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SKYBIRD: Dale Brown’s Ops Report
July 2002
Copyright © 2002, HDM Inc.

SITUATIONAL AWARENESS:
Homeland Security:
Stop the Political Correctness Game!

By owning and flying a private aircraft, I have been fortunate to be able to travel widely without being subjected to a lot of the FAA’s new security screening procedures. I would not be surprised if this changes; but for now, charter and general aviation travelers do not have to undergo the rigorous security screening that commercial air travelers must endure. I hope this signals a start to an upsurge in general aviation. Folks should realize that the time savings and relief from the hassles of commercial flying easily justify the added expense.

My wife Diane recently went to Kingman, Arizona for flight training. She piloted the company plane down, with me in the right seat. We traveled on our own schedule. Our luggage was never in jeopardy; we never waited in any lines, didn’t have to remove our shoes for explosives screening, never got patted down or X-rayed. No, we couldn’t sit back and relax with a book and an adult beverage, but we still had fun and got to our destination safely. The flight took 2 hours from engine start to engine shut-down. Add in 30 minutes for the drive to the airport and 30 minutes for flight planning and preflight, and the entire trip took 3 hours.

[IMAGE] If she had flown commercially, we would’ve had to drive 45 minutes to Reno-Tahoe International Airport, but arrive at least 1.5 hours prior to departure. The flight to Las Vegas takes one hour. So already she would have spent 3 hours 15 minutes on the trip. But if you add in 15 minutes at the baggage carousel, 15 minutes in the rental car line, and 1.5 hours driving from Las Vegas to Kingman, the entire trip takes 5 hours 15 minutes.

Time-wise, depending on the destination, private flying sometimes completely blows away the airlines. You could drive Reno to Monterey quicker than flying commercially, but it takes less than an hour and a half in my plane. My mother-in-law Bobbi lives in Newport, Oregon, which is 2 hours by private plane. A non-stop from Reno to Portland takes only 1 hour 20 minutes. But if you add in driving and waiting time, it’ll take over 7 hours to get to Newport--and over 9 hours if you’re unlucky enough to have to take a connecting flight to Boise or Oakland!

Obviously this argument doesn’t work for many trips. Visiting my Mom in Buffalo would take 2 days in my plane (18 hours if I really pushed it), but less than 12 hours flying commercial. And the airlines can usually fly over most bad weather, where I won’t fly anywhere near areas of moderate icing or turbulence.

There are other factors: flying myself means no “down time”--I can’t sit back, have a drink, and read a book or work on my laptop if I’m pilot-in-command or second-in-command. And private flying is rarely cheaper than going commercial.

But the purpose of this discussion is not merely cost vs. convenience vs. fun, but a discussion about security and political correctness.

I am not a security expert. But from a tactical standpoint, the current FAA security procedures for commercial air travelers make no sense at all. If we ever want to have a chance to stop another airliner hijacking, we need to get realistic about security procedures and start thinking tactically instead of kowtowing to those who put political correctness over safety and security.

My five year-old son got pat-searched AND wanded on a recent flight from Maui, after already passing through the metal detectors and having his backpack scanned with the X-ray machine. My wife Diane was searched THREE TIMES INSIDE THE SECURITY AREA before boarding a flight from Las Vegas to Reno. FAA security recently searched the former vice president of the United States, Al Gore, even with Secret Service agents standing nearby. Does any of this make sense to you?

Let’s put aside a discussion of the ridiculousness of having armed National Guard troops stationed inside the nation’s airports. Where is the logic in searching someone three times inside a security area? Is the FAA admitting that the security areas really aren’t secure, that it’s possible to sneak weapons or explosives on board a plane even after they pass through metal detectors and X-ray machines?

Or is all this just what it appears to be--expensive, time-consuming window-dressing, meant to simply give the ILLUSION of security to the traveling public?

Southwest Airlines pulls folks randomly out of the boarding line to do searches. So after waiting in line at check-in for your luggage to be screened, waiting to go through the metal detectors, waiting an hour to get one of the first boarding cards (because Southwest doesn’t have assigned seating--first-come, first served), and then waiting in line again to be one of the first in your section to board, you might be yanked out of line so they can search you and your belongings AGAIN. This happened to my wife in Las Vegas, and she forgot her cellphone in the pat-down cubicle. She notified the flight attendant moments after the airplane doors closed, but by the time the flight attendant got back out to the terminal, the “roaming” inspectors and her cellphone were gone.

