The Brancatelli File



September 12, 2002 -- It has been a year and a day now and the shock, if not the pain and the grief, is gone. The talking heads have talked. The politicians have postured. The so-called experts have babbled and blustered. The airlines and the airports have lied and backtracked.

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 the cable-television gab-a-thons. 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 air transportation as it is true for faulty automobile parts, toxic food additives, dangerous drugs 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 them. 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. We didn't have baggage screening of any kind until after people began trying to bomb airplanes and airports. Our reactive nature also explains why we've imposed totally unrelated and mostly useless security measures in the days after September 11, 2001. No one ever hijacked planes to use as weapons before--or at least we didn't recognize the pattern from previous hijacks--so we reacted to September 11, 2001, 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--eventually. That is how we learn. It is painful. It is not efficient. As we have learned since September 11, 2001, it is slow, costly, onerous and beset with errors. 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 September 11, 2001, 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 that the costs outweigh the risk. Sometimes, we are wrong. Thousands died on September 11, 2001, because we guessed wrong about the risks. We paid with much more than money for our tragic error in judgment. And even now, a year and a day after air-travel Armageddon, we have weak-kneed politicians, venal airline executives and obstructionist airport managers who carp about finding the cost of freedom.

Anyone who tells you we can have a totally safe and secure air-transport system is either a liar or a fool. Even the full force of our national will and our entire national treasure cannot guarantee that 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 an airline guaranteed never to crash and never to be at risk of terrorism, then I suggest you book Eastern or PeoplExpress or Vanguard. Only airlines that never fly are guaranteed safe.

Airline bosses and petulant frequent flyers are fond of saying that we shouldn't be frisking little old ladies and rooting through diaper bags. My 80-year-old grandma isn't a security risk, they say flippantly. A mom toting three kids isn't a terrorist, they say with a smirk. Well, they are wrong. If terrorists come at the airline system again, it won't be through the metaphoric front door. They will be dressed like your sainted grandmother. They will use someone who looks like a mom with two toddlers and toy bags in tow. The next time will be different. They'll be dressed like Mrs. Doubtfire. Or an airline crew. Or frequent flyers with airport-club memberships and elite status.

For years airlines ran security and farmed it out to private firms that hired criminals and fry cooks and illegal aliens and then paid them subsistence wages. And, last year, when the airline bosses demanded that we relieve them of the responsibility of providing security for their own equipment and their own passengers, we honored their wishes. Now they are ducking their responsibility to pay their share of the cost. They are weaseling on their commitment to fortify cockpit doors and whining about the cost of carrying air marshals on their flights.

The men who run the nation's airports are no better. They have been shirking their responsibility to improve ground security for more than a decade. They have put profits and food courts before safety. For more than a decade, they have delayed baggage security on the specious theory that better screening machines and cheaper procedures were always just a few years away. The nation first set a deadline for better airport security after Pan Am 103 was blown from the skies in 1988. They have ignored every deadline since then and seem intent on subverting the December 31 baggage-screening deadline, too.

If air-travel security is ever to improve, we're going to have to realize that airline and airport bosses are part of the problem, not part of the solution. We are supposed to be at war with terrorism, but the airline and airport bosses only want to fight if it is cheap or convenient. They wear flags in their lapels and patriotism on their sleeves, but they are slackers and appeasers.

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. But El Al is also a flying police state. It is an anomaly of history and it exists only because Israel needs it to survive as a symbol and a lifeline. It is not a practical model for a U.S. airline system. The men who run El Al--and the on-the-make former El Al executives who sell their alleged expertise--should not be listened to when it comes to building a safe air-transport system for a nation of 280 million people and 600 million flyers.

This column originally appeared at

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