|When my son-in-law gets on an airplane, he just walks up to the plane
and gets on. He does not go through security. He does not go through the
embarrassment of partially disrobing, having his toiletries inspected, and
the risk of being singled out for extra pat-downs and questions by the TSA
security staff. How does he avoid all this? He works for Intel. He flies
on a private plane. I asked him how Intel is able to let passengers board
without security searches. He said Intel has insurance that would pay for
any damage a hijacked Intel plane might cause. So, I started thinking Ė
are the costs of insurance and inspections comparable?
In the US, there are approximately 90,000 flights a day. Only 1/3 of
these flights are commercial flights. Only passengers on commercial
flights are subject to inspections. That means 60,000 flights a day carry
The first plane ever hijacked was a private plane. That was in 1931.
The 2nd plane hijacked was a commercial flight. That was in
1948. These events were considered so rare that no security precautions
were added until a series of hijackings in the 1970s taking planes to
Cuba. Since 1970, there have been 11 US-bound hijacked airplanes Ė
including the 4 on September 11, 2001. Hijacking is not a big risk.
But our government sounds like a Summer Slasher Movie. Be Afraid. Be
Afraid. Be VERY Afraid!
Every airline ticket includes $5.50 to cover inspections. According to
the Government Accounting Office, the real cost is about $30. The
difference is made up our taxes.
The GAO was specific in their report that they were only looking at
costs Ė not effectiveness.
On a flight holding only 200 passengers, thatís $6000 for
inspections. Given the rarity of hijackings, that $6000, would pay for
insurance, hazard pay for the pilot and flight attendants and a nice meal
for every passenger, and probably have some funds left over.
Iím not asking anybody to give up security inspections. They should
be available for people who want them. Iím just suggesting that airlines
could offer an alternative Ė No Security Flying Ė for people who trust
their fellow passengers to protect their safety Ė more than they trust
the federal government.
But, you might ask, havenít inspections contributed to this low
number of hijackings? And hijacking arenít the only risk. What about
shoe bombers and toothpaste bombers?
Okay, what about them. From what Iíve been able to read, the shoe
bomber, Richard Reid claims to have read about making Tri-Acetone
Tri-Peroxide on the internet. I typed TATP into my browser and sure
enough, up popped the protocol for organic synthesis. Itís not an easy
synthesis. My degree is in biology with a chemistry minor. I understood
the instructions. The reagents (acetone and sulphuric acid) must be of
sufficient strength and purity. The quantities must be measured to within
.1 gram or the reaction will not happen. The reaction releases heat. But
if the reagents get too hot, they wonít make the desired explosive. The
reagents must be kept at 4 degrees C, refrigerator temperature - 39
degrees F. If they get as warm as 10 degrees C, they wonít make TATP.
This reaction takes anywhere from 8 to 24 hours. Then the resulting solid
must be dried for at least 2 hours on filter paper before it is ready to
explode. Since there is no guarantee that the reaction would be finished
before the plane lands, this doesnít seem like a likely choice of
Once itís ready, TATP is extremely easy to explode. It explodes on
impact, or if subjected to friction. A common method is to put some on the
inside of a screw cap and then tighten the cap. You could also stamp on
it. TATP makes explosions by the sudden release of gas in a tight space. A
shoe is not a good place to keep TATP. Walking on it provides impact.
There is no way that an active batch of TATP would survive intact the walk
from the curb to the airplane. It would have exploded and burned Mr. Reidís
foot badly. Why didnít I say it would have blown his foot off? A sneaker
isnít stiff material. If he blew the bottoms off his sneakers, the heat
would burn his foot but not likely blast it off.
The scenario described in which Mr. Reid lit a match and held it to a
wire in the tongue of his sneaker is not a method to detonate TATP. I donít
think Richard Reid had TATP. If he had actually read the instructions on
the web, I donít think he could have followed them. And if he had
actually made some TATP, thereís no way heíd have put it into his
shoes, or tried to ignite it with a match.
I looked for a copy of the indictment against Richard Reid. I couldnít
find the entire text of the 9-page document. I did find the legal
commentary on it by CNNís legal analyst. The legal analyst said that the
indictment was remarkable for its lack of detail. It did not say what Mr.
