Air Travel in the Era of Terrorism — Still the Safest form of Transportation

You’re still more likely to get struck by lightning a half dozen times than you are dying in a plane crash, but travelers are more anxious than ever – and it’s not because they believe the plane is unsafe, but rather some of its passengers. Terrorism, hijacking, kidnapping and all sorts of frightening and unspeakable acts have flooded our consciousness and fuel our fight or flight reflexes.

So, what do we do if air travel is not an option, but a requirement for business or a family emergency? We posed this and other issues of concern to respected aviation and security specialists, including Stephen Lloyd, former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Organization (ATO) Director of Safety, Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, host of askthepilot.com and author of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL, and Phil Derner, President and Founder of NYC Aviation, a news resource for aviation enthusiasts.

According to Stephen Lloyd, more than 850 million passengers traveled on more than 9 million flights on both domestic and international airlines in the U.S. alone last year. More than 3 billion passengers traveled globally. Since 9/11, the U.S. and many other countries have dramatically increased aviation security measures to prevent or deter future attacks. Improved intelligence and physical security both inflight and on the ground have been very effective and will continue to improve. Statistically, air travel remains the safest mode of transportation on the planet.

Are home-grown radicals a new reason to fear air travel?

When we consider the growing trend in home-grown radicalization, a new set of variables – and threats – come into play.  Smith says, at a certain point, there is only so much you can do.  “That’s not being defeatist; it’s acknowledging the reality that commercial aviation will always be a high-profile target, and that a resourceful enough criminal will always find a way to skirt whatever safeguards we have in place.  It’s also very important to recognize that the real nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from planes isn’t really the job of TSA screeners on the concourse. It’s the combined efforts  of law enforcement, FBI, CIA, Interpol, and TSA too, working together behind the scenes, inspecting checked luggage and cargo, reviewing passenger data, and foiling plotters BEFORE they reach the airport.”

Phil Derner

Phil Derner

Phil Derner asserts, there are no current threats from crewmembers at this time, nor is there reason to believe that airline employees are more prone to radicalism versus any other industry. “The consensus, as supported by recent events, is that there is a larger terror threat in busy areas on the ground in cities due to their easy access and crowds. A person with ill-intent would be less likely to go through the obstacles of airport security and other layers of safety.”

When you don’t want to fly, but have to …

Folks who do not necessarily want to travel, but must for business or family obligations should not panic unnecessarily over terrorism. “When it comes to safety threats that are on an aircraft, terrorism is pretty low on the list in terms of likelihood,” says Derner. “For passengers, maintaining good situational awareness is something that should be exercised at all times, whether they are flying or not. While we can’t witch hunt, we need to ditch the “it can’t happen ‘here’ or ‘to me'” mentality and must speak up when something doesn’t feel right. Better safe than sorry.”

As for clothing, Derner advises that people should wear clothing that prepares them for the “most likely of the unlikely,” which would be a standard aircraft evacuation. Most of this pertains to footwear that allows one to walk or run in case they need to go down a slide and walk or run from the aircraft through rain, snow, mud, water or rocky terrain. High heels may not be a girl’s best friend in this instance. Otherwise, comfortable clothing like khakis or jeans can help protect from bumps and scrapes as opposed to wearing something that leaves the skin exposed.

Lockdown or fight back

When confronted with violent behavior or a terror threat, it’s difficult to foresee how one might react or should react.  Is it better to remain quiet and calm or to retaliate and fight your captors? “In my opinion, it’s most important to remain as calm as possible and try to best understand the threat, says Lloyd. “Fighting back against hostage takers may have grave consequences for yourself and others. Unless you are trained for combat or law enforcement, you better know what you are doing before you act.  However, keep in mind, there is always the chance that you may become a help to others who have taken action.”

“I am a firm believer in, if you see something, say something,” says Lloyd. “I don’t know of a situation when I wouldn’t speak up. This is not the time to worry that you might offend or bother someone. Your life and the lives of others depend on all of us as travelers reporting suspicious objects, packages or bags without an owner and suspicious activity by any person.”

Thoughts on the TSA from the cockpit

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Smith agrees that the TSA does a lot of good things, but it tends to be the stuff that we don’t see, the behind-the-scenes work. The parts that we do see — the lines at the x-ray machines and body scanners — include a lot of tedium and, quite frankly, waste: wasted time and wasted resources.

“Confiscating toothpaste and hobby tools and tiny toy guns does nothing to make us safer, while using up large amounts of time and money that could be redeployed elsewhere. And one of the most frustrating ironies of all is that pretty much none of the carry-on restrictions put in place after 9/11 would have prevented those attacks in the first place.  The success of the September 11th attacks had nothing to do with weapons or screening protocols. The hijackers could have used ANY form of hand-made weapon. What the men exploited wasn’t a weakness in security, but a weakness in our mindset, and our understanding of a hijacking, based on decades of precedent. The only weapon that really mattered was the simplest, lowest-tech weapon of all: the element of surprise.  The 9/11 plot unfolded because of failures at the FBI and CIA levels. The hijackers were known to these agencies prior to the attacks.”

Smith suggests moving past our self-defeating fixation with the September 11th scheme and stop fussing over harmless pointy objects. “The focus should be on explosives. Or, perhaps more importantly, on people who might use explosives.”

Feeling the fear – Moving through it

Derner recommends taking a deep breath and grounding oneself in the reality that air travel is still the safest it’s ever been and terrorism is not as likely even on the high terror end of the spectrum in Western nations. “A drone is more likely (though unlikely overall) to create a safety threat to an airliner than a terrorist is.”

Prepare yourself before a trip by reading up on the destination and safety tips. “A great place to start is the U.S. State Department Website, travel.state.gov, says Lloyd. “There you’ll find information for travel abroad, including safety tips and information about your destination. They also host the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, (STEP) where you can automatically receive the most current information compiled about the country where you will be traveling or living. You will also receive updates, including travel warnings and alerts.

People should consult the State Department to look for warnings of places that they are traveling to, and undergo safety practices that should be exercised even when not traveling. Having a plan that can deal with things that might go wrong is 90% of survival. When a tragic event takes place and people say “I never thought it would happen HERE,” they are saying that because they had no plan and were unprepared.”

 

 

 

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