trained to deal with hijacking situations. It is difficult to conceptualize now, but almost all hijackings prior to September 11 followed a fairly distinct pattern. The hijackers would take over the aircraft, demand to be flown to a country of their choosing, and then make demands once on the ground . Consequently pilots and flight attendants were trained to obey the demands of the hijackers, covertly inform outside entities of the hijacking and land the aircraft as soon as was safely feasible. Once on the ground the pilot was not to leave the ground, and it was always believed that hijackers would not kill the pilots first since they were necessary to the operation. Most hijackings took many hours, if not days to play out completely, with most ending with the surrender of the hijackers.

The events of September 11 have changed this outlook. It seems obvious that any person attempting to hijack an aircraft at this stage is going to have to deal with hostages that are going to approach the situation as one which they have nothing to lose by resisting. For the hijackers this means they have little chance of maintaining control of the aircraft over the automatic attack of their hostages . This was demonstrated on September 11 by the flight that was forced down in Pennsylvania.
The airline industry has not faired well from the terrorist attacks. Trans World Airlines has been sold to American with little notice from the press. United Airlines, which was considered one of the most prosperous of all the airline is on track to lose million this quarter and American Airline is right behind . Both airlines are suffering through vastly diminished passenger load at a time of a recession economy. It was apparent that the many of the airlines were in financial trouble prior to the terrorist attacks, and how much the terrorist aggravated their financial problems attacks is difficult to tell . Regardless of whether the damage was caused by the terrorists or not, it is important that we consider any security measures with the airlines in mind.

This paper has not attempted to provide a solution to the security problem. The assertion that lack of security will be detrimental to the airlines survival is something that we all agree on. However, the regulating bodies must face that there is no hope of instituting an impregnable security shield. There are massive problems in erecting even an adequate security shield. The modern conception of the airspace system as a convenient mode of travel defeats attempts to make it secure against the types of individuals that will take advantage of its openness. Telling the public that the airline system, as the public understands it, can be impregnable is engaging in deception. Any fundamental change in the security of the airline system will change the nature of the system. Therefore do not ask; "how can we make the most secure airspace system?" Instead, ask "how can we make the most secure system, within our conception of what an airline system is?"

Timothy McCulloch is a first year student at the University of California, Davis School of Law.