Airline security: Just deal with it

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.

–Chip Wright

  • robert

    Maybe the Progressive leaders in Washington government should stop. Their progressive values, goals and policies are what created these Terrorists.

    With all the heightened security I hope the discontent, will lead to an increase in private pilots who want and will avoid the insanity of major commercial airlines and then new aircraft technology will follow and what I have been waiting for since 8,, flying cars in everyone’s garages. It always just takes little unhappiness with the current to bring for changes.

  • Ryan Short

    I strongly beg to differ on this article. It ignores the real issue of the Rights we enjoy as US Citizens and the God-given moral rights to self-defense, morality, and modesty. It also does not address the fact that the TSA violates the very rule of law in our land (The US Constitution) in virtually everything they do. The security issues are far less important than the principles behind the efforts. I also find your comments about the US being a high-profile target and the number of attempts very amusing. I think that they are statistically VERY small in reality, and can be easily dealt with by more legitimate, Constitutional means.

  • Justin Scott

    First, and most importantly, you are correct that the pilots control the aircraft, so screening them really is a waste of time and an insult to the profession. Unfortunately, how does a screener know who is and isn’t a pilot? Anyone can get their hands on a uniform and fake credentials, so there has to be some foolproof way to verify without any doubts that the person they’re letting through really is a pilot who will be at the controls and not someone who is pretending and is actually intent on doing damage to a flight. There is also the case of a pilot who has become disenfranchised who may abuse that privilege to aide someone else.

    Second, a nitpick, but “medal” is not the same as “metal.” The scanners don’t care if you’ve won Olympic gold or not. :)

  • Aaron

    No, Robert, WE did not create terrorists, an illiterate drifter named mohammed who sold an ideological bill of goods to ignorant pagans created terrorists. Your comments are an insult to my three sons who served seven combat pumps in the Sandbox.

    As for constitutional rights, etc. the pat-downs and scans are consented searches, thus not unreasonable under the fourth and fourteenth amendments. I learned that in law school. Now, I do object to “additional attention” screens and pat downs at the gate, etc. I once was selected for retaliatory additional attention because I raked a ticket agent over the coals for botching my itinerary. THAT was an unreasonable search.

    What we need is a way for travelers to be pre-screened and cleared, much like the top secret clearance I had in the Marines. Otherwise, I see no way around heightened security.

  • Wimpie

    I think its going to get alot worse. In fact TSA has only moved into one direction. Virtually each incident is worse than the last.

    At the current rate of decline, within a decade people will be enduring cavity searches. TSA will eventually be armed and the TSA abuse stories of today will eventually be stories of passengers being shot or tazzed.

    Think that is to extreme? Well 10 years ago, who could have imagined that people would be routinely irradiated, have their genitals groped, and be the subject of police brutality for refusing such?

    TSA and DHS is leading this country into facism.

    We don’t need terrorists. TSA/DHS is terrorizing America in a way that an Al Qaeda never could.

  • Michael John Dennis

    Here in the UK, Manchester Airport, a regional airport in the North-West of England has had these full-body scanners for a while now and they are working well – of course no-one wants to have to have to go through security proccedures, but the reality is that they are there for our safety given the current terrorist threat level & I for one support anything that protects our flying health & safety, even for a 35 mins flight from Manchester (where I live) back to visit my family in Dublin, Ireland – they do not have these new scanners as of yet in Dublin Airport & I wish they would because at Dublin, the security lines are so long, where they are still using the old system (Shannon Airport may be different) – its been reported in Manchester Evening News that they even have a cost-effective & cost-efficent system that combines both this new system and the older x-ray system in some integrated way to help speed people through security & I totally support this because we simply cannot afford to take any chances with security – the idea of racial profiling would be in breach of the EU’s Human Rights Act & the UK’s Race Relations Act that it could never be implemented here in the UK or Ireland – I do not feel safe travelling by car ferry between Liverpool/Holyhead – Dublin/Dun Laoghaire & I want to see the same level of security screening implemented at seaports

  • Brian

    Ryan poses the freedom argument quite well.

