Security in the air

Posted: Nov 15, 2001 12:00 AM
It is instructive to catch the emotions on the fly. They do not always yield self-esteem. You furtively hope the bullet will hit the other guy, not you. The airplane crashes, and instinctively you hope it wasn't a terrorist who did it. But a moment later, you start thinking about statistics. Maybe it would be better if it were a terrorist strike. Fleeting thoughts go down memory lane ...

How many casualties have come to us through terrorism in the last 20 years of flying? The civilian victims of Sept. 11 can't be counted because, like nuclear bombs, they overwhelm the picture. So you ask, how many planes have met death on account of terrorist activity? The four spectacular planes of Sept. 11. Then you need to go back to the Egyptian plane whose copilot decided to commit suicide and took everyone down to the sea. On the other hand, that wasn't exactly terrorism, was it? But of course the big one was Lockerbie, 270 dead from terrorist action on a Pan American flight headed for the U.S. And one Air India plane off Ireland in 1985.

The thought materializes: If Monday's New York accident comes in as a terrorist episode, that's bad, but less bad than if it is a maintenance act. Because in the world of data, the chances of losing your life in flight on account of terrorist activity are lower than on account of mechanical failures. These are very low, and tend to diminish every year. At last year's rate, you could fly, say, 1 million flights before finding yourself on the plane with the marginal vulnerability. But (the statistics are raging through the mind), you could fly 20 million flights before you'd find yourself on a plane struck down by terrorists.

Besides, you say to yourself, there is a full-blown war going on against terrorist activity. At the level of mechanical safety, it can be said that there is constant concern to avoid critical problems in the air, but that is a steady kind of thing, not to be compared with the explosion of concern triggered by Sept. 11. One commentator on the Jim Lehrer show was asked whether it was easy for a skilled mechanic so to disrupt a jet engine of the type carried by the fatal Airbus to make it fall off. Yes, he said. For a skilled mechanic, very easy. However, he said: It was flatly inconceivable that it should happen, given airplane security procedures. It is one thing to let somebody slip by who is carrying a knife in his briefcase, another to permit someone four hours in an airplane engine with a dozen screwdrivers and filaments of explosive.

So -- the thinking is, on Tuesday -- the problem was mechanical. The implications of mechanical imperfections work their way into the thinking of the irresolute. Back at school when, teaching basic economics, professors tried to impress on us the importance of the marginal consumer, they'd say something on the order of: If the Ford Motor Co. produces 2 million automobiles in a year, they lose a lot of money. If they produce 2 million and one automobiles, they'll make a billion dollars.

The model is exaggerated, but the point survives. The airlines are doing about 25 percent less business than before Sept. 11 and are losing their shirts. The marginal passenger on an airplane costs (virtually) nothing; his absence costs economic survival. The Los Angeles Times writes of Eugene and Nikey Key of Palm Desert, Calif., scheduled to fly on Delta Flight 136 Monday morning from LAX to New York. They've been around the world by plane and ship six times. They canceled. "His wife said she was simply afraid."

So we read of futuristic devices. Take that useful prefix going the rounds -- "bio" -- and stick it up before "metrics." Biometrics! Consider this possibility: Arriving at New York's La Guardia Airport, an American Airlines passenger proceeds to the nearest kiosk. After swiping her smart card through a machine, she presses her index finger on the pad attached to the device in order to confirm that she's the authorized holder of the card and her boarding pass is printed. At the gate, she puts her finger on another reading device to reconfirm her identity, then steps onto the plane.

Yes, and with biometrics we make progress on security of the kind they worried about on Monday. But that doesn't bring us security against mechanical failures. For that, you need counter-gravitational devices, and they are out of this world.