Assessing Terrorist Threats to Commercial Aviation

This article on airplane security says many of the same things I’ve been saying for years:

Given the breadth and complexity of threats to commercial aviation, those who criticize the TSA and other aviation security regulatory agencies for reactive policies and overly narrow focus appear to have substantial grounding. Three particularly serious charges can be levied against the TSA: it overemphasizes defending against specific attack vectors (such as hijackings or passenger-borne IEDs) at the expense of others (such as insider threats or attacks on airports); it overemphasizes securing U.S. airports while failing to acknowledge the significantly greater threat posed to flights arriving or departing from foreign airports; and it has failed to be transparent with the American people that certain threats are either extremely difficult or beyond the TSA’s ability to control. Furthermore, the adoption of cumbersome aviation security measures in the wake of failed attacks entails a financial burden on both governments and the airline industry, which has not gone unnoticed by jihadist propagandists and strategists. While the U.S. government has spent some $56 billion on aviation security measures since 9/11, AQAP prominently noted that its 2010 cargo plot cost a total of $4,900.

The author is a former Delta advisor. Wired talked to him:

Brandt says aviation security needs a fundamental overhaul. Not only is the aviation industry failing to keep up with the new terrorist tactics, TSA’s regimen of scanning and groping is causing a public backlash. “From the public’s perspective, this kind of refocusing would reduce the amount of screening they have to put up with in the United States,” Brandt tells Danger Room, “and refocus it where it’s needed.”


None of this is going to be easy, or cheap. Brandt proposes that the government subsidize airlines for better employee background checks or explosives detection tech. But that’s could strike taxpayers as a bailout.

On the other hand, he and Pistole actually share the same headspace, so it’s possible that TSA will buy his overall critique. “The best defense is still developing solid intelligence on terrorist groups interested in targeting aviation,” Brandt says. Beats treating us all like terrorists.

Or, as I say: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response.

Posted on December 13, 2011 at 12:46 PM20 Comments


George December 13, 2011 1:03 PM

Oh goodie! Yet another criticism for John Pistole and his infallible senior leadership staff to ignore…. and if too many people insist on talking about it, for Blogger Bob to deny, dismiss, or spin away.

Frank Ch. Eigler December 13, 2011 1:18 PM

“investigation, intelligence, and emergency response.”

And as Bruce also said, roll back check-in security to pre-9/11 levels. And this would work because investigation and intelligence would double-swear to be at least as effective (while respecting all legal privacy constraints) as also checking for new schemes that terrorists have actually attempted. Or something.

If only there were a market solution to this sort of thinking. Like a “Comfortable Airlines, now with much less check-in security”. We could see if Bruce puts his body where his mouth is, and would ride it.

Clive Robinson December 13, 2011 1:43 PM

Don’t you just love the way people lump the TSA into the “Aviation Industry”…

The TSA is a Federal Agency not a commercial organisation. The last time I looked (which was a long time ago) there were certain rules about the US Government not funding commercial airlines etc.

@ Frank Ch. Eigler,

If only there were a market solution to this sort of thinking. Like a “Comfortable Airlines, now with much less check-in security”. We could see if Bruce puts his body where his mouth is,

Firstly there is a market solution, it’s known as flying by private jet, and the non existant TSA checking it attracts has been commented on a number of times.

As for Bruce puting “his body where his mouth is” with your imaginary airline, if it did exist it would likley as not be very very small and thus unlikley to fly either from or to places that Bruce and many others would wish to depart or arive from.

So would you “put your money where your mouth is” and fully financialy compensate Bruce to go out of his way?

Jonathan December 13, 2011 1:52 PM

@Frank Ch. Eigler I would jump at the chance to fly on an airline with pre-9/11 security. Why? Because the greatest advance in airline security since 9/11 is passenger awareness. Passengers will never again passively comply with hijackers. Pilots will never again allow hijackers to enter the cockpit. I believe this change of attitude has made more difference in safety than all the porno-scanners and patdowns in the world.

moo December 13, 2011 1:53 PM

Of course he would. Wouldn’t you? Any frequent flyer who was rational, would be willing to accept the very slightly increased (but still miniscule) risk of a terrorist hijacking in exchange for a faster and more pleasant experience getting through security and onto their plane, dozens of times a year. Those stupid scanners probably kill more people (via increased cancer risk) every year than terrorists combined. Increased deaths each year due to auto accidents as people drive instead of fly, also probably exceed domestic terrorist deaths, even if you average them over the past decade and include 9/11.