    In addition, the TSA has a history of rushing technology to market with little research or testing (see the recent OMB report on the puffer machines that came and went). While the safety of the millimeter wave technologies can at least be extrapolated from existing research, the safety of the backscatter machines is dubious at best. The FDA research has serious flaws (as pointed out by most of the medical research schools in the UC system), the scientific community has been prohibited by secrecy laws from performing a proper study, and the systems rely on careful calibration of which there are already frequent reports of TSA agents skipping so they can leave work earlier. There is no such thing as a “safe” level of ionizing radiation, and I have yet to speak to a medical professional who recommended going through one of the backscatter machines.

    Safety and security from terrorism is important, but not at the cost of our basic freedoms and certainly not at the cost of our own health and safety.

  • Steve Sullivan

    As a passenger, pilot, and father, I would applaud the pilot who takes extra precautions in front of his/her potential passengers. Us old timers call it “Leading by Example”. It shows who is in charge of the airplane and that they are leaders, not so arrogant that they cannot see the potential gains of their actions.

    Do I think pilots should be screened the same as passengers? YES. Not because I think there is a rogue pilot wondering around out there, but because leading by example is just good business. Do not ask someone to do something you are not willing to do yourself.

    Do I think the current methods are acceptable? NO. But I am forced, like the rest of us, to “deal with it” until some senator’s wife or daughter is patted down.

    “A person willing to give up a little freedom for a little security deserves neither freedom nor security” – Benjamin Franklin

  • Gerard

    I just love reading these post, everyone is right and wrong all at the same time.

    I am not sure what progressives are (is that another word for liberal?) or how they invented the terrorist, maybe I need to watch Glen Beck to find out. It is hard to take a POV seriously when it starts out with that kind of rhetoric.

    I do not think the TSA is perfect, far from it, but I am pretty sure they are not in the business of trampling on the constitution or my individual rights. Yes, occasionally they treat people poorly, but remember this is an organization of thousands who deal with millions, there are bound to be some bad experiences. I fly frequently and have never had a bad experience with the TSA. Instead what I find is a sophomoric, impatient and delusional traveling public who make it hard for everyone to get from point A to point B efficiently.

    The job of the TSA is to ensure safety, which by the way includes the terminals and gates in the airport, not only the aircraft. I can recall a number of terrorist attacks that targeted the terminals. It is easy to criticize and complain about the intrusiveness of screening, but those same people will howl if the TSA fails to prevent another successful attack.

    This leads me to why pilots should NOT get a free pass from the screening. Yes it is good PR for them to go through the same process, but more importantly there are real risk to not screening pilots. I can sit here all day and come up with scenarios to exploit those risk, don’t you think the terrorist would do the same.

    The fact is there are costs and benefits to everything. If you want to fly on commercial airlines the benefit is, delays not withstanding, you can get to a far away destination in a reasonably short amount of time in basic to modest comfort. Not bad when you consider that just a hundred years ago it might takes months to make the same journey. The cost are you need to let someone see a headless computer generated view of your nether regions (I’ve accepted that my body is hideous, why cant the rest of you do the same) or a gloved hand brushing up against your jewel box (at least they would get a little attention for a change).

    All this talk about rights and intrusion…. WHAT rights? Flying is a choice not a right. What intrusion, the whole screening experience last 30 seconds and your on your way. Health and safety? I wonder if people have any concept of how much radiation they receive from their cell phones, dentist, the flight itself, etc. If you do not want to go through the backscatter screening you have a choice to get the pat down. If you still don’t like the cost for the benefit, you can take the train. I am pretty sure that we all agree we don’t want the plane WE are on to explode or crash into a building.

    I can think of 3000 people who would have welcomed the TSA in all it’s imperfection on September 10th, 2001.

  • Ian Twombly


    I realize this is an emotional issue, but let’s stick to screening and its implications to commercial aviation and pilots.


    — Ian Twombly

  • Walt

    I will not fly commercial again until the screening changes for the better. Random screening without looking at the person you are screening is like playing Russian roulette. The only benifit is not profiling but what are the odds that you are going to find the “underware” bomber before he gets on the plane. Until we get serious about finding the people who are the real terrorists and quit being politically correct it will keep getting worse. The only way to slow the TSA/DHS from employing more draconian measures is if enough people refuse to fly and the airlines start screaming. You deal with it I’m not going to!

  • Tod Dickey

    The terrorists on 9/11 were sucessful in one goal. With the help of the TSA they changed the American lifestyle. We are now subjecting every American passenger to the indignity of the current TSA process because the idiots we hired to protect us are not qualified to do so.