Do random checks make anyone safer? Or are random checks a politically-correct compromise between targeted searches--profiling--and universal searches? Are boarding-gate searches a way to compensate for the lack of training of terminal screeners? Several months after September 11, stories abound about the incredible numbers of deadly weapons that still make it past security screeners.

As I said, I’m no security expert. But here are my suggestions for realistic airport security procedures:

  • 1)Passport control. As many countries already require, every foreign visitor to the U.S. must surrender their passport every time they stop or stay at a certain location. Visiting San Francisco for a few days? Surrender your passport at Customs or at the hotel where you’ll be staying. Attending school in the U.S.? Surrender your passport with the local police or university security office, and pick it up again when you depart.
  • 2)Pre-screening. I would happily submit to an intensive federal background check every six months for the privilege of carrying a photo and digital ID card that allowed me faster movement through the airport.
  • 3)Positive ID and instant background checks. We should have a national photo and digital ID card that can be run through a machine that instantly notifies the ticket agent if a person is a foreign national, what his or her visa status is, or if the person has any wants or warrants. The system should be expanded to include instant biometric checks of anyone walking into a public or government place--the camera scans a face, IDs the individual, and runs an instant background check for nationality, visa status, wants, or warrants.
  • 4)Itinerary profiling. Even with a federal ID card, I know that if I book a one-way flight, for example, or if my ticket was purchased less than seven days ahead of time, my person and my luggage will all be hand-inspected, and I’ll plan for it. I’d expect anyone with a foreign passport, someone who paid cash for a ticket, or anyone whose trip originated outside the continental U.S. to submit to extra screening.
  • 5)Passenger profiling. Depending on the federal threat condition level or world crisis situation, certain passengers should always undergo extra screening. Is Pakistan upset at the U.S. because we refuse to back their actions in Kashmir? Every Pakistani should undergo extra screening. Is China warning the U.S. not to get involved in a potential invasion of Taiwan? Every Chinese national should get screened. Was there an embassy bombing in Sudan, or were Americans killed in Syria or Spain due to terrorist or extremist action? Every Spanish, Sudanese, or Syrian national gets extra screening.

    Profiling is not racist or bigoted or prejudiced. It is a logical and fully justifiable reaction to real-world threats and events.

  • 6)Unless the threat condition warranted it, all other passengers should be allowed quicker and easier movement through security and unhindered movement once inside the secure area. Yes, every bag and person needs to be electronically scanned before getting into an area where they would have access to aircraft. But once inside the secure area, passengers should be allowed to get on board the plane without any more intrusive searches.

    Might there be a time when one hundred percent searches could happen, or where White Anglo-Saxon Protestants could be singled out for added searches? Absolutely--and then our political or bureaucratic leaders shouldn’t be afraid to order it done. And if the situation warranted it, we shouldn’t be afraid to even shut down the national airspace system and do a thorough security sweep before any more potential manned flying bombs are allowed into our skies. We also shouldn’t be afraid to institute these same procedures for every other form of mass public transit, from the subways to cruise ships to bridges and tunnels.

    For some strange reason, our political and bureaucratic leaders seem to believe that we need to unreasonably inconvenience everyone to avoid even the appearance that we might be offending or pre-judging anyone. We are not talking about sending foreigners to internment camps--we are talking about providing a higher state of security and scrutiny while still making air travel fast and convenient for everyone.

    One more note about facing the realities of homeland security:

    There was an incident recently where a small private plane flew through the prohibited area around the White House, and as a precaution the White House was evacuated. It turns out it really wasn’t a threat: it had climbed to ten thousand feet, and it was dodging thunderstorms, as were other aircraft in the area.

    But air defense fighters were unable to catch up with the plane, despite the fact that Andrews Air Force Base is not very far away. In this case, fighter protection wasn’t the solution.

    What then is the solution? Point air defenses: surface to air missiles.

    It’s a scary thought: a high-speed missile shooting down your plane from dozens of miles away, without ever seeing you. Fast, silent death. But it is also the only logical choice. One Patriot missile battery could defend the entire Washington D.C. area, as far away as Baltimore; another could defend the entire San Francisco Bay area, or all of the airports in both the Los Angeles and San Diego metroplexes.

    The rumor for years is that U.S. Army soldiers are stationed on the roof of the White House with Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons, ready to shoot down anyone who tried to attack the White House or other capital buildings or monuments. I don’t think this rumor is true. But it makes perfect sense to set up systems like this around vital targets in the United States.

    We have set up Patriot air defense systems all over the world, from South Korea to the Persian Gulf to the Panama Canal--it’s about time we set up a few in our own backyards.

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