Airline Security, Trade-offs, and Agenda
All security decisions are trade-offs, and smart security trade-offs are ones where the security you get is worth what you have to give up. This sounds simple, but it isn’t. There are differences between perceived risk and actual risk, differences between perceived security and actual security, and differences between perceived cost and actual cost. And beyond that, there are legitimate differences in trade-off analysis. Any complicated security decision affects multiple players, and each player evaluates the trade-off from his or her own perspective.
I call this “agenda,” and it is one of the central themes of Beyond Fear. It is clearly illustrated in the current debate about rescinding the prohibition against small pointy things on airplanes. The flight attendants are against the change. Reading their comments, you can clearly see their subjective agenda:
“As the front-line personnel with little or no effective security training or means of self defense, such weapons could prove fatal to our members,” Patricia A. Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said in a letter to Edmund S. “Kip” Hawley, the new leader of the Transportation Security Administration. “They may not assist in breaking through a flightdeck door, but they could definitely lead to the deaths of flight attendants and passengers”….
The flight attendants, whose union represents 46,000 members, said that easing the ban on some prohibited items could pose a safety risk on board the aircraft and lead to incidents that terrorize passengers even if they do not involve a hijacking.
“Even a plane that is attacked and results in only a few deaths would seriously jeopardize the progress we have all made in restoring confidence of the flying public,” Friend said in her letter. “We urge you to reconsider allowing such dangerous items—which have no place in the cabin of an aircraft in the first place—to be introduced into our workplace.”
The flight attendants are not evaluating the security countermeasure from a global perspective. They’re not trying to figure out what the optimal level of risk is, what sort of trade-offs are acceptable, and what security countermeasures most efficiently achieve that trade-off. They’re looking at the trade-off from their perspective: they get more benefit from the countermeasure than the average flier because it’s their workplace, and the cost of the countermeasure is borne largely by the passengers.
There is nothing wrong with flight attendants evaluating airline security from their own agenda. I’d be surprised if they didn’t. But understanding agenda is essential to understanding how security decisions are made.