Airline Security and Risk Management

Judging from the various articles in this Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, there remains a fair amount of confusion, here and elsewhere, about airline security in the wake of the latest terrorist plot.  Those of us who are “risk junkies” have been expecting something like what happened on Northwest Flight 253 since early last September – and, we fervently hope, government security officials, especially in the United States, have too, even though they missed Mr. Abdulmutallab.

What’s next? Click “(More…)” below, and let’s do some serious risk management.

On August 28, 2009 a Yemeni-based al-Qaeda operative tried to assassinate the Saudi Arabian deputy minister of the interior with a device similar to the one used in the Christmas Day episode on the Detroit-bound flight.  It was bomb made out of the explosive PETN and a chemical fuse and it had passed through the metal-detector screening used by the Saudis; the terrorist killed himself, but not the Saudi official.  However, all of the early reports on this incident claimed that the suicide bomber had hidden the explosive inside his anal cavity and detonated it by cellphone; thus, for now, there is some uncertainty about the relation between the methods used in these two incidents.

It’s true that the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had also used some kind of PETN-based device in late 2001, but it’s likely that the one deployed in 2009 is much more sophisticated and potentially deadly.  Thus we might assume that, behind the scenes, U. S. and other Western security officials have been scrambling since late August 2009 to figure out how to head off another airline attack, using some variant of the type of device deployed in Saudi Arabia, but that they had failed to come up with a solution in time.  It is also reasonable to assume that Mr. Abdulmutallab may well have succeeded in detonating his device and bringing the plane down, but for the heroic intervention by the Dutch passenger on Flight 253, Jasper Schuringa.

So then the barn door was locked after the fire broke out, which may have been reasonable, under the circumstances, since officials would have had no way of knowing how many terrorists might have been sent on their way, around the same time, carrying similar devices.  But any consensus on what should be done next seems to have evaporated since then.

The Globe’s editorial on January 5 expressed a number of pious hopes, to the effect that convenience, cost, human rights, and “the norms of a democracy” can all be harmonized with the implementation of new rounds of adequate security measures.  On the same day Margaret Wente delivered one of her typical rants, this one about “our preposterous approach to self-defence” against the terrorist threat which is derived from “our elaborately overdeveloped concern for human rights, combined with our towering fear of the hurt feelings of Muslims.”

Apparently (because her bottom line isn’t clear) she believes that just getting on with profiling Muslims and then stripping and searching all of them, including their bodily cavities, will do the job.  Alas, she doesn’t seem to remember the 1986 incident involving Anne Mary Murphy, the very pregnant Irish woman unwittingly sent on board an El Al flight departing Heathrow with semtex explosives and a timed triggering device in her carry-on luggage, put there by her Jordanian fiancé; Israeli security guards discovered the device in time.

What is to be done?  For starters, let’s just forget about “convenience and cost,” OK?  Because no one in his or her right mind would assign them higher priority than adequate security.  Also ignore the unfortunate nonsense spread, in an article in the same issue of the Globe, by the American Civil Liberties Union (an otherwise sensible group), to the effect that “invasive body scanning for all travellers … violate our rights and values.”  There are only two good types of solutions for the appropriate risk management of airline travel, namely, technological and behavioural (and a combination of both).

At the moment, in the Western world the technological solution is preferred, and this means moving quickly to the new full-body imaging scanners, as announced by the Canadian government today – presumably a “millimetre wave scanner” (see Wikipedia). The implicit calculation is that these machines can detect the possession, on the body of a person, of anytype of explosive device.  However, I can find no explicit statement that this device could also detect something like a PETN-type explosive that was swallowed or inserted into a bodily cavity and intended to be detonated by, e.g., a cellphone, as in the Saudi case.  We deserve to receive clear confirmation on this point.  (

Provided that this technology, used on all travellers, can perform as promised, that is, detect all forms of explosive devices carried on or within a person’s body, then it is adequate to our requirements.  If it is deemed too invasive by anyone, on privacy protection grounds, that person is free to travel by bus, train or ship.  The cost for obtaining these machines for Canada’s 11 largest airports is said to be$11 million, that is, trivial.  And unless it can be conclusively demonstrated that a full-body “pat-down” is exactly equivalent in terms of effectiveness, there should be no exceptions permitted to going through the scanner.

