Aviation Security and the Failure of Relative Risk

Once again, David Rowell is on a roll with his weekly aviation newsletter. I’m reproducing a larger portion than I normally ever would, because he does an excellent job summing up some recent stories that illustrate the current state of our approach to airline security.

    A flashlight battery ‘exploded’ on Saturday. The ‘explosion’ was apparently caused by a buildup of gas inside its five year old ‘C’ size battery. The person handling the torch suffered swollen hands, and several people nearby said they had ringing in their ears for a while after.


    But because this was at LAX airport, the entire International Terminal was evacuated for three hours.


    To make matters worse, at almost the same time, a passenger entered one of the other terminals through a ‘no entry’ exit, requiring terminals 6, 7 & 8 all to be evacuated as well. All terminal roadways were also closed for three hours – only the second time in the airport’s history that this has been done (the first being after 9/11).


    The two incidents caused 200 airport police, Los Angeles police, firemen, FBI and federal transportation security officers to be mobilized, and caused an estimated 10,000 passengers to be forced to leave the airport and stand in a line stretching over a mile down Century Boulevard. 20,000 cars were diverted.


    The passenger with the naughty flashlight wasn’t charged with any crime. And the man entering through an exit was never located.

    Passenger Hazel O’Leary asked to be allowed off a four hour delayed United Express flight. One other passenger was allowed to deplane, but apparently because Ms O’Leary had checked luggage on the plane, the pilot refused to allow her to leave.


    An argument ensued. Ms O’Leary not unreasonably thought it unfair to be trapped on the delayed flight when there was another flight due to leave shortly that she could make if allowed to leave the United Express flight. The pilot called the police who arrested her for disorderly behavior. After some three hours of questioning by police and FBI, they eventually released her.


    Ms O’Leary is not only a former US Secretary of Energy, but also a current board member of United Airlines, and has been for almost five years.


    I’m sure we should congratulate the lady pilot for not letting that minor detail intrude upon her fear that Ms O’Leary may have been a terrorist with bombs in her luggage that were certain to explode if she allowed the lady off the plane. And we should also congratulate the police for thoroughly questioning her for three hours before reluctantly concluding she was nothing more than a frustrated passenger annoyed by the inanities of the airline she is a director of.


    Privacy advocate John Gilmore is challenging the requirement to show ID before boarding a commercial flight. The Department of Justice is asking an appeals court to be allowed to keep its arguments in favor of this requirement secret, due to, of course, security concerns. Catch 22?


    A businessman was flying from Salt Lake City to Seattle, planning to buy stock for his business while in Seattle. Dealing in arts and crafts, he buys from craft stalls and normally in cash, so he had $26,000 in cash with him to finance his purchases.


    His carry-on was searched and the cash discovered. Apparently having a large sum of cash, these days, is quasi-illegal. A TSA agent told the man it is TSA policy to contact the police when large sums of money are found. A police officer in turn contacted the local DEA, and a DEA agent allegedly said by phone to the passenger ‘If you’re gonna play hard with me, I’m going to come and seize your money and it’ll take your lawyer at least a year to get it back.’


    The passenger was taken away in handcuffs and questioned for four hours, not allowed to contact an attorney, and then released with no charges filed. But his money was indeed seized, and only after nine months and $20,000 in legal expenses did he get it returned (although several thousand dollars are now missing).

Meanwhile, with our multi-billion dollar investment in this kind of airline ‘security’, and in light of the recent Russian hostage incident in which hundreds died, could we be overemphasizing one potential terrorist threat over another? Wouldn’t it be tragic if our focus on airlines caused terrorists to shift their threat to American schools?

The worry here is real – we need to pay attention to relative threat risks.

Bob Poole’s aviation security newsletter points out that this is precisely what the 9-11 commission has shown us the federal government is failing to do.

    The long-awaited report of the 9/11 Commission report was a breath of fresh air to those of us who’ve been arguing for the past three years for a risk-based approach to transportation security. First of all, it called attention to the egregious over-emphasis on aviation at the expense of other modes, with over 90% of transportation security spending now devoted just to aviation. “TSA has developed neither an integrated strategic plan for the transportation sector nor specific plans for the various modes,” vice chairman Lee Hamilton told the Senate Commerce Committee last month. The report says the government should conduct risk-based assessments of infrastructure, figuring out the largest vulnerabilities, assessing what could realistically be done about them, and setting spending priorities accordingly.

Bob’s newsletter is indispensible (and free!) and provides other fascinating tidbits, such as

    Aviation Week posted a list of those politicos who use their clout to get permission to fly in and out of Reagan National Airport in private planes – despite the fact that general aviation has been banned from DCA ever since 9/11. The all-time worst offender? Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia (46 flights). The runners-up, in order, are Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia (26), Gov. George Pataki of New York (24), Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida (16), and Sen. John Kerry (14).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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