Airline Safety: Simple Steps for Better Security

In the real world we live in, what is the obvious solution to airline security? The answer is easy: Don’t let any bad guys or bad stuff on any aircraft. Now, all we need do is implement this solution.

In my submarine days, the fleet developed a simple, elegant solution for ensuring that workers who welded on a submarine pressure hull did their best. When the sub performed its first test dive after a shipyard period, all the guys who welded on the pressure hull were guests for that dive. Sure, we tested every weld, but we added this extra safety step to make sure. And you know the welders did their best.

What are an aircraft’s vulnerabilities?

* Repair and maintenance;

* Hold baggage inspection and loading;

* Carry-on baggage;

* The passengers;

* The crew;

* The aircraft itself, including security of the cockpit, emergency exits, etc.;

* External factors such as being rammed by a small plane, etc.

The crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York on Monday is still under investigation and very little is yet known about the cause, except that two of the Airbus A300 engines and the tail apparently fell off prior to the aircraft impacting the ground.

Excuse me: fell off?

We will, of course discover more about the real cause of this tragic event, but were all airlines to implement a policy of requiring a member of a repair crew for any significant repair to fly on the aircraft shortly thereafter, you know repairs would be done with the utmost attention to detail.

Since most flights typically have one or more empty seats, the FAA could establish this policy: All personnel associated with any aspect of prepping a plane for flight would rotate randomly every one or two months to a flight list, and would be required to take a flight on short notice.

When you don’t know when you might be required to fly, or what flight you might be required to take, I suspect you will regularly ensure that your particular responsibility is done to the best of your ability.

Obviously, all hold baggage must be inspected. That we are not already doing this is astonishing. We live in the digital age. If an appropriate program doesn’t exist, we should create one to conduct preliminary inspection of x-ray images for all hold baggage. We should also “sniff” all hold baggage for explosives. Items that don’t pass initial screening should be diverted to inspection units manned by well-trained personnel, and if necessary, are inspected by hand.

Ditto for carry-on baggage. By letting computer programs do initial screening, we can shorten long security lines and move them more quickly. We can match passengers and baggage by using luggage tags and claim tickets containing computer chips that register the presence of the owner passenger onboard the aircraft. If a passenger is missing, we can then remove the offending luggage before take-off.

Passenger screening is more complex, but nearly instantaneous criminal checks are possible by linking identity determining units such as fingerprint or iris pattern readers to FBI databases. This won’t find a mole, but will absolutely identify an identified bad guy. Sky Marshals can handle anything that slips through this initial screening.

We can let the airlines handle crew and aircraft. Soon enough, all crewmembers will have been screened and double screened, and cockpit doors will have been replaced. Arming crewmembers with lethal or non-lethal weapons has defenders and detractors. I think it probably is a good idea, on balance, at least for the cockpit crew. I am a bit leery of putting a weapon in the hands of a relatively inexperienced flight attendant who might not be able to bring her weapon to bear against a stronger male hijacker. Arming the cockpit crew, however, and giving them some form of remote surveillance over the entire aircraft makes sense.

The FAA and the homeland security mechanisms being put into place will have to deal with potential external threats like small planes flying into passenger jets, and possible Stinger-style missiles launched by terrorists.

The suggestions presented here cost a lot of money, and I have not addressed who does what. The obvious responsible party for security before an aircraft is boarded is the airport – not the airline companies, not the feds, not the state. An airport can set up appropriate security perimeters and can standardize all inspections, coordinate the personnel and equipment, and is far better positioned than any other unit to do this. The required equipment is very expensive, and untrained minimum wage personnel will not be able to use this equipment effectively. Initially, the federal government should supply funds to purchase and install necessary equipment and train appropriately skilled personnel.

In the long run, however, the FAA (or whoever ultimately regulates such things in today’s over-regulated world) must establish a ticket surcharge on every ticket sold. This surcharge would not migrate into the federal or state financing black hole. Rather, it would be collected into a national pool and used directly to reimburse initial federal expenditures, and then to finance all further expenses at every airport in America.

Initially, I envision a surcharge of $25, but this probably should be the subject of a short and intense study to ensure that sufficient funds are made available to do the job. The bottom line is, if you fly, you should pay for your own security.

Taken together, we can remarkably improve maintenance and repair actions. We can dramatically increase safety in baggage handling by requiring those involved with these actions to fly randomly on aircraft they service. And we can apply current technology to its best advantage to ensure that no unauthorized object or person boards an aircraft.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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