Striker, listen, and you listen close: flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle, just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes.

Quote from Airplane!, an infamous movie[1]

[Note: This is for John McCullough, a friend of the blog, who reminded me of the late, great Foster Brooks, thereby setting the theme for today’s essay.]

[It’s getting cold and no doubt many of you want to visit family over the winter solstice. I would reconsider if I were you; and no doubt you will if you’ve just returned from a Thanksgiving junket. Travel is a bitch when everybody does it! Crowds, delays, security concerns, accidents, all of them flourish during the holidays!

Suppose by chance the public were notified that some nuclear power would attack us on, say, the 2nd week of December. Think of the traffic jams! Most folks these days live in cities, and – with that kind of notice – I’ll bet most would try to escape. Probably few, if any, would succeed; the rest would wait in one line or another until the end.

This is Fred, by the way. My thesis is that holiday travel isn’t much different from disaster travel, except that the holiday version isn’t necessary. There’s no emergency; only family pressure forces all those people on the road or rails, or into the air. But the results are the same. Our highways, railroads and air carriers operate near or at maximum capacity for a time, and mistakes proliferate. Some make travel uncomfortable; others are much more serious. So why take unnecessary risks? Why not stay home?]

Perhaps I’m too risk-averse. There was a time when hardier souls joked about potential dangers, especially in flying. Airline pilots, for example, were thought very lucky, i.e. as folks who traveled a lot, saw the world and lived comfortably. As such they were envied and subject to parody.  Take, for example, the famous TV skits between Dean Martin, a popular entertainer of the distant past, and the immortal Foster Brooks.[2] You can see three of them [Brooks as an airline pilot, a dentist and a brain surgeon] linked together at http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=foster+brooks&view=detail&mid=A653754E1FC619D40A86A653754E1FC619D40A86&FORM=VIRE I still think these things are funny. They recognize a basic reality; that people are not always perfect, especially under pressure; that there is risk everywhere; and that we – the public – won’t always be protected. Today we’ve lost sight of these truths and have no sense of humor. Too bad!

Speaking of that, G. Sallust, our founder, once worked for the Federal Aviation Administration[3]. That’s the outfit that’s supposed to regulate safety in civilian aircraft. Anyway, he tells this story whenever a conversation turns to politics and the airlines.  After he left the government he traveled quite a bit from D.C. to New York and back again, usually on Amtrak. One day he found himself sitting opposite someone who looked familiar, so he tried to be friendly. “I used to work for the FAA,” he said, “and I never fly if I can travel another way.”  “Isn’t that interesting? the other guy said. “I worked for the Federal Railroad Administration for years[4], and I never take the train if I can avoid it.” It turned out that they didn’t know each other, so after that they kind of lost interest in the conversation… That was just as well, G says; he could tell they weren’t likely to develop a beautiful friendship.

So what can we learn from G’s story? Well, perhaps that if we really knew what goes on in the bureaucracies that “protect” us, we might want to look elsewhere for help? Or course, G. Sallust would be the first to admit that he’s not up on the current FAA gossip. If pushed, he might even say that probably today there aren’t a lot of drunks flying the public around. But I wouldn’t take his word for it. After all, he has no way of knowing this, one way or the other.

So what other dangers do we, the public, face when we’re jammed like sardines in a flying tin can? How about the fish – err, passengers – sitting next to us? How do we know they aren’t dangerous? We talked about this issue 7 years ago, in our very first blog.[5] The disaster of 9/11 was caused by a small group of people who managed to take over 4 aircraft by overpowering passengers and crew with small knives and then flew three of the aircraft into buildings. One immediate fix was to put locks on the flight cabin doors so that intruders couldn’t break in, overpower the pilots, and take control.

But we went further than that. We established a separate agency [the Transportation Security Administration, now a part of Homeland Security] to screen passengers and luggage, collect [or create] lists of suspicious people to bar from aircraft, and plugged the entire effort into our [much enhanced] intelligence gathering apparatus. These are good efforts, I suppose, but can’t possibly be 100% effective. Terrorists may want to blow up or shoot down aircraft, not fly them into buildings. Current “screening” methods may not detect bomb material on an alleged perpetrator. The “no fly” lists aren’t effective; they’re too broad yet don’t name some of the really bad actors. Also nobody seems to know how names get on such lists or are taken off.