But increasing attention is being paid to Israel’s well-established practice of elaborate “behavioural screening” of all El Al passengers through long interview protocols, in addition to careful baggage screening.  Today’s Transport Canada announcement also stated, “the Government of Canada will soon issue a request for proposal for passenger behaviour observation for passenger screening at major Canadian airports. Passenger behaviour observation screening consists of focusing on the passengers exhibiting suspicious behaviour, which could be an involuntary response to a fear of being discovered.”

However, this sounds suspiciously like a typical Canadian government half-hearted measure designed more to reassure the public than to do the job.  Observation of people milling about in airports is a far cry from the intensive one-on-one grilling of individual passengers used in the Israeli system, which is, of course, time-consuming for travellers but appears to work.

If this is regarded by anyone as an unacceptable form of “profiling,” even “racial profiling,” as is said of the Israeli system, then the solution is to avoid airports at all cost.  To be sure, an intensive screening method of each type only avoids fundamental unfairness if it applies equally to everyone. But this principle is also pragmatically justified.  The recent U. S. measures requiring enhanced screening of citizens from specific countries violates this principle; it is a thoughtless overreaction typical of the U. S. system in recent years, and will be ineffectual, because the terrorist leadership now knows in more detail how to screen its own suicide bomber volunteers.

What is the bottom line for Canadians?  If the new technology can fulfill its stated promise, then it should provide an adequate level of security and be cost-effective as well as convenient.  If an honest appraisal of present threats should suggest, however, that it should be combined with a more rigorous form of behavioural screening, then there is little doubt that Canadian travellers would find it to be advantageous to them and to be neither excessively costly nor unacceptably inconvenient.  Air travel will never again be as it was before September 2001, and we’ll just have to get used to that fact.

10 thoughts on “Airline Security and Risk Management

  1. Are you sure you want to say that you want to forget about cost? Is there no upper limit on costs of security?

  2. In 2006 a Library of Parliament study (Canada) noted that the “air travellers’ security charge” is $10-$17 per round-trip flight, and I believe it is still around that figure. Take any reasonable multiple of that number that you like, say, 10 times more (this is unlikely, but I want to make a point): If you were persuaded that the current security measures against a terrorist attack on a commercial airliner were inadequate (i.e., allowed an “unacceptable” [to you] level of risk; and that certain improvements were available, which would give you an acceptable level of risk at a high level of confidence, at the increased price specified: Would you not be willing to pay it? You might change your behaviour, and fly less (assuming you were paying for your ticket out of personal funds); but would you really be unwilling to pay such an amount for an acceptable level of security against airline terrorism risk?

  3. So, in other words, some reasonable charge up to $100 per trip but not infinite.

    I can see that, although personally I would regard *anything* more than they are currently spending, which I regard as wasteful and inefficient, as unwarranted. Rather than changing my behaviour and flying less (at least in the long term), I would support efforts to reduce/arrest the spiraling security costs.

    I do that because, in my view, I am “safe enough,” on flights in Canada. For that matter, I am safe enough (almost) anywhere in the world. You’ve probably seen the statistics about total deaths from terrorism as compared to (insert favourite banal way to die here). The most recent one I saw was more people drown in toilets on average per year than die from terrorism.

    The current reaction in my view, is excessive, alarmist, plays into a “climate of fear” approach to limiting democratic dissent, and ultimately fosters terror – exactly the aim of terrorists.

    But I can certainly see that others feel fearful, regard their safety differently, and would ask for higher levels of security.

    Perhaps, in some future world, we will “Safe” and “Extra Safe” airlines/airports and people can choose with their feet/wallets. Transport Canada is touting a recent survey that 80% of the public would rather go through a full body “naked” scanner than be patted down. I’d like to see how that question was posed, and whether any of the respondents had had both experiences, but if it is valid research then I guess Canadians would rather be scanned than patted AND by your argument would be willing to pay for it.

    I’ve been patted down recently (London, Frankfurt, Vancouver) and found it completely reasonable and professional and not something I would object to. The fact that the “patter downer” has to be given extra training is a plus in my book, too. It is too tempting to authorities to buy machines and get monkeys to operate them and say they are improving security. Certainly a machine is a *manifestation* of “doing something,” but I see it as mainly for show and possibly stopping the last strategy that worked.

