When Ed covered the story of the suicidal, joyriding airplane thief in Seattle on Saturday, he left a few open questions. How did that guy get his hands on a plane? And is it really that easy to steal one and take it wherever you like? We’ve since learned a number of things about just how it all went so wrong and it thankfully had nothing to do with terrorism. But does this breach represent some previously unknown loophole in our airport security infrastructure?
Over at Redstate, Streiff published an essay this weekend arguing that the Seattle incident demonstrates that we have “security theater” at our airports, not actual security. For proof, he notes the lack of experience of Richard Russel, the man now identified as the plane thief.
Russell was not a trained or qualified pilot. Speculation is that he learned how to fly using a PC-based flight simulator.
All of this points to the fallacy in the security precautions being taken at US airports. It appears that it is largely security theater, that is, a sham security system designed to be seen by the maximum number of people. By calling someone’s colostomy bag a threat because it carries more than 3.4 ounces of liquid, it gives the generic traveler the illusion of a rigorous system of inspections. In reality, the real threat is on the far side of security and there appears to be little in place.
Had Russell been of a homicidal as well as suicidal mindset, he could have plowed into Seattle long before any interceptors were airborne.
While there’s always room for improvement and some of the precautions insisted on by TSA do seem excessively burdensome and of little value, I would argue that the system we have, while imperfect, provides far more than simple theater. First of all, this wasn’t a case of a stunt that just anyone could pull off. Russell had not just the appropriate uniform of someone authorized to be working in that part of the airport, but the proper identification and clearance. He knew how to operate a specialized tractor well enough to back the plane out of its parking spot and spin it around. He had an unsurpassed advantage over any random outsider because at the time of the theft, he was precisely where he was supposed to be and doing what everyone expected him to be doing.
That leads to the other thought which came to mind when I considered how nobody managed to stop Russell. It’s a busy airport. Thousands of workers are out there conducting complex, coordinated activities to keep the airfield humming. If you were any of those workers and you came by at the right moment and saw a guy in the correct uniform with the correct badge firing up a tractor and pushing a plane back from its parking spot, what would your first thought be? Would you assume one of your colleagues had gone mad and was stealing an aircraft? No. You would assume it was another airport employee moving a plane because for some reason it needed to be moved. Perhaps it was being taken into a hanger for maintenance or simply warmed up for its next flight. That’s what any of us would have thought.
Once he had the plane free and was taxiing across the runways, it was too late. The tower was asking him what he was doing but getting no response. By then all they could have done was order a ground vehicle into a suicide rush to get in front of him and wreck the plane on the runway. And even then they had only a matter of minutes. It was, in some ways, the perfect plan.
But, as I said, it would only work for an employee of the airport. Our security procedures still seem pretty solid in terms of stopping anyone else from doing it. If this incident has highlighted anything for us it’s that we need to keep a better eye on our own employees. More training may be required to ensure everyone can recognize when a plane is being moved in a fashion that’s outside normal procedures. But beyond that, we will never be able to ensure that some worker won’t slip a gear and do something completely insane. Unless you want to replace every worker at the airport with AI-driven robots, the ineffable nature of the human mind will always be in play. And if you go with the robots, they’re just going to rise up and kill us all eventually anyway.