Airlines and Air Travel Safety: Is it Time for a Take Off?
Fact: Air travel has never been safer.
Also a fact: Air travel has never been more of a hassle.
Are these two statements correlated? Probably so.
While growing up, I remember a steady stream of news reports about deadly plane crashes and airline hijackings. Almost every week, it seemed, a plane was crashing somewhere or getting hijacked by terrorists. These frightening events don’t happen nearly as often anymore, especially here in the United States. But, many years ago. they were commonplace.
So, what happened? Why are there fewer plane crashes today despite far more aircraft, flights, and passengers? Furthermore, why have hijackings virtually been eliminated as a serious threat?
The answer has much do with airport security and the application of comprehensive national safety standards mandated by our federal government. All luggage gets x-rayed Every passenger is screened. Suspicious activity is scrutinized. While no system is perfect, statistics reveal that airline security personnel do a remarkably good job of making us safer in the skies. They instill public confidence that we’ll make it to our travel destination in one piece. More important, because of multiple layers of security, potential terrorists and hijackers have become deterred from doing crazy things to an airplane and passengers who fly.
Airline security continues to evolve. It is a continuous work in progress. It’s also widely inconsistent. Some passengers go through what amounts to a strip search. Other, far luckier passengers, skip screening checkpoints entirely (pre-screening). At some airports, we must remove our shoes. At other airports, it’s unnecessary. Some checkpoints mandate removing electronic devices from our carry-ons, including laptops. Others disregard the procedure entirely. Going through a TSA screening has become like a game of travel roulette. You could be padded down and questioned. You might also skip through and get on to your gate in seconds, without delay. Perhaps this randomness is entirely by design. Terrorists never can be sure when or where they might be detained and questioned. That’s probably a good thing.
Nonetheless, just how much security is too much security is an ongoing debate. Trouble is, once security measures have been implemented in any sector (airports, government buildings, stadiums), they rarely get reduced or downsized. We get stuck with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), gauntlets of barricades, obsessive enforcement of no parking zones, and a loss of civil liberties — forever. We seem increasingly willing to surrender our individual rights and personal comforts at an alarming pace in the name of “security.”
Indeed, in our security-conscious society so often stoked by fear, it’s hard to win public support for any measures reducing security. No politician wants to be the deciding vote on a proposal that could make flying less safe. No corporate executive is willing to be the voice complaining about the preposterous waste involved in frisking tens of millions of passengers each year. So, we put up with an archaic system implanted with delay and disruption.
Things could get even worse.
Last week, some clown in Seattle seized a 75-seat passenger jet and took the plane for a personal joyride. He later crashed, killing himself in the reckless accident. But the daring theft and scary episode could have been far more deadly. Had the plane thief wanted to do serious damage, he could have killed many innocent people by crashing into a populous area.
In the aftermath of what happened, there are now calls for stricter security measures on airplanes and at airports. There’s talk of fitting all commercial aircraft with some kind of locking device. There’s also some debate about screening airport workers more heavily. Really? Is this wise? Do we want to spend hundreds of millions of (additional) dollars retrofitting locks and keys in the cockpits of tens of thousands of passenger aircraft? Do we really want to blow more tax money or increase ticket prices so we can do deep background checks on every baggage handler who applies for an airline job? Do we really need more security guards patrolling chain-link fences around runways at 2 am? Is more security really the wisest appropriation of our limited financial resources?
The Seattle incident was a shocker. But it was shocking because it happens so rarely. Can anyone remember the last time someone stole a passenger jet, flew over a large city for a half hour, and then ditched himself in a forest? How often does something like that happen? Once every 40 years? Maybe, never? Why are we wasting time our discussing doing anything about this very isolated incident? It makes no sense at all. Let’s move on, shall we?
Increased screening for people who work at airports sounds like a good idea, right? Well, no — it isn’t a good idea. Based on reports of the thief-pilot daredevil, he appeared perfectly normal to everyone. There was nothing in his background to indicate he’d steal a plane and then crash it. Had the man been interviewed multiple times and gone through intense scrutiny, there’s little doubt he would have passed the screening with, excuse the expression, flying colors.
Increasing security procedures is a waste of money and personnel.
So far, the Trump Administration hasn’t done much that’s good or wise. But I will credit them for being on the right track when it comes to downsizing the TSA — particularly at small regional airports which waste vast precious resources for what amounts to virtually no risk whatsoever. It’s like we’re stationing an army of traffic cops in Nome, Alaska.
The Trump Administration has proposed eliminating the TSA at about 100 smaller regional airports, with few flights. They argue the costs of x-raying every bag and screening every passenger is both excessive and unnecessary. [Read: Trump’s FY 2019 budget will cut funding for the TSA].
I agree. We don’t need to administer body cavity searches to elderly grandmothers in wheelchairs who are boarding turboprops in Moline. I propose the following — let’s save ourselves tens of millions of dollars, shift the critical security personnel to much bigger airports where such measures are really needed, and take our chances that grandma won’t blow up the Statue of Liberty.
Even when we do spend lots of money and hire lots of people, security can never be a sure thing. We must accept some degree of risk in order to live in a free society. That means accepting a tiny percentage of lapses which, unfortunately, result in tragedy. We apply this principle to every other facet of our human existence — including driving cars, eating various foods, living near oceans, and walking outdoors when there’s lightning in our area. We accept the reality that there will be some car crashes, cases of food poisoning, hurricanes, and lightning strikes will occur. Yes, there’s a small chance you or I might die tomorrow because of an accident, or a freak act of nature. So too, a few airplanes will occasionally crash. Crazy people do wild things.
Hey, shit happens.
We’ve certainly come a long way during the last few decades, especially since the tragedy of 9/11. But we’ve also reached such a level of passive acceptance that now we risk becoming contaminated by such a heightened state of domestic security that we’re no longer free. Daily life becomes a series of gauntlets and checkpoints.
So, what do you think about airline security? Do we need more or less? Should we be cutting back the TSA as the Trump Administration is proposing? Would you feel safe flying knowing that some flights were not screened by TSA?
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