Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Flying the Unfriendly Skies

How to improve security? Ask the passanger in 12A or 23 C.

To: Secretary Janet Napolitano

U.S. Department of Homeland Security


“You’re doing a heck of a job, Nappy,” as they would say in the previous administration.

On Christmas Day, a Nigerian with potentially exploding underwear bought a one-way ticket—he paid with cash and carried no baggage—to fly on Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. In spite of the suspect’s father having warned the U.S. Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency about his son’s radical beliefs, no steps were taken to add his son to the no-fly list.

Let’s review a little history for context. Many years earlier, in the 1970s, airplanes were frequently hijacked to places such as Cuba. As a result, behavioral profiling was quietly put in place at our major airports.

In fact, in 1975, I had to fly to Duluth on a moment’s notice to attend a World Hockey Association game. I went to the airport in Minneapolis, bought my one-way ticket to Duluth, paid cash, and—replete with facial hair but sans baggage—walked down to the gate. Two large, plainclothes individuals who did not identify themselves took me to a little screened-off booth, questioned me about my intentions, and patted me down. Finding no obvious weapons, they cleared me to get on the plane.

When I asked how I could avoid this delay in the future, I was informed that buying one-way tickets for cash while being facially hirsute and baggageless was a bad idea.

And so, we have been profiling airline passengers and checking them against some matrix of terrorists for a long time in this country. Hijacking of airplanes to Cuba dramatically declined (and to the best of my knowledge, no airplanes bound for Duluth were ever hijacked).

Let me now return to what can make our skies more friendly. Certainly, technology is part of the solution.

Technology in the form of metal detectors is generally credited with helping to end the 1970s airplane hijackings. It is probable that the billions of dollars spent today on improved X-ray machines have stopped some baggage-borne terrorist weapons. We learned with the 2001 shoe-bomber attack, however, that there are explosives in liquid form that are not discovered by X-rays. Backscatter imaging technology now exists that would identify these items when they are hidden on a person’s body.

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