Want to stir up mass hysteria? Implement the newest tools in aviation security—the backscatter device and enhanced pat-downs. The public has raised a ruckus for two reasons—the unknown level of radiation damage the machines inflict, and the possibility that someone might be seeing an unflattering image of their nude self on a TV screen.
Pilots bring a different viewpoint to the table, especially as it affects us. With regard to both screening processes, I think many pilots share my opinion, which is that we need to deal with it. Let’s start with the full body scanners. Simply put, the metal detectors and hand wands in use today don’t catch anything other than metal. Richard Reid (the shoe bomber) and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the underwear bomber) were able to get by traditional screening devices because the weaknesses of those systems are so well established. Terrorists have proven adept at getting their hands on plastic explosives such as C-4, and they have the knowledge to fashion crude weapons from other sources the average metal detector won’t catch. The result is the full-body scanner, which can peek under our clothes.
While few of us would relish the thought of someone seeing our bodies in full on a monitor somewhere, we need to keep a few things in mind: You will likely never meet the screener; your face will not be recognizable, and while the system is a bit slower and less than perfect, it is an improvement. While much has also been made of the potential exposure, I have seen so many conflicting reports that I don’t know what to believe.
As for the pat-downs, I come at this from two sides. As a passenger, a husband, and a parent (of two girls), it is a bit unnerving that my wife and daughters might be subjected to a pat-down that is very uncomfortable both physically and psychologically. It is bad enough that I myself might be subjected to physical contact that in any other context might be construed as inappropriate or wrong, but it is even more unsettling that my family might be exposed to the same. This is where a lot of the debate about targeted profiling generally gets started, especially when discussing the very young or the elderly. But the fact is that in some countries, such procedures are already in place, and given that the U.S. is such a high profile target and that we have already had so many attempts on our flights, I am forced to come to the same conclusion as above. Given that terrorists have had success getting explosives and weapons on our planes, we all must deal with the new procedures.
As a pilot, however, I have a huge issue with being forced to endure the security process, and the rationale is simple. The flight crew is in control of the airplane, they are locked in the cockpit, and in addition to having access to the controls of the ship, they also have access to at least one crash axe and one fire extinguisher with which they can bludgeon each other senseless. Further, one of the crew may even have a badge and be a gun-toting member of the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program. All pilots have been through extensive background checks, including finger printing (twice for FFDO’s, who have also undergone a psychological evaluation). The fact is that either pilot can crash the airplane at any time, with no weapon at all, and no amount of security training is going to prevent or predict such a rash action. I also think that watching pilots go through screening not only flies in the face of logic, but that it also undermines who is really in charge of the airplane.
While the pat-downs and x-rays are not the most pleasant experiences, until technology is developed that can truly sniff out every possible weapon, we are stuck with what we have. There might be room for debate on the extent of the new programs, as well as the criteria for choosing who gets what screening, but it isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it makes a strong argument for travel by general aviation whenever possible.