  4. 1. You claim that current levels of security screening are “wasteful and inefficient.” What is the proof or evidence? Perhaps you would be willing to volunteer for an experiment to be conducted at an unsecured (or minimally secured) airport?
    2. Drowning in toilets: Cute, but irrelevant (the risk experts love these type of meaningless comparisons). I am not at risk from drowning in a toilet, but I am at risk from the al-Qaeda operatives which are presently being trained to try again.
    3. “Climate of fear”: Again, a banal phrase much loved of risk experts who are contemptuous of the “average citizen.” I have not observed such a climate in Canada or elsewhere in the Western world, have you?
    4. When you were “patted down,” did the patter reach up between your legs and thoroughly explore your crotch? If not, he or she would have missed the type of explosives package that was sown into the underwear of the Northwest flight suicide bomber.
    5. In the original I raised the issue whether the new technology now being installed, which uses radio-frequency radiation, would detect explosives packages inside the body; it seems that the answer is no, and that this capability would require x-ray scanners. So, my attitude is, bring on the x-rays too (if I have to limit my flying as a result of the radiation exposure, I would), and I’ll gladly pay for that too.

  5. I am not an expert in airport safety, so perhaps our security system is run efficiently and all further expenditures would be similarly well spent. Let’s hope, since it certainly appears that further expenditures are on their way.

    I would volunteer to fly on a limited security airline, if such a thing were launched/possible. I’d ask for two things: secured cockpit doors (we already have them) and air marshalls (sometimes we have these?).

    Is comparing the real risks of other ways of dying really such a canard? Doesn’t it help us recognize where we ought to be careful (cars, bathrooms) and manage our behaviour accordingly? Risk is probability, no? You ARE at risk of drowning in a toilet. Everyone is. And they are at risk of being blown up by a terrorist. Perhaps we could track, on a daily basis, the risks of a bundle of risks and let people know what those are. We do that with the weather, after all, and that’s just a probability estimate.

    I think a climate of fear does exist. I see it in what people say, how they behave, what they believe, what they are allowing their representatives to invest in. We are putting tons of money into safety measures, which seems like evidence that we are fearful.

    My previous pat downs were not deep searches, and if those were the alternative then I guess I’d have to go with the scanner, too. Especially, as you say, the pat wouldn’t likely have shown up the crotch bomber. Of course there is the interior/cavity bomb and that seems like you either go with cavity searches or full x-rays. At that point I think we have to admit defeat and just give up on planes (and trains next, I guess). Certainly I would not bother if it involved cavity searches.

    Surely the terrorists have won at that point. But I bet they won’t be happy and will resort to other tactics.

  6. Bill,

    Thought you’d be interested in this take – from a bomb disposal tech living in England – on how safe he thinks we are when flying:

    He also suggests that our security system is working, in part because of ineptitude on the part of the would-be terrorists, and in part because we’ve actually improved things by design (cockpit doors) and attitude (neither pilots nor passengers will allow themselves to become missiles again).

  7. Richard, you reminded me recently that we’ve always known, since the beginning of risk communication studies, that airplane crashes – affecting a large number of people at one time, including whole families, and involving events that are out of one’s control – are among the risks many people dread. The reference here is to what are called “normal accidents”; but terrorism risk is not a normal accident. There is an excellent CBC 2-hour documentary about the families of victims of the 1985 Air-India tragedy. (This event was the most serious terrorist attack in the world, in terms of total victims, before 9/11, and it is still the second-most-serious one.) It’s clear that the families just can’t get over what happened, and I think that one of the reasons is because a serious terrorist attack is so different from other losses of life. These deaths, a result of politically-motivated terrorism, strike people as pointless, arbitrary, and morally wrong, which prevents them from getting over their grief, and are completely different from deaths due to equipment failure and natural causes, or simply “normal accidents.”

  8. One of the fundamentals of risk perception is that risks that could affect progeny are feared more than anything. The strong fear of nuclear accidents comes in large part not because of the harm to one’s self but one’s children and their children, since radiation is connected to genetic damage. I wonder if the fear of death by terrorism, and the inclination to subject ourselves to deep scanning by new forms of radiation (e.g., might be trumped by the fear of having DNA damage via THz waves as this recent Technology Review article suggests: It will be interesting to see how this sort of information gets out to the public, and what they make of it. Aside from everything else it complicates our risk management for terrorism.

  9. The relative risk of radiation from scanning devices, versus the terrorism risk, or alternatively, the risk-benefit trade-off, must of course be revealed so that airline passengers can make sensible choices. (But remember also, Richard, the cosmic-ray radiation risk that is inherent in flying at high altitudes.) Radiation risk is primarily correlated with cumulative doses (except for catastrophic exposures), so a risk-savvy traveler might opt to trade off fewer flights for enhanced security involving radiation-emitting devices.

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