Aviation Blog - Jay Ratliff

Aviation Blog - Jay Ratliff

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9/11 Anniversary: It is safer to fly today than prior to 9/11

World Trade Center Attacked NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 11: Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the south tower of the World Trade Center and explodes at 9:03 a.m. on September 11, 2001 in New York City. The crash of two airliners hijacked by terrorists loyal to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and subsequent collapse of the twin towers killed some 2,800 people. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Are we safer today than before 9/11?

I remain amazed at the “experts” who continue to maintain that we are no safer today (from a security point of view) than prior to the attacks of 9/11.  While I agree that there are areas where we need to see improvement, we are considerably safer than prior to 9/11.

Prior to that horrible day in September, one of our main areas of concern was checked luggage.  Specifically, virtually no domestic checked luggage was searched in any way, even though public perception was otherwise.

The main concern was a suicide bomber could check in with a luggage full of explosives, board the plane, and then the plane would be blown from the sky – resulting in a total loss of life of those on board in addition to possible casualties on the ground.  If you had 30 people willing to kill themselves and were flying on a plane with 200 passengers and crew, six thousand people would be killed in a short span of time.

I was among the voices pleading with the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and airline security directors for an immediate change in this policy.  We screened passengers before they boarded planes, checked luggage needed the same scrutiny.  However, time after time we were told that this was not a main area of concern and since the public perception concluded bags were screened, that was good enough.

The airlines balked at the idea because it would potentially slow down the boarding process and the traveling public would throw a fit.  Then of course the cost factor was raised and since that could lead to higher air fares, doing nothing became the standard operating procedure for decades…at least, until 9/11.

Following the attacks the FAA posted military officials at the airports, in a show of strength.  It was actually a wasted effort since the attacks were not a result of a security lapse and the FAA was, once again, managing the perception of security rather than actually improving security as we know it.

Finally the decision was made to screen checked luggage and immediately the security for the 2 million passengers who traveled a day was improved.  I applauded the decision and was relieved that it did not take a loss of life to usher in a change in policy.  Far too many times the recommendations following an aviation disaster are placed on the back burner, with the excuse of “too much money” being used to justify inaction.  

A further step forward in security took place as the full-body imaging scanners were distributed at airports around the country and these were needed in the worst possible way.  For decades security at the airport relied on magnetometers.  The unit would use a magnetic field to detect metal objects, but was absolutely worthless when it came to detecting plastic or liquids that might be strapped to a passenger’s body.

In 2004 two Russian planes were destroyed as female passengers, strapped with explosives to their bodies, were able to board without being detected.  They cleared the security checkpoints, which relied on the magnetometers, and nearly 100 lives were lost in the two incidents.  It soon became clear to security personnel around the world that there had to be a way to detect explosives that were concealed under clothing.

Immediately airports began using the “swab test.”  Passengers were selected at random and a specially designed cloth was used to swipe along a bag to see if there was any explosive trace residue.  These tests were effective, but not 100% since only a few of the passengers traveling a day were subjected to the test.

A few years later the phone-booth looking “puffer” machines were put into place, allowing more passengers to be screened at the airport checkpoints.  The problem here is the machines were not as reliable as hoped and had serious maintenance issues and at a cost of $165,000 a piece, we needed them to work as designed.

Eventually the full body imaging scanners were introduced and the machines were able to detect metal, plastic or liquid objects that might be strapped to a traveler’s body and with more and more passengers a day screened by these machines, we have achieved a higher level of security than we had prior to the attacks of 9/11.

Without fear of successful contradiction I can state that we are far safer today when traveling than prior to the attacks of 9/11.  However, I will quickly add there is much more work that needs to be done and done quickly.

While we are seeing billions of dollars invested inside the airport, at the security checkpoints, we need to see far more resources devoted to protecting the outside of the airport – mainly on the tarmac and airport grounds.  We continue to see reports of individuals who have hopped over the six foot high perimeter fence (with the very intimidating “No Trespassing” sign) and then strolled right onto the airport tarmac without being detected until the last moment…if at all.  With thousands of airplanes parked at airports around the country, much more emphasis needs to be placed on keeping them secure as they remain overnight.  After all, what is the use of incredible security inside the airport, unless we also improve the security of the aircraft itself?

Any attack which disrupts the passage of cargo and passengers around the country would result in a significant adverse impact on our country’s economy – not to mention a loss of life.  It is for these reasons everything within our power needs to be done to upgrade the security standards at airports around the country.  The lame excuse of cost needs to be replaced by an urgency to better protect the lives of those who travel and it needs to happen now.

Yes, we are safer today than prior to 9/11, but much more needs to be done.

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