    On the other hand, the TSA screening circus is one of the reasons General Aviation has flourished. I just hope that General Aviation does a better job in objecting to security being regulated by the TSA than the airlines did.

    At some point I hope that actual aviation security is more important than the illusion of security.

  • Alice

    The TSA is not about security. Face it, the shoe and underwear bombers did not board airplanes in this country and they were not stopped by any agent of the TSA. They were stopped by their fellow passengers. We are our own best security. I do not want or need a fellow govt employee committing assault on my person. And yes the patdowns do meet the legal definition of assault. The police don’t even do this stuff. I will choose to be responsible for my own security and will either drive or fly myself until reason and common sense return to the airport. BTW look around carefully at the airport. See those large charter buses dropping off passengers and luggage at the terminal. Anyone remember Oklahoma City. Bus carries 190 to 230 gallons of diesel fuel on board and stops 50 ft from where you are waiving your constitutional rights. No screening whatsoever. I know this because I drive them part time. There are better ways to accomplish security w/o trampling on peoples rights.

  • peter

    Great topic.

    I come to you from a different perspective. The baggage handler, mechanic, gate agents and cleaners. We are the people behind the scenes. My roommate and I have worked at the our international airport for 20 years. If we wanted we could get any type of weapon on any plane at just about anytime. There is no (very little) security screening for us. We have access to all parts of the plane and terminal. The flying public has no clue as to what we could do and the TSA, does not seem to care. They are more concerned about their public image, the appearance of making things safe, and the harassment of our paying customers and pilots. We too are supposed to go through the TSA screening when we fly, either on stand by or as a paying customer. This is complied with about 80% of the time. Less now than before, with the additional scanners. We do not like the pat downs and scanner, so we avoid them. We take other entrances into the terminal. A little cash or a threat to a family member would ensure a gun or bomb planted to the specifications of the madman. 99% of my coworkers would report such a threat or bribe. But 1% of our little (?) workforce is a lot of people throughout the airport system. It only takes one.

  • Jeff

    If the US DHS could not react to information that future 911 hijackers in flight training and their associates already on terrorist watch lists as voiced months prior to 9/11 by the CIA, how can body scanners change the fundamental problems?

    Chip, as you are competent enough to command an airliner you can also understand these costly and intrusive methods are nothing but political window dressings to mask the real issue – there is no way to stop all possibility of attacks. For example, do the body scanners detect items held in body cavities? No – The prisons have dealt with that type of smuggling for years. A terrorist is not ignorant to those methods

    If a lack of body scanners is such a weakness, why has your politically motivated airline pilot association not succeeded in getting all the cargo and gate vehicles scanned? The Israelis have understood this as a fact of life for years – the terrorists have achieved fear and intimidations beyond their capabilities by turning our government into their agent of intimidation.. Let’s face it, it’s a small group of people that takes advantage of the masses on either side. Its big business on both sides, and the rest of us get harassed in the middle.

    What I consider a big danger is your FDDO program. As an armed peace officer AND a pilot, I know that you don’t have the experience behind the weapon you are carrying, and that brings additional dangers to a situation by introducing a firearm. As law enforcement officers our gun battles are typically in the open, less than 10 feet away, and we regularly miss and occasionally wound the innocent. Many weapons are taken away and used against us by previously unarmed suspects. I can only imagine the scenarios with a weapon handled by a professional pilot with minimal firearms training and no street survival experience to draw from while inside a metal tube surrounded by complex electronics and innocent bystanders involved in the struggle at 30,000 feet. It would have better odds as a private pilot flying your airliner.

    If you feel as violated by the current state of security measures as us flying public, you should consider using your professional influence and journalistic avenues to address the real issues rather than complaining about being subject to similar rules as the rest of us.

  • Graeme Smith

    I’ll take the pat-down – I did at Thanksgiving – the guy was just doing his job – he was absolutely professional and explained clearly what he was going to do and took no liberties. Of course I am sure it has me tagged in the system now as a potential threat and I notice my bags have been given extra screening ever since….

    I don’t like the full body scanners because – because of the unpublished radiation risk levels. The TSA shouldn’t think of me as being a pest – I also question my dentist EVERY time he wants another set of bite wings and I usually decline – despite his – “it is only like having 10 minutes in the sun”. My answer – “I cover up when I go out in the sun”. I’ve had the pre-cancerous meloaomas removed from my arms – I don’t want any more.

