Airline insecurity

Darin Rothwell is a free-lance writer in Reno.

In the wake of the worst terrorist attack ever in the United States, many people are finally shining a light on the mostly overlooked subject of airline security. That any person felt secure flying on an airplane based on our previous level of security is surprising to me.

Early reports said the terrorists used box cutters to hijack the planes. I’ve flown many times in the last year with a pocketknife that was much more substantial than a box cutter. On a round trip to LAX, I took along a 20-inch collapsible baton as a carry-on, and security never said a thing. When flying out of Reno last summer, a friend of mine placed his phone in the basket at the metal detector and picked it up on the other side with nary a raised eyebrow by security.

“Well, that was educational,” he said, walking to the gate. Occasionally, they made him turn it on, but they never checked its actual functionality. Being an engineer, he assures me that making the display light up on a cell phone could be accomplished quite easily by someone with the expertise to also place a C4 explosive in the remaining space of a cell phone. Or a laptop.

A properly shaped charge placed near a wing could easily breach the cabin of an airplane and could reach the fuel tanks or lines in the wing area. It wouldn’t even take a suicidal terrorist to accomplish the task. He could board, set the device to go with a timer or altimeter, and then get off. As an airline employee told me, all of a person’s bags would be removed from the cabin and the cargo hold if he or she doesn’t remain on board. But would anyone think to look for something as innocuous as a cell phone?

In 1996, former Vice President Al Gore led an aviation safety group formed after the explosion of TWA Flight 800. The commission recommended that the latest bomb-detecting equipment be installed. They also wanted to study U.S. airports to find the most vulnerable and boost the numbers of bomb-sniffing dogs. The commission wanted a mandatory full baggage match for passengers and their luggage, as well as more effective screening of passengers. Personnel were to be trained to determine the potential security risk a passenger may entail and investigate accordingly.

Opposition to this plan ran high, with the American Civil Liberties Union vowing to fight against a possible subjugation of passengers based on religion or race. Also in opposition was the airline industry itself, afraid that higher security costs would drive down record profitability and industry growth.

On that summer trip with the cell phone in 2000, I sat around with my parents discussing the potential dangers of the airlines’ security system. My friend said, “All the appearance of security, without the actual presence of security, can be worse than no security at all.” My mother, after listening to my friend and I talk, then asked, “Who thinks about putting bombs in phones?”

One commercial airline says, “You’re now free to move about the country.”

Do you want to?