What we can do now to make travel safer and more convenient

While it is debatable whether flying is really significantly safer today (where's the measurement?), it is unambiguous that we've made it a lot more inconvenient. Have we achieved a reasonable balance between safety and convenience?

We basically are making a lot of decisions without testing the impact, i.e., without doing a cost/benefit analysis. The result is that we are negatively impacting the air travel industry and our economy, with little to no true increase in personal safety and security. 

There are ways to increase security that are virtually cost free. But we still aren't doing them. Why?

Conversely, we have implemented things that slow things down that have only perceived benefits, but no real benefit. Here are a few examples:

  • We waste time checking that ID's match your ticket at the security gate. Why? For all the terrorists, they all matched. So what is the benefit to making this check at the first security checkpoint when we're already doing it at the gate anyway? I can understand checking for a ticket to pass through the first gate, but why require the match since we require it later anyway? If we believe matching is an effective technique, then we should require iris ID for all sighted passengers. If we don't think it is effective, we shouldn't do it.
  • Why are there national guard people at the airport? What is the benefit here? On the one hand, you could argue it creates the "perception" of increased security. But there is an equal argument that it is an open admission that things aren't safe! Is it really clear that we are actually making things better by doing this? How do we know?
  • We now take longer to screen carry-on packages going through x-ray. Yet all the terrorists didn't use anything that would have been caught on this. So what new are we hoping to catch that we wouldn't catch before? 
  • We've turned up the sensitivity on the metal detectors. Yet, this wouldn't have impacted our terrorists. What are we going to catch by doing this that we couldn't catch before? I can sneak a knife through any airport in America today without being caught. And I'm not a professional. In essence, it is like putting a padlock on a car door when a theif can easily break a window. The padlock didn't make things more secure.
  • We ask people if they are carrying any knives, etc. Four questions. But any terrorist would say No. So what's the point of the new questions? Why not just simply ask people "are you a terrorist?" It would accomplish the same thing (nothing) but at least it would take take less time.
  • Metal knives are no prohibited for meals. Come on folks. We're trying to protect against trained terrorists here. Why would any terrorist use a metal knife on a plane when a sharpened credit card is much more effective and trivial to sneak on board? All we are doing by eliminating metal knives is disarming the passengers. We're actually making it easier for the terrorists!
  • Terrorists have shown they are far from fools. If they perceive our security efforts as mindless if not downright counter-productive, they will be heartened rather than discouraged. The opportunity to repeat Sept. 11 is already gone. Now passengers would assume that hijackers planned to kill them anyway, so they'd be very aggressive in fighting the hijackers...having nothing to lose. Given that, terrorists will seek other means of attack that are more likely to work. Thus, the biggest deterrent is already in place. And we have proof it worked.

Do we have any proof these measures have made a difference in security?

  • Why not have the FAA Red team try to penetrate an airport today and report their results? It's public already (60 Minutes) that airport security is terrible. If the new measures made a difference to the Red team's efforts, why not publicize this? If we aren't publicizing it, it must be because it doesn't make a difference so the conclusion must be that we aren't any more secure now than we were before (just a lot more inconvenient).

What could we do? It's all about effectiveness and efficiency. We seem to be picking a lot of high cost, practically no benefit, major inconvenience solutions. We should be pursuing lower cost, higher benefit, no inconvenience solutions first. Here are some suggestions to test:

  • Arm the cockpit crew with guns and/or tasers (I think this is being done)
  • Arm the cabin crew with mace, tasers, or something similar
  • Arm the passengers with pillows and blankets
  • Give passengers instructions on what to do in a terrorist emergency. This is by far the most effective and cheapest deterrent we've got. But I don't think we're doing it. Most terrorists will choose an easier target.
  • Instruct the pilots what to do in a terrorist attack, e.g., randomly select from an approved list of actions, e.g., G-force maneuvers, landing the plane, etc.
  • Reinforce cockpit doors (being done now)
  • More air marshalls (being done)
  • Require iris checks for people boarding the plane. It would look up their ID #. That ID # would show whether they are authorized for the flight and the FBI can also use it to tag terrorists. This is inexcusable that we don't do this now because all the technology exists today and this would have made it impossible for any known national security risk person to board the plane (with all the stuff we've implemented today, people we've tagged as dangerous we can't prevent from flying). 
  • Allow cops to fly for free if they are armed with non-lethal ammo (e.g., the type invented by Wojciech Stecki and reported in the NY Times)
  • There are more things like this...cheap to implement, not inconvenient, and somewhat effective.

What's the action item? Institute only those measures that are effective. Here's how:

  • Make a list of the 50 most likely and/or high impact attacks by a terrorist (including all previously successful attacks) and use that list to test how your safeguards stack up against preventing the attacks. Discard those safeguards that are not effective or efficient.
  • Test the safeguards on a small scale, e.g., implement the procedures at one airport, verify that the Red Team can't penetrate it, and then implement it at all airports. If not all safeguards can be implemented, prioritize what you implement, doing the most efficient things first.

Steve Kirsch Political Home Page

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