    Google around and you will find that there is growing opinion in the medical profession that because of doctors’ CYA mentality – driven by the “sue for malpractice” mentality of the patients – that un-necessary medical imaging is CAUSING an additional 29,000 cases of cancer per year in the USA. The studies are statistical analysis of trends and not actual full blown studies – because none have been commissioned yet.

    We shouldn’t be surprised if the 29,000 number turn out to be correct. After all routine fluroscoping of women and children’s feet in shoe stores was the norm in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s till it was figured that standing on top of an X-Ray tube with no other body shielding was probably not a good idea!

    So while the Back Scatter radiation risk is unknown and the EPIC’s FOIA request for information on the radiation risks grinds through the courts –

    …..I’ll take the pat downs.

  • Jay

    “Deal with it”? Mr. Wright’s advice is indistinguishable from “unquestioningly accept it”. I say unquestioningly because acceptance includes acceptance of the premise that the TSA’s goal or mission is to prevent loss of the ordinary traveler’s life. I question that premise because of the many other opportunities government has the opportunities to save many more lives than can be threatened by terrorists.

    The annualized death rate from domestic terrorism is less than 300 per year over the past decade. TSA’s annual budget is about $6.3 billion per year. That would give an annualized cost per presumably prevented death of $21 million each. Are there any other areas the government is willing to spend like that for each ordinary citizen? Thirteen percent of the homeless are veterans, supposedly self-sacrificial defenders of freedom, heroes not worth a small fraction of TSA-like funding. Health industry studies reveal that in hospital preventable loss of life to be greater than 100,000 per year: not a political issue (other than so-called “tort reform”, another avenue to discount the value of human life). There are many other examples of the same so it seems safe to assume that saving traveler’s lives is not part of the equation.

    I remember that when Patty Hearst was kidnapped immediately 100 FBI agents were assigned to the case. My sister in law at the time went missing but the police informed me that missing person reports weren’t accepted until the subject had been missing for at least a week. So SOP policy there revealed different standards for persons judged to be of different “value”.

    It seems worth pointing out that the last two attempts at blowing up US common carrier airliners were prevented by the passengers, not TSA. The latter, the so-called Christmas bomber, was a threat known to the FBI, CIA, TSA, and the State Department but was allowed to board anyway without any sort of TSA challenge. No government official seemed to be unduly worried about passenger safety. So there must be another explanation.

    That explanation is government policy that is apart from any ordinary citizen’s safety concern and devoid of any consideration of either civil or human rights. I notice that Ben Franklin has been quoted here defining the ordinary citizen’s worthiness for liberty. I don’t think “just deal with it” meets Ben’s test. I agree with those who advocate avoiding commercial air travel. Since I can’t afford my own aircraft I drive. I have no TSA hassle, no baggage ransom, no cancellation threat, and only minor time loss (depending on the distance) and travel cost since I don’t have to rent a car at my destination. Most importantly though, I take total responsibility for my own safety while enjoying the advantage of not having to kneel to authorities who ought to be my servants.

  • http:[email protected] mario lozano

    Is nice that everyone is washing the front door and nobody is checking the back, what or who is going to stop a regular pilot or student flying a cessna and overlooking an approach into jfk and doing a suicide dive into an approaching 747. its very simple and non stopable, this is where they are suppose to be consentrading on how to avoid this scene and stop the stupidity they are demonstrading at the airport, how much can you really carry on board in your underware or on your shoes, the tsa just like to have control over us just for the hell of it and have to be no logical reason, when was the last time the government use logic to solve a situation, they always and I mean always have the wrong approach to any situation, they just want the american people to think they are doing something.

  • Greg Sniegowski

    I’m just glad there were not too many people with the “vision” of Mr. Wright in this country in the mid to late 1700’s. We’d all be “just dealing” with kidney pie and bowing to the king.

  • Planeology

    It would be one thing if the TSA proposed effective security measures such as behavioral (not racial) profiling. It would also be another if the TSA didn’t try to stop the objects hosting (like shampoo bottles) potential lethal substances and instead focused on stopping the humans attempting to introduce those lethal substances.

