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Choice in the Skies

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 uninspected passengers.

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 terrorist tactics.

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 public transit.

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.

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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 person.

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 scenarios.

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 mentality" did.

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. Any 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.