A Pilot on Airline Security

posted at 9:18 am on July 16, 2007 by Patterico

[I have recently published a series of posts on airline security at my own blog. One of the air marshals I quoted, Robert MacLean, mentioned the vulnerability of overnighting aircraft — aircraft parked overnight waiting for the next flight. He told me that the person to ask about this threat was David Mackett, the president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, an organization of pilots concerned with airline security. I wrote Mr. Mackett and asked him if he could discuss the issue of airline security generally, and overnighting planes specifically. In response, I received a lengthy and thoughtful e-mail touching on many aspects of airline security, of which the issue of overnighting planes forms only a small part.

Below I have reprinted Mr. Mackett’s e-mail in its entirety, with only the lightest possible editing. What you are about to read is a comprehensive, thoughtful, and sobering commentary on the state of airline security, and what can be done about it. — Patterico]

As background, no conversation about airline security should take place without at least trying to conceive of the almost incomprehensible size of the air transportation system. The size of the system is the reason everything the public and policymakers “think” should work in airline security doesn’t, and the reason our entire approach to airline security is almost completely ineffective against a threat like Al Qaeda — and the reason security almost always fails when tested by covert testers, innocent civilians and, occasionally, persons with intent.

At this moment, there are roughly 5000 commercial airliners in the skies above you. There will be 28,000 flights today, and 840,000 in the next month — every month. The U.S. fleet consists of some 6000 aircraft — almost all of which will be parked unattended tonight at a public airport. We will carry almost 7 billion passengers this year, the number increasing to 10 billion by 2010, barring an exogenous event like another 9/11.

There is simply no deployable technology that has a prayer of keeping a motivated, prepared terrorist out of the system every time — even most times. TSA misses more than 90% of detectable weapons at passenger checkpoints in their own tests, and it is not their fault, because of the limitations of technology and the number of inspections they must conduct. This doesn’t count several classes of completely undetectable weapons like composite knives and liquid explosives.

What is TSA’s fault is their abject failure to embrace more robust approaches than high visibility inspections, and their accommodations to the Air Transport Association’s revenue interests at the expense of true security, while largely ignoring the recommendations of the front-line airline crews and air marshals who have no direct revenue agenda and are much more familiar with airline operations than are the bureaucrats (remember government ignoring the front-line FBI agents who tried to warn them about 9/11?). Deplorable amounts of money have been wasted on incomprehensible security strategies, while KISS [Keep It Simple, Stupid] methods proven to work have been ignored.

Aircraft on the ramp are just one example of this.

Immediately after 9/11, the Administration deployed the National Guard to airport checkpoints to reassure the public, though the terrorists’ objective was not the checkpoint, but the aircraft. The Airline Pilots Security Alliance (APSA) called for putting National Guardsmen on airport ramps to monitor anyone around the aircraft, conduct random ID checks, and protect the aircraft from anyone putting suspicious cargo in the holds or cabin. We also called for 100% ground employee security screening, which, while flawed, provided some layer of prevention against minimum wage employees planting illicit weapons on commercial aircraft; we also called for behavioral profiling of passengers at security checkpoints.

None of this was done, and the aircraft on the ramp were “protected” only by vigilant employees who had other, more primary responsibilities. These aircraft were still freely accessible to many other employees who worked on the strength of a background check that said they hadn’t done anything yet.

Today, RON (remaining overnight) aircraft are invariably unattended and unlocked all night. Commercial aircraft typically do not have locks in their doors. They are protected by roving airport police patrols and closed circuit cameras. Neither methodology is very robust. A skeleton crew of employees is also on duty who may see something suspicious, but most have gone home. Jetway doors prevent access from the terminal but the exterior aircraft doors are unlocked to anyone who pushes a stairway up to them.

There have been numerous breaches of airport perimeters (see www.secure-skies.org, How Safe Are You?, Airport Perimeter Security), often by people who weren’t even trying. At least one Al Qaeda sympathizer employed as a catering truck driver was arrested after driving onto airports for months, gathering intelligence.

It is certainly possible for a terrorist to jump the airport fence and walk to the airplanes, particularly at smaller airports, some with low fences and no or few cameras. But the greatest threat to RON aircraft is that anyone with an airport swipe card can get on board unsupervised. This includes third-party catering trucks coming in from outside the perimeter (almost impossible to inspect in any meaningful way), subcontracted cleaning crews, and unskilled ramp employees.

