The Brancatelli File



October 4, 2001 -- It has been more than three weeks and the shock, if not the pain and the fear, is gone. The talking heads have talked. The politicians have postured. The so-called experts have babbled and blustered. Now, we need to cut through the drivel and talk some sense about airline security.

What you will read is the truth, but it is not pretty. It is not ready for prime time--or even cable. It also has the distinct disadvantage of being uncomfortable and disagreeable. But it is the truth and it needs to be said because, if nothing else, we need to talk truth amongst ourselves.

In a free society, safety and security is essentially reactive. Thatís as true for airplanes and airlines as it is true for faulty auto-mobile parts, toxic food additives and toys with parts that children can swallow. The bad guys or the stupid people do troubling things, then we react and rush to fix it. We donít run to meet trouble because, in a free society, we think the best of people, not the worst. As recently as 40 years ago, we didnít even have security screening at airports. That only began after men with guns started hijacking planes to Cuba. Baggage matching and baggage X-rays were only imposed after people tried to bomb airplanes and airports. Our reactive nature also explains why we imposed totally unrelated and mostly useless security measures in the days after September 11. No one ever hijacked planes to use as weapons before, so we reacted with what we had: the playbook from the last time. Now that we know there are people in the world who will hijack planes, fly them into buildings and short the market to make a profit, weíll react. That is how we learn. It is painful. It is not efficient. But that is how we learn.

Understand this: Money is an object. In everything we do, including the safety and security of the air-transportation system, we balance risk and reward. We could have had safer planes. We could have had a more secure system. But, at least until now, we decided it wasnít worth the cost. As a society, we constantly assess risk and then determine what it costs to avoid that risk. Sometimes, we decide the costs outweigh the risk. Sometimes, we are wrong. Thousands died on September 11 because we guessed wrong about the risks. But you know in your hearts that no one in America would have paid a penny on September 10 to avoid the risk of what happened on September 11. On September 10, that was a sound and reasonable risk-reward assessment. We paid with much more than money for our tragic error in judgment.

Anyone who gets on television and tells you we can have a totally safe and secure airline system is either a liar or a fool. Even the full force of our national will and our entire national treasure cannot guarantee no plane will ever crash again and no terrorist will ever strike again. Machines break. People make mistakes. One single warped human being can bring down a plane or a building. Of course we must do a better job of attempting to proactively stop attacks and assess risk. But nothing is foolproof. If youíre looking for a airline guaranteed never to crash and never to be at risk of terrorism, then I suggest you book Eastern or PeoplExpress or Midway. Only airlines that never fly are guaranteed safe.

The nationís major airlines are largely run by men who have proven themselves unwilling or unable to operate a system that is fairly priced, financially sound, reasonably punctual and minimally dignified. So why do we think they can run something as crucial as security? The shambles that is airport security is largely the result of the airlinesí do-it-on-the-cheap mentality: Screeners are paid little better than fry cooks, they are poorly trained, they hate their jobs, and their efficiency rate has been plummeting for years. I am not sure that federalizing security is the best approach, but I do know that the airlines have to go.

No man has greater respect for El Al than I do. The carrier is the physical embodiment of the determination of the Jewish people to have and to keep a homeland. It is noble. But it is miserable airline, a virtual flying police state. Yes, it is safe and nearly impregnable. But it exists only because Israel needs it to survive as a symbol and a lifeline. It costs the Israeli people a fortune to maintain and no business traveler who has another choice flies El Al. It is not a practical model for a U.S. airline system.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.