article

11.23.10

Pilots' Secret Security Doubts

While travelers speak out about TSA pat-downs and "nude-o-scope" body scanners, one group is silent—except on online forums. Thomas E. Weber trolls the boards for pilots' 10 biggest worries, from airport workers to profiling.

With millions of Americans taking to the skies ahead of Thanksgiving and facing strict new Transportation Security Administration pat-downs and body scanners, travelers are hearing horror stories daily. Some passengers are rising up to share tales of pat-downs run amok, while government officials are attempting to defend “nude-o-scope” body scanners and intimate hand searches.

Yet one group remains, for the most part, unheard: the rank-and-file pilots who pass through the checkpoints each day on the way to the “office,” and who rely, along with passengers, on that security to keep them safe. When pilots do talk, the comments tend to be circumspect—with the notable exception of Michael Roberts, the ExpressJet pilot who refused to go through a full-body scanner in Memphis.

There is, however, a place to get an unfiltered view from the cockpit. That’s at the online discussion boards where pilots hang out and air their views, safely anonymous behind electronic nicknames. At sites like AirlinePilotForums.com and PPRUNE.org, heated discussions about the screenings rage on.

Of course, the anonymity that makes the discussions so freewheeling also means that eavesdroppers can’t always tell the difference between active-duty pilots and retirees or just wannabe aviation buffs. And the views of any given pilot may differ hugely from those posted by chat-board addicts. But after spending time following the discussions, it’s hard not to notice the recurring themes. So here, for a different kind of insight into the Transportation Security Administration, are 10 things pilots won’t tell passengers—but are talking about with other aviators.

1. NOT EVERYONE THINKS GIVING PILOTS A PASS THROUGH SECURITY MAKES SENSE.

When the uproar about body scanners and pat-downs began bubbling up, the pilots’ union for American Airlines began pushing for pilots to be exempt—something the TSA eventually granted. The logic promoted by the union was simple: Nothing pilots might bring through security could rival the aircraft they control for sheer lethality. That’s a widely held view among pilots, but a minority worries about a different scenario. Suppose a pilot were blackmailed—by a threat against family, say—to carry something through security and hand it off to a hypothetical bad guy once past the checkpoint? In this view, the exemption for pilots could leave air travel susceptible to so-called proxy bomb tactics, which were used at one point by the Irish Republican Army.

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2. PILOTS ARE IN FAVOR OF PROFILING.

One frequent complaint in online discussions is that applying security measures indiscriminately means resources are being wasted. In other words, while TSA workers are patting down the crying child in the YouTube video, the real bad guy might be cruising through. In this view, political correctness and a reluctance to single out subsets of travelers are weakening the system. Profiling need not be racial, some pilots point out, but could instead be behavioral—singling out passengers for extra screening based on suspicious answers to interview questions.

3. THEY THINK THE AVERAGE TSA WORKER IS AN IDIOT.

If there is one theme that emerges clearly time and again in pilots’ online discussions, it’s disdain for the TSA checkpoint worker. They are “the government equivalent of being a Wendy's burger flipper,” according to one typical comment from AirlinePilotForums.com. “Barney Fife is more suited for their job,” writes another. Anecdotes frequently portray TSA workers as mindlessly hewing to procedures at the expense of exercising the judgment needed to sniff out the evildoers.

4. SCANNERS AND PAT-DOWNS PRESENT AN OBVIOUS SECURITY GAP.

If the goal of body scanners and pat-downs is to detect explosives secreted somewhere on the body, then the solution from the terrorists' point of view is obvious and long known to drug mules, say some pilots. Instead of traveling on the body, the bomb will need to go inside the body. And since “enhanced” security hasn’t yet moved to the point of routine cavity searches, the scanners and pat-downs don’t provide foolproof protection even as they prompt all kinds of drama. (Writing for The Daily Beast recently, former cop Bill Richardson sized up the pat-downs with a similar analysis.)

5. AVIATION SECURITY IS ALWAYS A STEP BEHIND.

Another frequent complaint among pilots on the boards is how TSA measures appear reactive rather than proactive. A foiled plot using explosives hidden in printer cartridges is followed by a ban on printer cartridges, and so on. Where is the evidence, some pilots wonder, that the TSA is looking at the next threat instead of the last one? “The whole idea of TSA is to lock the barn door after the horse has been stolen. All they do is protect us from a plot that has already failed,” complains one commentator.

6. THEY’RE WORRIED ALL THIS IS BAD FOR BUSINESS.

If pilots are this exasperated, what must the customers feel like? In this view, the TSA’s consistent bumbling and public-relations lapses are starting to threaten the livelihood of the pilots. “For every passenger that vocally opposes this, there is also at least one that will likely stay silent and stay home. I imagine this will likely start affecting traffic by the first of the year, if not before,” wrote one participant on AirlinePilotForums.com.

7. THE TSA IS FORGETTING AIRPORT WORKERS.

Some argue that each time the TSA ratchets up the measures applied to passengers, it fails to crack down similarly on the myriad airport workers with access to the facilities and planes beyond the checkpoint. A few airport workers chime into these discussions with descriptions of relatively lax procedures that might allow terrorists to circumvent the TSA choke points.

8. ROLLING OUT NEW SECURITY MEASURES PIECEMEAL IS POINTLESS.

If the need for close-body searches is so vital—prompting the requirement for pat-downs for anyone who doesn’t want to go through a body scanner—then why isn’t the TSA patting down everyone at the airports that haven’t yet introduced the scanners? TSA officials themselves have said one reason they avoid giving details about new measures is to keep from providing intelligence to would-be terrorists. But some wonder if it’s really that hard for bad guys to figure out that they should go to an airport without the scanners.

9. THEY AREN’T CONVINCED THE NEW SCANNERS ARE SAFE.

Pilots are particularly attuned to the health dangers of radiation, since airliner crews are exposed to more of it than the average person. (Up at 35,000 feet, there’s much less of the Earth’s atmosphere to shield humans from cosmic radiation.) So amid a debate over just how much of a health threat is posed by the backscatter X-ray devices used to conduct full-body scans in some airports, more than a few crew members aren’t reassured by government assertions that there’s no danger. “I am already exposed to enough radiation while spending 18 hours a day on a plane,” wrote one poster, explaining why he opted out of the body scan.

10. THE MEDIA DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT AVIATION NEEDS.

It’s practically a staple of the aviation message boards: pointing out how members of the media aren’t sufficiently schooled on matters of flying and criticizing the coverage that results. (Surely this report won’t escape the wrath of some commenters, either.) Each time a story is published with a technical error, the heckling begins anew. In the view of some pilots, journalists just don’t get it—and more broadly, no one who isn’t a pro can truly understand what’s needed in aviation now.

Thomas E. Weber covers technology for The Daily Beast. He is a former bureau chief and columnist at The Wall Street Journal and was editor of the award-winning SmartMoney.com. Follow him on Twitter.