There have been at least three “rings” of employees arrested since 9/11: one for large-scale theft from passengers’ bags, and two for putting illicit guns and drugs onboard aircraft. The only reason these events did not result in a successful terror attack is because the bad guys were thieves and smugglers, not terrorists. If those guns had been planted in the cabin of an aircraft, a terrorist team could have simply cleared security with their fellow passengers the next day, and armed themselves once they were onboard.

This threat is mitigated by the fact that pilots, flight attendants, and ramp agents now routinely inspect the aircraft before flight each day, and this provides a measure of security. But it is not foolproof. Since there is little time to do a thorough inspection prior to passenger boarding, well-concealed weapons can be missed. A Maryland college student successfully planted hidden weapons in the lavatories of four or five Southwest Airlines jets several years ago. He carried them right through the security checkpoint. He was successful every time he tried. And in some cases, the weapons were not discovered for weeks. There is also a strong suspicion that weapons were “pre-planted” on some of the aircraft targeted on 9/11.

From a terrorist’s point of view, the downside of pre-planting weapons is that if they are found, the attack is thwarted literally before the plane gets off the ground, and warning is given to the entire air transport system. But remember: the terrorists are also warned of the find, and do not have to risk compromise — they just stay home. Conversely, if CNN isn’t broadcasting found weapons on airliners, the terrorists would know the operation has a good chance of succeeding, even before they arrive at the airport.

By the way, we constantly have to walk the line between sharing enough information to get fixes implemented, while not sharing so much it compromises our safety even more. Everything I’m writing is easily available to a motivated intelligence-gathering cell. There are other problems I won’t discuss, because the information is not publicly available. That doesn’t mean it’s not real.

What needs to happen across all segments of airline security is a philosophical change from trying to prevent an attack (which doesn’t work in a system this size) to defending against one (which does — a la Flight 93).

Almost six years after 9/11, it is inexcusable that — in an environment where TSA misses more than 90% of weapons, RON aircraft are not secured, and ground employees are not screened — fewer than 2% of our airliners have a team of armed pilots aboard, fewer than 5% have air marshals, and the flight attendants have no mandatory tactical or behavioral assessment training. $24 billion dollars later, we are not materially safer, except in the areas of intelligence that prevent an attack from getting to an airport. Once at the airport, there is little reason to believe the attack won’t succeed.

If these airplanes were appropriately defended, it would matter less who got onboard and with what weapon. We could then redeploy TSA assets to protecting RON aircraft, securing the ramps against suspicious persons, and randomly checking employee ID’s, as well as implement 100% cargo/baggage inspection and government funding for explosive-proof cargo compartments and missile defense.

It has taken six years, but TSA is now finally flirting with behavioral assessment training for screeners and random (but not mandatory) ground employee inspections. The airlines complain screening all ground employees would significantly hinder airline operations. They’re right — it would.

As usual, though, it has taken far too long for even these fixes, and there’s no action on the most meaningful improvements: dramatic expansion of the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, redeployment of air marshals on more specific, instead of random flights, and treating crews as critical assets, instead of as members of the general public, in terms of training and information sharing.

There is no question that we will get airline security right someday. My only question is whether, at this point, we will get it right before the next attack. After 9/11, we were given the gift of time and of awareness. I am very concerned we have squandered the gift of time — and there is little left before we are hit again — and we are losing the gift of awareness, as we truly forget what that morning was like. There is no question in my mind, based on everything I hear in my position, that Al Qaeda is actively, aggressively preparing to target the United States again, and that commandeering an airliner is still the easiest, quickest method of possessing a weapon of mass destruction. I am even more concerned that the next attack could be far worse than 9/11, which, while devastating, would pale in comparison to other available targets.

Recalling World War II, the Japanese didn’t surrender after Hiroshima because they believed there was only one atom bomb. It was only after another bomb hit Nagasaki — after we proved we could do it again — that their country collapsed. Similarly, another successful 9/11 would devastate our country in ways we can’t even imagine — probably much more than the first attack, as we realize they can do it again despite our “best” efforts.

Government and airline management are taking an awful chance in promoting the appearance of security, instead of using, as President Bush promised, “every resource available” in this new world war.