Reid was accused of doing in precise terms Ė like what chemicals in what
quantities he was supposed to have had. It confined itself to general
statements like attempt to commit murder, attempt to commit homicide (yes
these are different charges) attempt to destroy an airplane, attempt to
use a weapon of mass destruction and attempt to destroy a vehicle of
Mr. Reid pled guilty, so the government never had to present their
evidence. Had they done so, Mr. Reid would probably not be in jail today.
TATP that wonít explode when you walk on it is no threat. If he could
ignite it, the worst he would have done is burn the carpet and insulation
on the floor of the cabin. But letís say he could actually have broken a
shoe-sized hole in the floor of the cabin. Thatís not at outside surface
so no harm would be done. It would smell bad. It would require repair. But
nobody would be hurt. Okay letís say he stamped his foot on the window,
and managed to break a hole in the plane. What would happen? The little
masks would fall from the ceiling. The plane would depressurize. The pilot
would have to land at a different airport than originally planned. But
murder, homicide, weapon of mass destruction? No.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said:
"That this tragedy was averted stands as proof that terrorists,
even al-Qaida trained terrorists, are no match for alert and vigilant
people roused to defend themselves and to defend their freedom,"
Okay, so Mr. Reid was an incompetent terrorist. Is a shoe bomb
possible? I suppose you could make one with C-4 if you also embedded a
blasting cap in the sole of the shoe. But why would you put C-4 in a shoe?
That blasting cap would be uncomfortable to walk on and youíd risk
detonating it before you ever got to the plane. Why not put it into your
backpack. It just looks like modeling clay. And you could keep the
blasting cap in with your coins, until you need it.
Reidís confession was "I admit, I admit my actions and I
further, I further state that I done them." Frankly this sounds like
he was crazy, but not a threat.
From this episode, I conclude two things: 1) the Shoe Bomber was never
a threat and 2) fellow passengers are capable of taking down a scary
If you believe either of these statements, you might choose to fly on a
No Security plane.
Next, I checked on the toothpaste and water scare. Half the UK citizens
who were accused of making liquid explosives have been freed without
charges. The other half will go to trial next January. They did not have
passports or airline tickets. None of them had experience making bombs.
The main evidence against them came from the supposed ringleader, Rashid
Rauf, a prisoner under torture in Pakistan.
So, could you make TATP on an airplane? Since the reaction takes 8 to
24 hours, youíd need to hog the lavatory for the entire flight. And youíd
need to send out for ice every ten minutes or so. Or you could fly first
class and get champaign in a bucket of ice. The reaction is extremely
smelly. And as I said, you need to weigh the reagents to within .1 gram. Iím
having trouble picturing passengers getting away with either of these
From this example, I conclude two things: 1) either our government is
capable of stopping terrorists before they can act or 2) a sane terrorist
will not try to make the explosive on an airplane.
My husband makes jokes that soon we wonít be allowed to carry spare
underwear, socks or hose because any of those can be used for a garrote.
Maybe we wonít be allowed to wear underwear, belts, suspenders, carry
purses with long handles, or anything else that could be used as a murder
weapon. If someone is properly trained, a ball point pen or even bare
hands can be deadly. So perhaps in the future, passengers will be required
to be sedated and wear diapers so they wonít use the lavatories.
This is not the first time a government has tried to close the barn
door after the horses have escaped.
After World War One, the French minister of defense, Andre Maginot,
convinced the French legislature to spend about 3 billion French francs to
create the Maginot Line
a series of tunnels and bunkers along the German and Italian borders
where soldiers hid and trained in readiness. In 1940, Hitler flew dive
bombers right over it, and sent tanks around it.
The Maginot Line did not fail France, but the "Maginot
The Great Wall of China stretches 4000 miles along the Northern border
of China with the same intent and purpose as the Maginot line. No forces
ever attacked it. They just bribed their way through.
When a government defends against what they think is a known threat,
the enemies simply find a new way to attack. A TSA test in October 2007
discovered that our current system of inspections misses 75% of explosives
and fake bombs that test subjects tried to bring through security posts at airports.
serious terrorist could bring the tools of his or her trade through
existing security. But if the indignities of having your pocket knife
taken away and sold on Ebay, having your toiletries inspected and
partially undressing in public make you feel safe, that is your option.
Iím not asking you to take a No Security flight. You can believe the
government line and Be Afraid, Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid. Iím just
proposing that we have the option of No Security Flights and accept John
Ashcroftís view Ė Weíll take care of ourselves.