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Obsession with 9/11 Leaves Commercial Carriers Vulnerable, Says Pilot

08/28/2009 -The obsession with preventing another improbable 9/11-style attack has left the nation's commercial aviation more vulnerable to terrorism,argues columnist and pilot, Patrick Smith.

Despite the improbability that hijackers could once again commandeer a commercial flight with blades like they did on 9/11, Smith argues the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) continues to screen for such contraband when it should concentrate on explosives, which a far likelier method to kill airline travelers. He bristles at the absurdity ofof having his butter knife confiscated by TSA screeners when historical precedent shows the real danger to commercial aviation is explosives. (To prove his point, Smith provides a list of air crimes from the 70s to the 90shere.)

The novelty of the Sept. 11 attacks notwithstanding, the primary threat to commercial planes is, was and shall remain the smuggling aboard of explosives, which is what happened on Pan Am 103. The bomb came onboard in a suitcase. The hijack paradigm changed forever on 9/11, rendering the inflight takeover concept unworkable for a terrorist.

In any case, and in spite of the Transportation Security Administration's best efforts, there are limitless ways to sneak knives and other dangerous materials past guards; not to mention, a deadly weapon can be fashioned from just about anything, including plenty of materials found on airplanes. (I'll point out that even maximum-security prisons are unable to eliminate knives and contraband.) Yet whether by virtue of incompetence or willful ignorance, TSA continues to waste untold time and untold millions of dollars on a tedious, zero-tolerance fixation with blades and sharps. This does nothing to make us safer, and in fact draws security resources away from worthy pursuits.

Yes, TSA scans most bags for explosives. Mandates were put in place after 9/11 that have greatly increased the percentage of bags that are run through high-tech detectors, with a goal of screening all of them. But eight years later, screening is still not fully comprehensive. It does not yet include 100 percent of luggage and cargo, and procedures remain inadequate at many overseas airports from which thousands of U.S.-registered jetliners depart each week.

Neither is there widespread screening for explosive materials that somebody can carry on his or her person. Good luck getting a hobby knife through a concourse checkpoint, while a pocket full of Semtex is unlikely to be noticed.

Smith goes on to argue that both airlines and passengers should demand better, more refined security policies from the TSA. Airlines, however, he says, fear that if they do resist TSA policies, they will be accused of going soft on security, even when that particular security procedure is pointless.

♦ Picture by redjar/Flickr