I know I’ve gotten pretty far afield of your topic, but I want to give you the sense that RON aircraft are just one small piece of a multilayered security system wherein every layer leaks like a sieve. The problem is much, much bigger than any single element.

In the end, we should be starting with defending the smallest spaces — the cockpits and cargo compartments, and working outward to the limits of our resources; instead of starting with the airport perimeter and working inward, ignoring the actual defense of those spaces that are actually the terrorist targets. And we should be using the resources already in place to the greatest extent possible, instead of trying to bring new, untried methods into play, then waiting to find out they don’t work nearly as well in reality as they do on paper.

Dave Mackett
President, Airline Pilots Security Alliance

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Very sobering letter from someone in the know…great point about the Japanese…

DCJeff on July 16, 2007 at 9:27 AM

Wonderful insight. If all else fails, protect the cockpit in any way possible. Perhaps arm the pilots as well??? Even if the entire system fails up to that point, the plane cannot be used as a WMD if the terrorists cannot get in the cockpit.
Can someone remind me again WHY we have a Department of Homeland Security? I think I’ll stick to driving…

revolutionismyname on July 16, 2007 at 9:35 AM

Several historical questions on the topic:

Where were all of the Sky Marshalls on 9/11?

And who laid them off during the intervening years after they had initially been hired?

None of my representatives have ever answered this.

And no one in the media ever asked it after 9/11.

As if the lack of defenses onboard planes (after the hijackings from the 1970’s, onward) wasn’t a subject of any note.

If all of the fire extinguishers on airliners had been removed, wouldn’t that have been a story?

Why were the missing armed agents NOT one?

Our security services are a little more serious now, but clearly still not enough.

profitsbeard on July 16, 2007 at 9:39 AM


Romeo13 on July 16, 2007 at 9:43 AM

TSA misses more than 90% of detectable weapons at passenger checkpoints…

I know this from experience. My pocketknife was recently confiscated at the boarding gate during a “random” passenger inspection in Austin as I was coming home from a trip. I was genuinely shocked because that knife (barely an inch in length) had made it through more than half a dozen airports previously. I had been under the impression that if I made it through with my tiny knife then they must be permitted. Clearly this is not the case.

At the time I was very tempted to tell that snooty TSA woman, “Look, I’ve been on I don’t know how many flights with this thing and I have yet to shank anyone. I think I’m safe to get on board with my little swiss army manicure knife.” Of course, I have better sense than that and I was too angry at the time to get it past my lips but the point is that the TSA isn’t doing its job very well.

Penthesileia on July 16, 2007 at 9:48 AM

Protecting the smallest perimeter and creating concentric rings of security outward is an excellent plan. It has been used successfully since castles were made of timbers and still works.

However, spending resources protecting planes that are already on the secure ramp is of little use. Bad guys with access to the ramp can simply enter the gate area with a boarding pass and weapons in hand. With precious few exceptions the security system that control access to the ramp from the gate area give free access the other way.

While the TSA is trying to catch more of the weapons passing through the check points the bad guys can simply go around the check point through the exit lane. After a few minutes the guard at the exit lane just zones out, and anyone caught going the wrong way can simply apologize and go about their business.

Aviation security is provided by the passengers. The trick of hi jacking planes for a suicide attack lasted less than an hour. After a delay of only 45 minutes the passengers on Flight 93 had figured it out and did what they had to do.

TunaTalon on July 16, 2007 at 9:58 AM

I think the following sums the situation up quite nicely:

What needs to happen across all segments of airline security is a philosophical change from trying to prevent an attack (which doesn’t work in a system this size) to defending against one (which does — a la Flight 93).

Turning over security to the DMV-minded TSA isn’t the answer. I’m sure there are some dilligent people working for the organization but I’ve only encountered the lazy and disinterested with an occasional martinet who thinks that wearing a spiffy uniform makes them into a J. Edgar Hoover type offiical who can act with impunity.

We need a mindset where we DEFEND from attacks by very simple things like arming pilots and profiling. Until a grandmotherly white Methodist of Germanic ancestry attempts to blow up a plane, we’ve pretty much got a good profile here. Let’s use it and damn racist organizations like CAIR!

highhopes on July 16, 2007 at 10:06 AM

Amazing post. It makes me think that as it stands now, airport security is more about looks, and making you feel as if it is all secure – rather than actually securing the things that need it.