9/11 could only work once. Only two things needed to be done to make sure it never happened again, both of which were accomplished ten years ago: (1) reinforce cockpit doors and make sure they can’t be opened from outside the cockpit while in flight; (2) convince the passengers that they will all die if they don’t regain control of the plane.

Dirk Praet December 13, 2011 2:25 PM

With a budget of 7.5 billion euros, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switserland, is one of the most expensive scientific instruments ever built. Many non-scientists question its usefulness.

Then again, it would seem that after 3 years of operation the teams in charge are closer to achieving their main goal – the discovery of the hypothesized Higgs boson – than the TSA after 10 years and 56 billion dollars are in achieving theirs: the catching of even one elusive terrorist.

Now if we transpose the TSA to the world of science, such figures by now would mean that most scientists would have started seriously questioning either the original hypothesis or the approach used. It’s also unlikely the project would have any government funding left by shere lack of results.

For as far as I’m concerned, it’s pretty much unbelievable that the same folks that are bleeding NASA dry still care to invest in an organisation that over ten years has proven nothing more than being a complete and utter failure, not to mention a general nuisance to anyone taking a plane in the US.

Susan December 13, 2011 3:02 PM

What are Pistole’s and Napolitano’s qualifications for heading security, other than that they seem to have no remorse over groping six year old girls and their great-grandmothers?

The agency cannot be tweaked in its current form; it needs to be dismantled, security rethought and rebuilt with a different mindset – and not a totalitarian one.

Brandioch Conner December 13, 2011 4:48 PM

@Frank Ch. Eigler
“Like a “Comfortable Airlines, now with much less check-in security”.”

I’d fly on that airline. As long as they had the lockable door to the flight deck. Although many here have claimed that they would not.

You know why? Because terrorists are RARE.

Terrorists are NOT stopped by the TSA.
If they WERE then they would switch to a DIFFERENT TARGET. Or just buy some guns and shoot the passengers who are standing in the TSA lines.

So allowing passengers to fly on an airplane WITHOUT being groped will not alter the risk.

I.Braineater December 13, 2011 6:30 PM

Check out what Israeli airlines El Al does. Possibly the only airline ever to have zero security problems. They had steel reinforced locked doors on the cockpits in the 1970s. It usually takes an average of 10 minutes of questioning just to get past check in, they don’t do random screenings or full body scans everybody is screened.

Anonymous 1 December 13, 2011 11:05 PM

These days the only people still hijacking planes are the mentally ill, maybe not 100% accurate, but probably close enough.

Clive Robinson:

Firstly there is a market solution, it’s known as flying by private jet, and the non existant TSA checking it attracts has been commented on a number of times.

How about a market solution normal people can afford? Or is that Amtrak? It’s all a librul plot by Joe Biden to make USians ride trains again I tells you.

Those stupid scanners probably kill more people (via increased cancer risk) every year than terrorists combined.

Even if LNT were true (which it probably isn’t, there’s just as much chance that those porno scanners reduce cancer risk) that would still be false (you need to remember that 9/11 killed thousands, those things even if the overcautious assumptions about radiation you are using were correct wouldn’t kill that many).

Not that it excuses having useless privacy violation devices.

Check out what Israeli airlines El Al does. Possibly the only airline ever to have zero security problems.

They’ve been hijacked quite a few times in their early history (which is part of why they take such precautions).

Clive Robinson December 14, 2011 3:08 AM

@ Anonymous 1,

Thank you for acknowledging my comment by prefacing it with my name.

But… How come you didn’t do the same for other peoples comments?

You might have made them feel left out…

With regards the private plane solution, whilst currently it’s not viable for mass transit as an idea it’s actually workable.

In the UK we have a semi-privatised railway network (the ins and outs of the franchising are complicated) However several companies offer not just “rail excursions” in historical carriages pulled by famous steam engines, but some offer other services.

One company used to rent entire carriages on the regular services at very low rates then sell tickets for the seats at well below the standard rate, and thus compeated against the “train operating franchise” holder. They became successfull enough to rent out entire trains from the train operators, then running slots from the network operator and renting the engines and carrages from one of the specialised franchises.

