Thursday, September 22, 2005


Does anyone feel safe on an airplane these days? It’s been, after all, more than three years since the horrors of 9-11, and flying still supplies endless fodder for dark humor. We have all learned the resigned shrug of the helpless as we step on an airplane.

Everyone has a story. The two-hour wait for security. Take off your shoes. Take off your belt. Step over here, Madam, I need to feel your bodacious ta-tas. Why are they giving that eight-year-old a workout, and ignoring the six Arab guys who are half-pretending not to know each other? And don’t sit next to the only guy in a suit on the flight to Orlando. He’s the air marshal; he’s the first one they’ll kill, to get his weapon. And oops---thank God they missed this Swiss army knife I forgot I had---but wait, what else did they miss?

The procedures themselves are always changing, but it never gets any better, does it? Well, really, how can it? Name a government bureaucracy that does. Do the public schools get better? Does Medicare get more efficient? How about Amtrak?

Some years ago, during one of the periodic national debates on why it took five years and $500 million to get a new drug through the FDA (it’s now eight years and $800 million), Milton Friedman commented that calling for “reform” of the FDA is like saying you like cats, but you want one that barks. The flaws of a bureaucracy, in other words, are embedded in its very nature.

In particular, the incentives for a bureaucrat are different from those of an entrepreneur who, in order to survive, must satisfy his customers with efficiency and low prices. A bureaucrat, on the other hand, derives prestige from the size of his staff and his budget, so there is little motivation for efficiency. The bigger the agency, the more important the bureaucrat. Further, his customers are actually “end-users,” a term the computing world has invented to describe consumers who are stuck with a product because they have no market power in the transaction. Parents and children are end-users of public schools. Geezers are end-users of Medicare-regulated healthcare. As we all have learned, an end-user is pretty much the last thing you want to be in this world. Political prisoners generally have a lot more fun.

And when we go to the airport, we’re all end-users of airport security, aren’t we? I mean, there’s no choice. Whether it’s Delta, or USAir or Southwest, we all get the same one-size-fits-all, take-off-your-shoes, make-a-joke-and-you’re-off-to-Gitmo, expensive, annoying, inefficient security system. And then we get on the plane and spend the flight watching the creepy 20-year-old male Egyptian in seat 8C who strolled unmolested through security but who, if he were spotted at a Bush rally, would immediately be surrounded by seventeen Mormon commandos.

No matter what you may think about the evils of the profit motive and the lack of imagination in the corporate world, they couldn’t possibly be as ham-fisted and brain-dead as the feds, could they? In fact, freed from the constraints of political correctness and union politics and the civil service, YOU could come up with a better, safer, cheaper system. I know I could, and I don’t have much doubt that every commercial air carrier would as well. And you, the consumer, would vote with your dollars on the security system you prefer.

If airline security were left entirely to the airlines, several innovations would appear almost immediately.

First, since there would no longer be any federal scrutiny of security procedures, carriers would need to assure customers that airplanes are, in fact, safe. (Not that the feds do this, of course, but the airlines would have to.) So in short order, there would be an industry group or an independent testing company that would test security systems and report the results publicly. Think Underwriters Laboratory, the people who test electrical equipment of all sorts and put their “UL” sticker on the ones that pass. For airlines, there would be a similar company that would try to sneak fake weapons onto planes and fake bombs into suitcases, and all of us would find out whether they succeeded.

Second, there would be an industry-wide “Trusted Traveler” program, under which any passenger could choose to submit himself to a series of interviews, background checks and a polygraph test. Once approved, a Trusted Traveler would sail through a special line at any airport and be spared all security-related delay. There would be a charge to the passenger for the screening process, but it could be reasonable because the program would actually save the airlines a ton of cash. Every business traveler in the country would sign up for the program. It would be a status symbol. And half the people now doing “security” because they can’t find a job as a bartender would have to polish up their mai-tai-making skills.

The third thing that privatization would accomplish immediately is that it would permit carriers to discriminate among those flights that require extensive security checks and those that do not.

For example, consider the 7:30 AM Monday trip from Scranton to Harrisburg. Every week, there are six people on this airplane, and they are always the same people. Even when a newcomer shows up, it’s somebody that four of the passengers can vouch for, and when I say “vouch for,” what I mean is something along the lines of “I went to elementary school with Joe---he’s OK,” or “Sally’s my sister-in-law,” or “The guy baptized my kid---give him a freaking break.” No security whatsoever is needed on these flights, and there are hundreds of them every day. Why waste metal detectors on these people? Because it’s “fair?”

By contrast, while I have never been on an 8:00 AM weekday flight from Logan Airport in Boston to LAX, I think that if I ever had to fly that route, I would refuse to get on the plane until every passenger had been given extensive, even lingering, body-cavity searches. There are many such flights---any flight to D.C. or any flight out of Miami or Newark, for example. No rational human being, including Hindus, will now board these flights without a full complement of rosary beads. Post-privatization, these would instantly become the safest airplanes in the country. You might have to report for your flight six hours before departure, but once you got on the plane, you could sleep like a baby.

The possibilities for airline security are limited only by the imagination, a commodity utterly absent in the bureaucratic mind. Many suggestions have been made for improvements in the system, but very few have been tried. I think we could expect some of the following experiments to appear.