So what else do we do? Well, if a traveler acts suspiciously, or flunks one of our admittedly imperfect tests while processing in, our people can separate him [or her] from the rest for “secondary” screening. Travelers “volunteer” for this  if they (i) pop up on a watch list, (ii) are caught with contraband, (iii) make false statements and are caught, (iv) give unreasonable explanations for their travel plans, (v) come from the wrong country, (vi) are obviously nervous, and so forth. Also, travelers may be selected randomly, or for reasons unrelated to their conduct, to meet a quota or for other reasons.

I’m not an expert in this kind of thing, mostly because I don’t travel, but there is material available on the internet that talks about dealing with second interviews. WikiLeaks, for one, published what it claims is a CIA document that provides helpful hints to CIA agents.[6] What are the basic rules for passing the second time? Well, to have a good, basic story; to make sure all paperwork is consistent with it; and to never, ever change the story. Another formulation is, don’t look nervous, keep answers simple, and don’t volunteer more than has been asked. In short, be a good and consistent liar, and don’t trap yourself.

My guess is that terrorists employ the same tactics we do to get by airport screening. If they don’t, they probably get caught. So if you’re sitting next to someone on an aircraft, and you wonder about him [or her], you can assume that he [or she] passed all of the usual tests and perhaps some unusual ones as well. So that means either he [she] is harmless, or a very good liar.

My goodness! Can’t we do better than that? Well, back in January of 2010 we made proposals to take a good part of the remaining terrorist danger out of commercial air travel. We recommended two things:

First, that all carry-on baggage should be banned. If the U.S. is worried about dangerous people getting on airplanes, then it shouldn’t let them carry their baggage on board, either. All a terrorist has to do is slip by with something dangerous; then every passenger is in danger. Why run that risk? It would be far better to ban all luggage, or at least keep it where a passenger can’t access it during a flight. Or, if no one wants to go for a complete ban, just charge a modest fee, say $100, for every bag someone wants to put in the overhead.

The fee could be collected as a tax, and used to fund the TSA screeners, etc., who now sift through carry-on luggage. Of course the fees collected would go down as more and more travelers decide to check their bags; but at the same time less TSA screeners would be needed to work the bags. With luck and good planning a “carry on” tax would improve safety, shrink the system and simultaneously reduce its cost.

What’s the second recommendation? Well, there are still the hidden terrorists. Evil travelers are inherently dangerous, so it’s best to deprive them of any weapons, etc. that might be hidden on their bodies. That’s best accomplished by requiring all travelers to fly nude. Nude passengers would have nothing to hide and no place to hide it.

Of course, people are different, and some are physically more capable than others. So how do we redress that final imbalance, between the fit and the unfit? I don’t have a firm recommendation on that, but I do have a suggestion. Why not just sedate the fit ones for the duration of the trip? If they’re asleep, they probably won’t be able to terrorize the rest of us.

Think about it, and enjoy your holidays. And avoid travel as much as possible. Use Skype instead. Or send cards. The Post Office needs the business.

[1] You can find the quote on GreatQuotes.com at http://www.great-quotes.com/quotes/movie/Airplane! If you want to know more about the movie, check the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airplane!

[2] If you want to know more about Foster Brooks, take a look at the Wikipedia entry on him at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foster_Brooks If you want to see more of his routines, go to, for example, http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=foster+drunk&&view=detail&mid=C00AAFB103394FA1091CC00AAFB103394FA1091C&rvsmid=C00AAFB103394FA1091CC00AAFB103394FA1091C&fsscr=0&FORM=VDMCNL 

[3] If you’re interested, you can find the FAA’s web site at https://www.faa.gov/

[4] You can find the FRA site at http://www.fra.dot.gov/Page/P0001 .

[5] See the blog of 2010/ 01, Flight 253, at http://elementalzoo.typepad.com/elemental-zoo/2010/01/index.html

[6] See CIA, Assessment on Surviving Secondary Screening (September, 2011). You can find the full document at WikiLeaks, https://wikileaks.org/ , more specifically at https://wikileaks.org/cia-travel/secondary-screening/WikiLeaks_CIA_Assessment_on_Surviving_Secondary_Screening.pdf

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