However due to non open market factors built into the franchise system by Maggie Thatcher (because she hatted the railway unions with an unbridled hate) the previous network operator (Rail Track as was) effectivly started killing the business off by effectivly running what would otherwise be an illegal monopoly. Pete Waterman (of record producing fame) has an interesting insight on this having original taken over the Special Trains Unit of the former nationalised British Rail as a franchise.

Although rail charteriing is still available and to some extent even thriving, of more recent times the train operators have been playing fast and lose with regulated fare structuring to maximise subsidies from the UK Treasury which has made the renting of carriages uneconomic. But in the process have started “bucket shop” selling of unregulated loss making fairs through online companies which is one of the reasons at weekends you have ten or twelve coach trains with 60-80% of the carragies reserved (and empty thus getting subsidy) for regulated fare ticketss that cost hundreds of pounds. Whilst the rest of the coaches are compleatly packed out with people having to stand because of the unregulated fares…

Thus one thing that might stop the idea of TSA free flying is Governmental rules that effectivly create what would otherwise be regarded ass an illegal monopoly for parts of the Aviation Industry.

But the rules are unlikly to be changed because in effect the TSA is a Government subsidy raised by taxation and gifted to the companies who run the US “public” airports and airlines that fly out of them. And way to many “vested interests” are now involved including the likes of previous administration political persons selling the rapeiscanners etc to the TSA at vastly inflated prices for the utility offered.

AC December 14, 2011 3:08 AM

@Frank Ch. Eigler

I recently travelled through Delhi’s brand new terminal. The scanning was very thorough and, no doubt, competent. It took an hour for me to get through it and for that hour, I and hundreds, thousands, of others were crowded into a relatively small area, all of us with unchecked bags that contained…

Personally, the greatest risk to my life when I travel does not come from terrorists or even, bless them, the TSA and friends, but it’s when I return and, sleep deprived, I drive the 120 miles to my home.

So Frank, yes, I’d use your new airline 🙂

bob December 14, 2011 4:01 AM

@Jonathan While I agree with what you’re saying to a certain extent, I think the line, “Passengers will never again passively comply with hijackers” is naive.

mashiara December 14, 2011 7:31 AM

@bob It used to be that the best survival strategy for a passenger in a hijacking situation was to wait for the plane to land and then wait for rescue/release.

Now it’s more likely that if control of plane is not regained it will either be crashed by the hijackers or forced down by air-defence to prevent it being crashed to high-value targets.

Of course for an individual it still might make sense to keep their head down and hope for the best but for the passenger population it will be better to rush the hijackers (and some individuals will not survive that).

So the question is whether there are enough of people can overcome their natural survival instinct of keeping their heads down and look at the bigger picture (possibly means sacrificing themselves to give others a better chance of survival).

Bob T December 14, 2011 7:53 AM


It wouldn’t just be comfy airline that would be available. There would be various airlines with varying degrees of security measures and people would make their own decisions on which to fly. THAT’s the point. Passengers fighting back or not, security has changed with non invasive measures like locked cabins etc. Let the airlines hire their own armed undercover air marshals.

There are a lot of other options besides letting the federal government search you without cause, and grope old ladies and children.

Brett O December 14, 2011 7:55 AM

Comfortable Airways? probably not. BUT I’d would buy a ticket (and invest my 6-figure salary in) SECURE AIRWAYS
^No Groping, no scanning*
^No TSA Lines-go DIRECT to gate*
^3 Free checked bags*
(the fine print:)
*requires security clearance check

Use government clearnace (top secret minimum) or pay to have equivalent. Its far from perfect, but its close. Technology only gets us so far ($56B DHS cost defeated by $5k terrorist investment). Focus on Operations and Personnel. And it is free-market also – Plan A:pay for the pass-TSA-go-directly-to-plane or choose Plan C (grope-and-scan).

JimFive December 14, 2011 10:22 AM

It is a bit disingenuous to compare the cost of the 2010 cargo plot ($4900) to the total cost of aviation security ($59B). It would be more correct to compare that $59B to the cost of the (expected) damages of the plot since that is what the security cost is supposed to be mitigating.


jggimi December 14, 2011 10:43 AM

When body surface scanners first … surfaced … didn’t someone propose a Nekkid Airlines? No baggage, no clothing, no security check?

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