By federal law, all passenger airliners now feature cockpit doors that are locked by the pilots from inside the cockpit. Likewise, pilot training now includes the specific instructions not to open the door in response to any occurrence or emergency in the passenger cabin; instead, pilots are under instructions to land the aircraft immediately in response to any perceived emergency that would have previously been cause to investigate beyond the flight deck (Sperry 2003).
Fortunately, by itself, this single set of rules has effectively ended any realistic threat of terrorists (or anybody else) ever hijacking a passenger airliner or otherwise gaining access to the flight controls for the purposes of commandeering it. In fact, it is now virtually impossible for anyone to hijack an American airliner again. Unfortunately, all of the subsequent passenger restrictions and billions of dollars in expenditures for sophisticated screening equipment is largely considered a complete waste of money and effort by aviation security experts. All the other elements of the security screening system in place now are designed perfectly to prevent the catastrophe that already occurred seven years ago on September 11, 2001, rather than to address the true nature of the most realistic and likely post-September 11th threats to American aviation safety (Scheuer 2004).
The primary focus of all post-September 11th restrictions and procedures are intended to interdict items that can be used as handheld weapons for the purpose of threatening hostages in the same manner that the September 11th hijackers used standard box cutters to gain access to the cockpit by threatening or assaulting flight attendants and passengers. Despite the fact that the cockpit doors now incorporate Kevlar into their design and are already impervious to penetration from the passenger cabin side of the door, federal screeners still actively search for nail files and pocket knives in passengers carry-on luggage.
The secondary focus of all post-September 11th restrictions and procedures are intended to detect explosive residue to prevent suicidal terrorists from boarding passenger planes with explosives. Much like the primary focus on September 11th – style cockpit takeovers that occurred seven years ago, the secondary focus of American aviation safety on in-flight explosive detonation is perfectly formulated to prevent such an attempt by one individual that occurred a month later.
Tactically, the emphasis of TSA security restrictions on explosive detection is a sound approach to preventing another individual like Richard Reid from boarding a plane with the intention (and equipment) to bring the aircraft down by igniting an explosion capable of breaching the pressurized fuselage at altitude. Strategically, the emphasis of TSA security restrictions on explosive detection is a complete waste of funding and other scarce resources, in addition to unnecessarily delaying aircraft boarding procedures across the nation. Even worse, specific components of the explosive detection efforts actually increase the risk of the more likely avenue through which prospective terrorists would attempt to blow a passenger plane out of the sky (Clarke 2004).
By far, the most likely risk of such a terrorist act comes from within the commercial aviation industry and not from members of the general public flying as passengers. That is because most of the support industries that contract their services to airports and airlines are not required to conduct the same kinds of background investigations as federal agencies. Time and again, airline baggage handlers in airports in areas considered high-priority potential terrorist targets (like New York City) have been arrested for exploiting their access to aircraft and to secure areas to smuggle narcotics or to rummage through passengers checked baggage (Larson 2007).
In many cases, employees have been granted clearance and received credentials giving them unrestricted access to the tarmac and to virtually any aircraft and to the support equipment used to service them in-between flights before their basic criminal histories come back from their sources. Among the individuals who have acquired routine access to highly restricted areas of American airports before being identified as security risks are fugitives from the law, subjects of criminal arrest warrants, illegal aliens, as well as several with strongly suspected al-Qaeda ties (Sperry 2003). In comparison to the prospect of infiltrating front-line airport security measures with an explosive charge as a passenger, doing so under the cover of employment within the catering and service industries employed by airlines is far preferable. Aircraft services workers regularly have complete and undisturbed access to parked aircraft on a daily basis as required by their jobs. Even without the comparative difficulty of reliably concealing explosives from carry-on baggage screening, access to aircraft in conjunction with vocational responsibilities is optimal from the terrorists tactical perspective.
Food service workers and cabin cleanup crews provide substantial opportunities for sole individuals to take the necessary time to secret explosive devices almost anywhere on the aircraft where their placement is likely to be catastrophic and unlikely from being discovered in the ordinary course of flight preparations and in-flight operations.
Despite this relatively obvious vulnerability, airline support service venders are not required to submit employee history information for FBI screening or to conduct any inquiry more than five years prior to hire. Paradoxically, flight crews, airline employees, and both local and federal agencies involved in airport security are all (properly) subjected to a minimum of ten-year background history investigations and FBI checks before their employment and certification in the aviation industry (Sperry 2003).
If anything, the unskilled nature of the work associated with airline support services and the comparatively high turn-over rate in that industry justifies a higher degree of scrutiny for those employees than for the highly-skilled professionals employed directly by the airlines and federal agencies, not a lower degree of scrutiny in their pre- employment screening process than flight crews and baggage screeners.
Therefore, to the extent the purpose of post-September 11th airport security measures are intended to interdict explosives that could be detonated on board by terrorists, the most practical, effective, and sensible approach would have been to invest a small fraction of the funds wasted on front-line passenger screening on more thorough background investigations of any prospective airline support service employee whose position requires access to secure areas.
Meanwhile, at least one concurrent TSA airport security requirement designed to lessen the chances that terrorists will manage to defeat baggage screening efforts and succeed in placing explosives on an aircraft before takeoff. In particular, the TSA now requires checked baggage to remain unlocked to facilitate ease of access by security officials to inspect passenger luggage. Unfortunately, whatever degree of security is gained by that measure is probably more than offset by the extent to which the same requirement actually provides the opportunity to sneak explosives into random passengers checked baggage anywhere in the process of routine baggage handling (Larson 2007).
If that situation were not frustrating enough, the front-end passenger screening and security measures are rendered relatively impotent by the impact of various constitutional rights as currently applied to airport screening (Dershowitz 2002a). That is because the most effective and sensible methods of identify potential terrorists and security risks posed by hand-held weapons or explosives transported onto aircraft cabins on the persons of passengers are constitutionally impermissible.
The problem is that if security measures are to successfully achieve their most basic conceptual purpose, they must address the need to focus screening efforts on people instead of on inanimate objects like shoes and toothpaste tubes. Finally, the process of devising security strategy must be imaginative and forward-looking rather than perpetually defining future security concerns by reacting to past incidents. Even from the terrorists perspective, the usefulness of attempts like Richard Reids to detonate explosives in shoes or to assemble explosives from multiple inert liquids in the manner prevented in Britain in 2006 lies in their novelty. Chances are, once executed unsuccessfully, that approach would likely be immediately abandoned by terrorists irrespective of subsequent countermeasures implemented by the government. In fact, the most cynical terrorist analyst might even suggest that orchestrating a few novel attempts like shoe bombing serve a very valuable purpose for terrorists represented by the effectiveness with which American authorities have thus far tailored future security safeguards to terrorist tactics that are likely already considered obsolete (or merely failed experiments) by their perpetrators. In other words, if terrorists hope to hide a kilo of plastic explosives in the lavatory ceiling by infiltrating airline support services operations under the guise of employment, they might very well attempt to divert interdiction efforts by giving them incentive to redouble their efforts to identify a few grams of contraband within toothpaste tubes and the soles of passengers shoes.
Lessons from Israel:
El-Al, the Israeli national airline provides a model for the person-oriented security focus that contrasts so dramatically with the inanimate object-oriented security focus that characterizes American efforts to safeguard air travel. The Israeli Security Agency (ISA), also known as Shin Bet directs the security procedures used by El-Al. Ironically, because of its pejorative connotations in this country, the primary tool used by Israels Shin Bet agents is profiling.