    I agree 115% with Mario, all the TSA is concerned about is putting on a good show with screening passengers, when there are many more layers of contact where security threats can be introduced outside of the passengers.

    This really Janet Napalatano’s fault, she is extremely unqualified. She makes excused for very lame policy, and if she had a similar job in the private sector, she would have been fired long ago. This is the danger of having “Appointed” rather than elected officials.

    Next time you hate standing in line at the TSA, think long and hard about voting in Government officials (from the President on down) who actually know what they are doing or give a damn.

  • Chip Wright

    The point of my post was not to start a heated debate about our various political views. Most of the comments indicate that the readers have missed the point of what I was discussing, but since so many address the mere issue of security, let me say this: the system is not perfect, and it is not ideal. But that is not the point. The point is two-fold: first, it is effective, though it can’t always be called efficient, and second—and this is the crux of it—pilots of Part 121 carriers should not, in my opinion, be made to go through security.

    Several readers bring up points I’d like to address. First, with regards to Justin Scott’s question about how the TSA can determine the validity of an individual pilot’s credentials: the system has already been set up, it is amazingly effective and simple, and I would go so far as to say that it is as tamper-proof as it can be. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how it works (I’d have to kill you). But suffice it to say, it works, and I think you’d be impressed. Second, on the issue of the unions advocating for proper cargo security, chances are the loss of the UPS 747 in Dubai will speed that along. However, you are correct in that progress has been slower than it should have been, and the money is to blame. Third, while it is true that the last two on-board efforts to engage in terrorism began overseas, the reverse is also true: no explosives have been boarded domestically since 2001. Fourth, to those who point out that the pat-downs, etc. are a consequence of the choice of flying, you are correct. I don’t like them personally, but when it comes to safeguarding my flight, I again stand behind them. Finally, it is all about money. The type and format of security that we have is driven by efficiency (a demand of all of the stakeholders) and by the cost. Passengers will only pay a certain amount for a ticket, and the cost of security is borne primarily by the passengers.

    Is the system on the whole perfect? No, not even close. But the passenger screening does work, and it is what we have, and so long as I am in the pointy end of the plane, I want to know that you have been dissuaded from trying something dumb because of the risk of getting caught. As for the fact that I am in the pointy end, I still do feel that pilots should be subjected to the same screening as passengers. But, that’s just my opinion.

    Thanks for the feedback. If you have any other (appropriate) topics you want me to address, let me know. I will do my best to start another debate!

  • Estelle Edwards

    Well, a growing number of Americans will refuse to ‘just deal with it’. Taking a lesson from the failed (or successful) ‘opt-out’ protests which took place on Thanksgiving Day last year, many Americans will simply be boycotting commercial air travel altogether. If they do have to fly, there is a movement to start patronising the private charter services. People will create groups and use a free market approach to the problem. Other options, of course, are Amtrak, the upscale bus services, or simply driving to points between New York and Florida. To get an idea of what’s brewing, visit my Meetup group, which also showcases the boycott efforts of other groups.

  • David

    One thing that the TSA and all these security measures fail to recognize, is that the greatest security comes from the passengers themselves. How many times since 9/11 have we read articles about someone acting up on a flight, trying to cause a disturbance, and the other passengers stopped them. Now, how many articles have we read about the TSA screening catching someone? The people being abused by the TSA are the ones who are really providing the security.

  • Estelle Edwards

    Never mind all the rationalization. What it comes down to is this: what type of country do you want to live in? Americans are already leaving in droves and some aren’t even waiting until retirement. Government is becoming too oppressive, and when it injures or kills innocent people through excessive force, i.e., the police, the TSA, etc., by over-reacting to situations, they seem to be immune from the law. The offenders merely get suspended without pay or transferred to some other district. All of you on this board need to make a stand and stop blindly listening to the government.
    And it’s time to do something much more than just pulling the lever on election day. What if April 15 came and nobody filed a tax return? Some of you really don’t see the big picture. We have legalized theft by government through eminent domain and erosion of property rights, and now we have legalized theft and possible sexual harrasment through these bums known as the TSA. What’s inappropriate for you and I to do and can get arrested for is okay for anyone in government under the guise of ‘making us safe?’ Get real. I have to wonder what is wrong with some of the people on this or any other board. You guys are nothing like the early American citizens who put liberty over FEAR and so-called security.