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11 September 2009

Reflections on Aviation Security Eight Years after 9/11

Since the 9/11 attacks eight years ago, every anniversary brings an increase in interest by the media and by the general public. Last month, Dr. Todd Curtis of was interviewed by a researcher from Lancaster University in the UK about security post 9/11. Below are some of the questions and their responses. We would be interested in what you think about both the questions and answers, and welcome your feedback.

1. Would you say 9/11 changed our perception of aviation safety? That now the prevalence of terrorism has made many people think they have more chance of being involved in an air disaster than being killed in a car crash?

The biggest change is that security concerns became very prominent. At the governmental level, both before and after 9/11, airline security and airline issues were dealt with by different philosophies. Safety and reliability issues were usually dealt with through a regulatory and administrative process that was deliberate, open, and sometimes stretching over a series of months or years. Multiple points of view were often encouraged, and given the opportunity to become part of the debate. In contrast, security issues were often political in nature,
where quick and decisive action was demanded by governments and by the industry. As a result, many things were done quickly, but often without an open and objective process guiding policy.

As for the public's perception of risks in the air compared to more common risks like cars, there had been very clear differences in the public's opinion and the media's coverage well before 9/11. One example was a study I conducted on media coverage by the New York Times during a 17-year, pre-9/11 period of 1978 to 1994. Among other things, I found that fatal airline events that involved jet aircraft that were hijacked, sabotaged, or destroyed by military action, which represented about 8% of the fatal airline accidents reported by the Times during that period, accounted for about 48% of all the airline accident articles in that period. I have not looked at the post 9/11 era, but I suspect that if the same study were conducted for the years 1995-2009, the percentage would be even more skewed.

2. Would you say the creation of the TSA and the federalising of airport safety has made us safer or is it an illusion?

I would say that it has made part of the security process more consistent, and has given the government the ability to implement changes more quickly. On the other hand, some parts of the security process appear to remain in place because of habit or appearances rather than because of effectiveness. One example is the policy of screening shoes. The reason is because one person tried, luckily without success, to explode a bomb hidden within a shoe. While it makes sense to be concerned about a future event, it doesn't make sense to focus on shoes (every size shoe, even the thinnest sandal) while ignoring dozens of other devices that could hide as much or even more explosive than the average shoe. Anyone intending to do harm with a similarly sized explosive would simply use a device that is not closely screened.

3. Do you think in the post 9/11 climate there is a dilemma between preventing another attack vs. allowing passengers to travel freely?

I don't think so. Even before 9/11, security procedures used by organizations from airport screeners to national intelligence agencies worked to identify, deter, and prevent hijackings, bombings, and other acts of deliberate mayhem. That dilemma, or more precisely the need to balance security and freedom of movement, existed before and after 9/11. The difference is that in the current environment, the threats are considered to be much more organized and potentially much more lethal than in the past. The ongoing debate is whether the measures that are being taken now are too much, too little, or just right.

Unfortunately, it is hard to say if most of the measures that have been taken have been effective. Because of the nature of the threat, the general public will have little or no insight into the threats that did not lead to a bad outcome. In contrast, there are plenty of ways to measure how effective current and proposed safety measures are. When accidents happen, they are thoroughly investigated and the
results published for the entire world to see, and information from the thousands of incidents that don't result in accidents are available for study and analysis. Unlike the open databases of the NTSB, FAA, and AAIB, the files of the FBI, CIA, NSA, MI6, and GCHQ are closed to the public.

4. Would you say that the Lockerbie disaster that saw the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on the 20th August and the September 11th attacks in 2001 illustrates the changing nature of aviation terrorism? That the Al Qaeda use of aeroplanes as controlled weapons, in the hands of terrorists makes dealing with the threat of terrorism harder?

I believe it does for several reasons. The biggest is that a nation can't afford to be seen as backing a large terror event such as 9/11. The consequences to Afghanistan's government for harboring Al Qaeda was that it was attacked and driven from power. Any country that attacks the US or a US ally could also expect a response that is swift, certain, and severe.

Al Qaeda used relatively few resources to carry out their attacks. They were apparently not funded by a government, but were certainly harbored by one. There are many organizations, including corporations, that also have the resources to carry out even more devastating attacks without the direct involvement of a government. In my opinion, any group intending to do similar harm in the future will likely learn from Al Qaeda and not associate with any particular leader, government, or physical location. By being a group that is not associated with a particular nation, it would make it much more difficult for the victimized nation to deal with the attack through traditional means such as economic sanctions backed by fleets of B-52s and Predators.

On the subject of aircraft as controlled weapons, Al Qaeda was not the first entity to successfully crash a plane into a Washington, DC area building. Seven years before the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the White House was struck by a small Cessna, but the aircraft only minor damage and no injuries. Coincidentally, the aircraft took off on 9/11/1994. Like on 9/11 seven years later, the aircraft was also tracked on radar before the crash. This 1994 event was not due to a politically motivated hijacker, but due to a disturbed individual. would welcome any comments you may have about this article.

1 comment:

  1. Airport and airline security is a primary concern, of course. However, in spite of the good job TSA seems to be doing - no hijackings that we know of since tighter security was implemented after 9/11 - I, too, would like to see TSA thoroughly review and examine its procedures. Also, I'd like to see TSA be more willing to modify, add, or delete procedures where review and examination have revealed weak or ineffective procedures.