Thanks Patterico for bringing this to us.

nailinmyeye on July 16, 2007 at 10:15 AM

Good letter, but I’m disasppointed that he pooh poohs the idea that the best line of defense is a thorough inspection of the aircraft before its first flight the next day.

His suggestion of beefing up all sorts of other things sounds to me too much like a big government solution to the problem. “Lets hire thousands of new people, lets build bigger fences, lets install locks on every door of every aircraft” . . . versus having a trained crew inspect every aircraft every morning?

Labamigo on July 16, 2007 at 10:20 AM

It’s funny (well you know, not funny, funny), but I was just talking yesterday to a friend about an experience he had recently. He fell asleep on a long flight (sleep meds + John D.), and when he woke up (after landing )the entire airplane was completely empty, no flight crew, no nothin’! His Twilight Zone-ish episode continued as he strolled out of the empty aircraft and down to the luggage area where his single unattended bag sat on the stilled baggage turnstile…. (I surmise he must have been alseep on the plane for 40-60 minutes after landing! ….

max1 on July 16, 2007 at 10:57 AM

Until TSA discriminates, they will always suck at their job.

Discriminate – to tell unlike things apart.

If you see a young arab man, stop him, search him, question him. And tell CAIR and MPAC to stick it.

Zach on July 16, 2007 at 11:28 AM

Being in the industry (airports), Mr. Dave Mackett is correct in his view of the TSA and its various levels of ineptness.

One has to remember that many of those working the line are ex airline employees who lost their jobs after 9/11 and found a great place to recover. However, one has to actually look beyond the source of the hires, and understand the culture they came from and brought with them that enables the ‘bad people’ to continue their bad ways.

As air line employees (ticket checkers and ground handlers) there were trained not the rock the ship or hassle the customer (in this case the person on the other side of the metal detector). PC and leadership that relinquishes their responsibilities via delegation to the FSD’s who understand the problem differently or have their own idea of what needs to be done and use their perceived power to intimidate vice innovate.

MSGTAS on July 16, 2007 at 11:33 AM

I for one take stong offense to the TSA inspecting me in any way. It is basically against my Fourth Amendment rights. If I could concieve that the system would stop terror, then it could maybe justify this loss of right. But it doesn’t and isn’t designed to do so. It is only there to be a major inconvience and thus make you “think” the government is doing something.

There is no way that our country can set up a system of security that will in any way stop a dedicated terror cell. Especially one that might have government backing. So the plan should not be to hassel non-Muslims but to profile like heck. The other aspect is to limit the movement in general of Muslims. This might sound like Nazi Germany, but too bad. They have brought it on themselves. People will say we will only make them mad, but what about making us mad. Ultimately non-Muslims will have enough of right violations and begin to take those steps necessary to radically change our government outside of the ballot box. The other thing we can do is eliminate the “war of terror”. This is a stupid concept as it is like saying lets have a war on the atomic bomb. If citizens of another country do us harm, we should take action on that country. Our terror problem then becomes theirs.

Consider what would happen in the US if Catholics decided they were going to make war against us. Our government would have little problem with taking care of Catholics regardless of were their sympathies would lie.

davidcaskey on July 16, 2007 at 11:57 AM

This is why I don’t fly commercially anymore.

Pulchritudinous Patriot on July 16, 2007 at 11:58 AM


one has to actually look beyond the source of the hires, and understand the culture they came from and brought with them that enables the ‘bad people’ to continue their bad ways.

You talking about the culture of the overweight glorified meter maids that ran around in their blue Wakenhut blazers and mumbled stuff into walkie-talkies?

I think the entire “culture” needs to change when it comes to air travel.

Passengers need to understand that this isn’t the “good old days” when it comes to security issues.

Airlines need to stop treating passengers as cattle. If the system cannot accomodate all the travelers it is time to either scale back on flights or fix the problem.

The TSA needs to differentiate between the serious aspects of their job and the nonsense like hyperventilating over nail clippers.

Airports need to adapt to the new reality. Removing the chokepoints for screening to get in the secure areas, for example. Reagan National is awful. The screening areas are concentrated and not very clear as to what is expected.

Which brings up the fact that so much of the security regulations is arbitrary.

highhopes on July 16, 2007 at 12:00 PM

Turning over security to the DMV-minded TSA isn’t the answer. I’m sure there are some dilligent people working for the organization but I’ve only encountered the lazy and disinterested with an occasional martinet who thinks that wearing a spiffy uniform makes them into a J. Edgar Hoover type offiical who can act with impunity.

