The murder-by-airplane of 149 people last week in the French Alps on Germanwings flight 9525 is a reminder that there are always unintended consequences of measures designed to keep us safe.
9/11 was a catastrophic security failure that came from following long-established aviation-security protocols. Prior to that date, the standard procedure in an aircraft hijacking was to accept that the passengers and crew were helpless hostages, and do everything possible to preserve their lives, often including negotiation and even granting of hijackers’ demands. So on all four flights hijacked that day, as had been pretty much the standard drill forever, the passengers allowed their captors not only to give the crew orders but also to actually take over the cockpit itself, without knowing what their fate was to be. The passengers on the three flights that hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon may have been concerned and suspicious, but their first inkling of what was happening was probably almost the last thing they knew.
United flight 93 over Pennsylvania was different. Because the flight had a late departure it was still in the air when the other three aircraft had hit their targets. Passengers talking to friends and family on the ground with their cell phones (which was against regulations) and the legal seat-back Airphones became aware of how their flight was almost certain to end up. They didn’t know the target, but they knew that if they didn’t so something drastic, they would not survive. They made quick plans and attacked the cockpit. The terrorists tried to fight them off with rapid disorienting maneuvers of the plane, and then decided to crash the aircraft rather than allow it to be taken back from them. All died, but they saved an unknown number of people and perhaps a vital historical site in the nation’s capital, maybe even Congress and the Capitol Building itself. They died not because they resisted, but because they didn’t receive the needed information soon enough to prevent the capture of the aircraft.
I wrote on the afternoon of that day that we had just seen the end of the era of aircraft hijacking. From that day forward, everyone flying in an airliner, crew and passenger alike, would know that to surrender an aircraft would mean not just your own demise, but that of an unknowable number of other people. Passengers would simply not allow it because they would know that their only chance of survival would reside in fighting back before loss of control. On more than one occasion, my prediction has been borne out. For example, Richard Reid was subdued by other passengers when he tried to light explosives inside his shoe. From 9/11 onward, I personally never worried about my plane being hijacked. My concern shifted to bombs.
But that wasn’t the message the Bush administration took from that day’s events.
As generals are always fighting the last war, so are security officials always guarding against the last threat, and not anticipating the next one. The knowledgeable passengers on flight 93 had acted as a pack of wolves, but the White House and Norman Mineta’s FAA (and later the TSA) would treat them as a herd of sheep. They put in place supposed sheepdogs in the form of air marshals (who everyone on the plane knew were air marshals, because they were the only ones in business suits). At a great cost to personal convenience, and of billions of dollars in lost time and productivity, passengers were further disarmed, even though the hijackers had snuck their weapons aboard around security, not through it. Thus began the era of confiscation of nose-hair clippers and breast milk, and genital groping by uniformed officials. First-class passengers lost their silver cutlery and had to dine with plastic forks, if not sporks. And when the occasional troublemaker did get aboard, passengers had nothing to use but their fists and feet. As many have noted, it was all largely security theater, and while some may have enjoyed the show, Peggy Noonan, a regular air traveler, roundly panned it almost ten years ago.
The other lesson officials took was that the way to keep passengers safe would be to make it impossible to break into a cockpit (despite the fact that it was the difficulty of getting into the cockpit that may have prevented the heroes on Flight 93 from getting in before the terrorists could take down the plane). They armored the doors, and so we end up with passengers looking on in horror as an airline captain frantically pounds on one of them for several long terrifying minutes, looking for some blunt object with which to break it open in order to stop a madman calmly gliding what has become his weapon of mass murder into alpine terrain.
The underlying assumption under all of this of course is that government knows best. As I note in my recent book, the new human spaceflight companies are being regulated with a light hand for passenger safety, because we have no experience with such new and varied systems. It is like the airplane market a century ago, when it wasn’t clear how many wings an aircraft should have, or where the control surfaces should be.
But aviation is very mature now, with every regulation written figuratively in blood, from hard lessons learned over the past decades. While spacelines will have to be allowed to do so because of lack of knowledge and the wide range of prices and experiences offered, airlines are not allowed to compete on safety, particularly since the ValuJet crash in the Everglades in the late ’90s, when the FAA charter shifted from a combination of industry promotion and safety to focus solely on the latter. Airlines can compete on many things — price, schedule, route, variety of free peanuts, pulchritude of flight attendants — but the requirement is that no matter what airline you fly, you will have exactly the same expectation and probability of getting off the airplane safely at your planned destination.
But it’s not good business to kill your customers, and maybe some airlines will have better ideas about how to keep madmen out of cockpits than other airlines, while reducing the amount of inconvenience. Given all the other rampant corruption and incompetence from government over the past decade, it’s not crazy to think that perhaps individual airlines are best suited to make those decisions. Lufthansa (which owns Germanwings) just learned a very valuable lesson. Let them decide what it is, and how best to apply it, and let’s get rid of TSA and let the American (though not just “American”) airlines do so as well.
— Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer, serial entrepreneur, consultant on space commercialization, and the author of the book Safe Is Not an Option.