Are Airplanes Safe After 9/11? Evidence Is Mixed


Shortly before college student Nathaniel Heatwole was arrested for putting contraband on airplanes, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said that about 90 percent of recent flyers said in a survey that airport security was “somewhat better to much better” than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, Time magazine reports.

Is the system really working? Some experts say no and point to Heatwole’s case as evidence. He carried aboard contraband including box cutters, a knife, reddish molding clay (which he hoped would be identified as a plastic explosive) and matches.

Time says that in some ways, airplanes are safer today: Narly all cockpit doors have been hardened and bulletproofed, and some pilots qualify to carry guns on board. Crews hold detailed preflight security briefings led by the captain, and, if a threat is detected, a pilot will alert air-traffic controllers, who will likely call in jet fighters while the pilot would land the plane immediately. Some airlines have video cameras in the cabin and a screen in the cockpit so pilots can monitor passenger behavior. One thousand bomb-detection machines have been installed in airports to search checked luggage. The TSA has deployed 5,300 explosive trace-detection devices, which hunt for evidence of bombs and plastic explosives by the residues they leave. The agency is also using bomb-sniffing dogs, hand searches of checked bags and bag matching, in which the airline checks that both passenger and bag make it on board. On 9/11 just 33 marshals were patrolling the skies. Today there are several thousand. Everyone from passengers to mechanics to airport cops are on the lookout for mischief.

Time says the “Achilles’ heel” of the system is that it focuses more on finding things than on analyzing passengers’ intent. The system is based on information like how you pay for a ticket, how often you fly and whether you’re traveling one way. That is why up to 20 percent of passengers on JetBlue, Southwest and AirTran are searched, because those carriers sell many one-way fares.


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