All the TSA employees at Dulles appear to be recent immigrants from the Third World, with little or no grasp of English.

Aviation security is provided by the passengers. The trick of hi jacking planes for a suicide attack lasted less than an hour. After a delay of only 45 minutes the passengers on Flight 93 had figured it out and did what they had to do.

Next time, the bad guys will have guns and a supply of flexcuffs to prevent a passenger uprising.

Lehuster on July 16, 2007 at 12:31 PM

This reminded me of a thought our Dad (‘The Grinch’) shared when we asked him about cockpit safety. After a stint as a Marine Corps pilot, he flew for Eastern Airlines for 34+ years, has arguably the most aircraft commander time in commercial aviation history on the Lockheed Electra, not to mention the years as an L-10ll Captain flying the TransCon and into South America, so we thought he might have an informed opinion. He said getting rid of the the third officer (Flight Engineer) on the flight deck was the biggest mistake ever made, from a security viewpoint. As crammed as the cockpit is, no one is barging in successfully with that third body in the way. There’s no room to get in and the flight enigineer’s hands are free to fend off the intruder (there IS an axe in the cockpit), vice the flight crew who also has to be concerned with crashing a plane.

tree hugging sister on July 16, 2007 at 12:51 PM

Where were all of the Sky Marshalls on 9/11?

And who laid them off during the intervening years after they had initially been hired?

None of my representatives have ever answered this.

And no one in the media ever asked it after 9/11.

Interesting silence indeed. Surprisingly, even the Sky Marshalls themselves, (the ones that were laid off) have yet to voice their story.

heroyalwhyness on July 16, 2007 at 12:58 PM

As an engineer (structural) I can assert with some confidence that the next attack would indeed be worse. There are only like 5 buildings in the U.S. built using the structural system which was employed in the WTC. That system had an unusually robust ability to redistribute forces.

A more conventional (read: everything else) structure cannot generally survive the removal of even a few columns, or perhaps even one. The above post makes it clear that the next attack will probably be performed by terrorists armed with guns, not box cutters. We won’t get a repeat of flight 93, despite the heroism of the passengers.

The security issue on airplanes is not different than the security of our homes, workplaces, or the campus of Virginia Tech. The only way the passengers of commercial planes will have a fighting chance is if we allow them to be armed.

Institute all the training, clearance and checks that are needed; people will still sign up in boatloads to be allowed to carry concealed on planes. It’s utter foolishness to depend on any government agency to insure our individual security, and the second amendment clearly established our right to the means to defend ourselves. 9/11 showed what a mistake it is to give up that right, even for temporary situations like air travel.

TexasDan on July 16, 2007 at 1:26 PM

To clarify: the WTC stood for another half hour or more before collapsing. Virtually no other buildings in this country would have or will perform as well if hit by a commercial airplane.

TexasDan on July 16, 2007 at 1:28 PM

TSA is nothing more than window dressing. We should take a lesson from Israel’s El Al and profile the passengers before they get on the plane. We should be looking for bombers and not frisking the little old lady with blue hair.

Kini on July 16, 2007 at 1:51 PM

So then it’s true…TSA=Thousands standing around?

boomer on July 16, 2007 at 8:14 PM

Lenin was wrong (Vladimir, not John, although John was wrong too on most things)in his assessment that “the capitalists will sell [them] the rope with which [they] hang [us].” We won’t sell it to them. We will give it to them in the name of winning hearts and minds. We will teach them how to tie a hangman’s knot in the rope in the name of technology sharing. We will order our military to build them the gallows in order to not offend them by denying their requests no matter how absurd. And finally we will passively walk onto the gallows and allow them to place the rope around our necks as refusing would indicate that we are profiling them by thinking that they will actually drop the trap door and kill us and such refusal would be politically incorrect.

Mackett’s analysis sounds logical, proactive and reasonable, and for all those reasons his concepts will not be implemented by our federal government.

deepdiver on July 16, 2007 at 10:19 PM

A little more of the Sky Marshall’s and cockpit security’s history of this aerial folly.

Somebody was doing things on the cheap (and the ddamned stupid), and it cost us.

And continues to.

profitsbeard on July 16, 2007 at 11:30 PM