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Daniel Solon: Weighing airport security against passenger patience

A passenger removes his shoes to be X-rayed at Logan International Airport in Boston
A passenger removes his shoes to be X-rayed at Logan International Airport in Boston  

Daniel Solon is a senior consultant for Avmark International in London, a consultancy firm that specializes in commercial aviation. He is an associate editor of Avmark Aviation Economist, a monthly magazine that covers commercial aviation issues. He joined the chat room from London.

CNN: In light of the Saturday incident when a man was said to have attempted to set off explosives in his shoes on board American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami, Fl, are we now looking at yet another layer of airport security?

SOLON: It seems to me if the initial reports of this episode that we have so far are correct, it was an individual, and one can maybe suspect that he might be deranged, or at least a few sandwiches short of a picnic. One of the problems this raises is that it could be the most dangerous sort of thing, because he seems to not be linked to any known terrorist organization. That kind of one-off terrorist, the mad bomber types, the Unabomber, in the case of the chap who was caught after years, or the person or people doing anthrax -- it could simply be someone who has a grudge, or someone who feels they've been a victim of ethnic discrimination.

Some passengers of American Airlines Flight 63 recall their ordeal after their trans-Atlantic flight turned into front-page news (December 24)

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CNN's John Zarrella has more on the man that officials say had explosives in his shoe and was trying to ignite on an international flight (December 23)

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At the risk of sounding callous or indifferent, I guess what this highlights is that we're getting toward a situation in which, if we're not careful, we can make the security precautions so onerous that the average person will avoid flying if possible. Looking at people putting their L.L. Beans or topsiders, or whatever, through an airport security machine, as we saw in the paper today, the average person doesn't want to pad around the airport in stockinged feet, especially if their stockings aren't in great shape. I think that this is highly reactive, but won't really add to security. It's worth bearing in mind that the lunatics that crashed the four planes in September had not violated any security codes. The weapons they used were allowed to be brought on board under the security at that time. In other words, the bad guys will always be looking to work their way around any set of security defenses that police or FBI will erect.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you see, in the near future, complete searches of every passenger?

SOLON: I think it's unlikely, because I think it would bring the entire air transportation system around the world to a halt. There just aren't enough security people and enough time to frisk everyone who gets on a plane. For example, to take one issue, we talk about deploying sniffer dogs to smell for explosives. These dogs are highly trained, and very good, but after a certain period on duty, they have to be replaced by the next group of sniffers. I don't know if that's because the olfactory nerves get adjusted, or if the animals just get bored, but you can't put them on 8-hour shifts.

CNN: How could someone wearing explosives in a pair of shoes get through airport security/metal detectors?

SOLON: It's interesting, the chap in this instance appears to have been wearing hi-top basketball sneakers. We don't know that he had any metal in the mechanism. It was really sort of stone age of technology terrorism. He was trying to set off a fuse, like the same kind of thing you'd use dynamiting a coal mine, and lighting it with a match. It was the smell of sulfur from the match that alerted a flight attendant. I don't know if any amount of metal detecting would have helped at all. Conversely, someone I traveled with last July and August, six weeks before the atrocities, was stopped several times in metal detectors, because he wears high cost shoes with a steel shank in the soles. He was always having to remove his shoes and have them passed through the machine.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: With the recent events regarding U.S. airliners, why do you believe that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and FBI focus their respective airline crash investigations primarily on non-terrorist possibilities first and not last, when focussing on terrorism first may lead to more clues early on and less chance of a terrorist trail going cold? Do you believe there is a cover-up of terrorist attacks to "save" the U.S. airline industry.

SOLON: No, I don't follow the logic of that at all, really. If the U.S. airline industry is going to go bankrupt, and that's certainly possible, it will be because insufficient numbers of people are flying or shipping cargo. There's really nothing the government can do to prevent that. They can reassure people, but it's an individual decision on the part of the passenger, whether he or she is willing to get on an airplane. The NTSB is charged with the investigation of accidents when they happen, and they recommend changes. But they're not a police agency, they're in the mechanical and electronic sense. The FBI is a police entity, of course. I don't agree that they've ignored the terrorist angle, but the main expertise of the FBI has historically been domestic, and most of the activity outside the U.S., say, looking for people like al Qaeda, has been principally in the field of the CIA or the military intelligence organizations.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: If there was no metal in the mechanism, then how will X-raying stop a similar explosive again?

SOLON: There is no guarantee that X-raying will stop a similar explosive again. The disconcerting truth is that the only way to get 100 percent security, and this would reduce air travel to a trickle, is to strip search every passenger, literally have them take off all their clothes, and in the extreme case, being subject to a body search. It won't take much of that to cause the airline business to grind to a halt.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How safe are airports around the world?

SOLON: I think it's fair to say that the developing or third world countries are the ones in which there is most likely to be lax security. The governments don't have the resources to address the problems, and may have more urgent problems, like making sure their populations get fed. Indeed, in some of those countries, obviously the focus of U.S. security or law enforcement agencies before September 11 was on disrupting the narcotics trade. Now that's reversed, and apparently, some of the larger dealers in prohibited substances are finding it easier to operate, because the Coast Guard and FBI and everyone is refocused on terrorism.

CNN: Do you have any closing comments for us today?

SOLON: We're deceiving ourselves if we think we'll ever attain 100 percent ironclad security in a situation that is constantly evolving, and ever more powerful plastic explosives and other firearms that won't show up in X-rays are being introduced. All we can do is provide the hardest possible targets, so the bad guys will try something else. But we should consider what those other things might be, and I'm not giving anyone any new ideas, but things like arsenic in the water supply, nerve gas in the subway, like what happened in Tokyo. There are many ways, if you're a sociopath, to inflict harm on people, especially in democracies, where people are not about to live in a police state.

CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Daniel Solon.

SOLON: Thanks for having me!

Daniel Solon joined the chat room via telephone from London and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, December 24, 2001 at 12 p.m. EDT.


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