The Risks of Flying: A Safe Gamble

With September 11th recently behind us, many Americans are still remembering the unthinkable events of that day. We who were here in New York City at the time have personal recollections that will likely haunt us for years to come. Many of us knew someone lost among the wreckage of the twin towers; I did not. I was among the many who benefited from a last minute change in plans that resulted in the postponement of a meeting that was scheduled for 9:00AM in the south tower that day; sadly, those with whom I was to meet weren’t as fortunate as I. At the time, I had been working on a series of commentaries related to aviation security in general and the impact of increasing terrorist incidents impacting on commercial aviation in particular. Just weeks before the 9/11 attack, I had delivered an address at an aviation security seminar in San Francisco at which I discussed the increased threat of a terrorist attack on commercial aviation. My audience of aviation professionals was cordial but skeptical; imagining an event such as occurred on 9/11 was still below the radar of our aviation community.

In the days following the attack, I remembered an interview given a researcher for me in preparation for my seminar in San Francisco. A high-ranking port authority police officer expressed his belief that concerns about terrorist vulnerabilities at our New York airports were exaggerated. I was reminded of his words when I learned that he too was among the casualties that day. I thought too of the sudden and unexplained explosion off the coast of Long Island aboard TWA flight 800 shortly after take off from JFK Airport in July, 1996 under circumstances that gave rise to a presidential inquiry. A few months later the explosion was attributed to a spark igniting vapors in an empty fuel tank; a seventeen year-old who had been a classmate of my daughter was headed to Paris that day, instead he lost his life aboard the airliner over the Atlantic. I remembered also serving as TWA’s security consultant in 1986/87 and learning just how vulnerable we actually were to security related incidents both civil and criminal in commercial aviation in general. Both the aviation industry and the federal government were doing relatively little to correct commercial aviation deficiencies in the days preceding the Pan Am 103 event. We clearly had not learned much about aviation terrorism in the United States prior to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbee, Scotland en route to JFK Airport just days before Christmas. Warnings issued by the Department of State about a possible attack on that airliner were in general ignored by the wider aviation community; a mistake that took the lives of 259 passengers and crew, and 11 residents of Lockerbee, Scotland on the ground. That event prompted my writing a paper on international commercial aviation security on behalf of the Fordham Law School International Criminal Law Center. Some of my findings found their way into the final report of the commission.

My years in New York City government serving as the director of tourism for the City among other duties; my background as a security consultant to the Commodity Exchange in the world trade center, and my involvement with commercial aviation security for TWA, have all played a role in my decision to try to bring a greater sense of urgency to the subject of securing commercial aviation. Government’s first duty is to protect the people, and private sector security has long played the greatest role in day to day protection of the public in both the public and private sectors; commercial aviation has demonstrated that it is both vulnerable to horrific attack and remains a leading target of choice of world terrorism; and the 1993 attack on the world trade center in which five people were killed in buildings that were constructed without adequate evacuation routes and acceptable fire protection, all were in one way or another personal to me and left me searching for answers on how we might do better in the future.

Long before the Lockerbee disaster, aviation security was a deep concern of mine. I never forgot the image of an Army Air Corps B-25 fighter bomber plane wedged into the side of the Empire State Building, the nation’s tallest building at the time, before breaking apart on a foggy Saturday morning in July, 1945. Parts of the aircraft fell to the street below; fourteen people were killed in that accident in the heart of New York City.

A veteran WWII Army Air Corps pilot who found himself flying blind over a foggy Manhattan Island when he collided with a skyscraper he could not see piloted the plane. I never pass by the Empire State Building without thinking about that day and wondering how it might have been avoided. On December 16, 1960, A United Airlines airliner crashed into a TWA passenger plane over Staten Island, New York, taking the lives of 138 passengers and six people on the ground. Weather conditions and instrument failures on board the aircraft were believed to be the cause of that disaster which left streets in Park Slope, Brooklyn and an open field in Staten Island, which had been part of a military airfield during WWll, strewn with debris and bodies. At the time, I was stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas preparing to come home for Christmas leave when my mother in the Bronx pleaded with me not to fly because of the danger she feared over flying to New York City. Mom eventually calmed down and I took my scheduled 7-stop 11-hour flight from San Antonio to La Guardia enjoying every minute of my second airplane ride ever.

Since childhood, I have been fascinated with flying, both by the science of moving several tons through thin air and the precision of being able to travel to even the most remote parts of the planet and return home again with relative speed and a promise of safety unparalleled by any other mode of transport. Despite the litany of horror stories about flying I am sometimes called upon to recite, I know that flying is still the safest mode of transportation no matter how air safety is measured. Airplanes don’t all from the sky without a little help from man. Commercial aviation has opened up new worlds for peoples who might not have ever left their neighborhoods but for the speed and safety provided by commercial airliners in moving millions of people each day in the USA alone across the nation and around the world. I had never been in an airplane until I was twenty-two years old and Uncle Sam flew me from New Jersey to Texas by way of Oklahoma. Looking out of the window and seeing the cites and farms, rivers and mountains below, sites I had often imagined but never even hoped I would see, hooked me. I have crossed this country by air over one hundred times, flown around the world three times, and logged almost two million miles on Delta Airlines alone never ceasing to be impressed by the majesty of this country and the magic of commercial aviation that has made it possible.

On the day before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I was asked by the FOX radio network to visit with seven different radio stations in various parts of the country. I was asked again, as I had been in past years, to talk about whether flying was any safer today than it was on 9/11. I recited 11 security requirements that have been put in place since 2001 to better protect us. I could have easily cited a score more but my interviews are short- as befits my importance. I also stated four changes that have actually made a difference when it comes to protecting us from a potential act of hijacking: Chief among them is the hardening of flight deck doors. I believe that airliners will continue to suffer losses in flight since airliners only fall from the sky through crime or negligence, and the human factor remains unpredictable. We are not likely to see a future terrorist hijacking of a commercial airliner in the United States but unfortunately we still remain very vulnerable to on-board bombings and missile strikes. As long as terrorists and other criminals see airliners as targets for their acts; as long as some airline personnel perform their duties without necessary care and as long public officials and the flying public are willing to allow poor performance by those who put them in danger rather than protect us from it, there will be unnecessary risks in flying, But I believe that each year we get marginally better in protecting air travel, and my enthusiasm for flying remains strong- but check back with me next year.

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