1) Naked Air. We’ve all heard this one. Check your clothes at the gate, and they are returned at your destination. Carry-on luggage would we strictly limited as well. Perhaps not the ideal solution for those Minneapolis to Vancouver flights in mid-January.

2) Captains Rule Airlines. Your pilot, assisted by those of the flight crew he trusts, sits at the entrance to the jetway and exercises his unfettered discretion on the question of who flies. Some folks he waves aboard. Others he questions, and if they satisfy him, they too are allowed to fly. Others he rejects. There are no appeals. (This discretionary power of the master of a ship or conveyance dates back at least to the Phoenicians, and was part of English and American common law until it was discarded by aviation bureaucrats a few years ago.)

3) El Al America. Here’s the ad: “Ever flown from Tel Aviv to Milan? Expect the same from us. All our employees are trained by El Al, the safest airline in the world.”

4) Badges? Badges? Oh, Yes, You Need Some Stinkin Badges Airways. Passports are required for all domestic U.S. flights (an Ann Coulter idea). If you hold a foreign passport, it must be submitted 48 hours in advance so it can be authenticated.

5) Rambo Airlines. All members of the crew, including stewardesses, are ex-military, trained in hand-to-hand combat, and heavily armed. Go ahead. Try to take over the plane. Make their day.

And now here’s my idea, and it’s not original. I first heard it thirty years ago from Archie Bunker on “All In The Family.” He was having an argument with his son-in-law, the Meathead, about airplane hijackings, and Archie’s solution was as follows: “When you get on a plane, they give everybody a gun. There’s maybe two or three hijackers at most, and they’re outnumbered. End of problem.”

I laughed at the time. That was the idea. But in the intervening years, I have seen the kernel of truth embedded in the joke. Because…well, why do we fear flying?

It’s because we’re helpless, isn’t it? And not only are we vulnerable, we are aware that every other decent, law-abiding non-terrorist passenger is also vulnerable. Our current system of airline security is 100% effective at disarming people who pose no threat to anyone, so all the bad guys need is one gun, or a few blades, and the rest of the passengers are as good as dead. The presence of air marshals might provide some comfort if they were not so easily identifiable, but at present, they might as well wear signs that say, “KILL ME FIRST.” They actually make airplanes more dangerous because terrorists are spared even the trouble of smuggling a gun aboard. All they have to do is kill the guy in the blue blazer and take his.

A central problem with our air security system, and one that has been completely overlooked, is rooted in the belief that you can make people safer by rendering them powerless to defend themselves. But our federal aviation geniuses did not invent this idea. In fact, it has been tried in many places, and it appears to be one of those notions that cannot be discredited no matter how often or how spectacularly it fails whenever it is implemented.

On April 28, 1996, a lunatic went on a killing spree in Port Arthur, Tasmania. Ten days later, nationwide gun control legislation went into effect in Australia, featuring buybacks, new registration requirements, and confiscation of guns. Though it was already very difficult to own a handgun (legally), the new laws took away hundreds of thousands of rifles and shotguns as well. In a matter of months, the Australian people were effectively disarmed.

In the U.K., the impetus was a mass murder in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1997. By February 1998, possession of a handgun had become a criminal offense throughout the realm.

The results were entirely predictable. While homicides and suicides remained about the same, there were immediate increases in all categories of violent street crime---assaults, sexual assaults, robberies and armed robberies---as criminals faced a victim population that had been rendered, for the bad guys, conveniently helpless. In 2000, a Crime Victim Survey conducted by the Dutch Ministry of Justice determined that, among the seventeen countries they categorize as “industrialized,” the three most dangerous were England, Wales and Australia. Residents of those countries were more likely to be victimized by crime than residents of any other country. The results, at least in the U.K., were confirmed two years later when the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute found that in England, in 2001, 55 crimes had been committed for every 100 residents.

Of particular concern to the citizenry of these countries was a terrifying crime that had been almost unheard of before---the home invasion.

In a place like the U.S., invading a home is something no halfway sane criminal would even consider, because even if the residents are an elderly and infirm couple, there is always a decent chance they keep a loaded .38 under a couch cushion. Unless a criminal can be certain there is no weapon inside, a home invasion is simply too dangerous a proposition. With the guns gone in Australia and England, the home invasion became a much safer play.

And the same dynamic is present in a hijacking. It may be difficult to get in the airplane with a weapon, just as it may be difficult to get in the house, but once you’re in, your victims are helpless and have nowhere to run. You can slaughter them at your leisure, fly the airplane into a building, demand ransom---whatever your agenda, the passengers are the least of your problems.

But on Archie Bunker Air, the passengers are a big problem. They outnumber you, many of them are armed and you don’t know which ones, and if you try to take over the plane, they’ll get desperate.

And OK, I suppose I’m not going to hand every passenger a gun at check-in. But I’m not going to make it too difficult to carry a piece onto an airplane either. Maybe all we require at “The Arch” is a concealed-carry permit, which are now easily obtainable in a number of states. Maybe we even require a one-hour NRA-designed course at a local shooting range. Whatever. Just so long as we make it easy enough that on any random flight of say, a hundred passengers, a dozen or so will be packing.

As Archie himself would say: “End of problem.”

Copyright 2005 Michael Kubacki