The Brancatelli File



January 15, 2004 -- This has been on my mind a lot since September 11th, but it took the events at Washington/Dulles airport this week to convince me to put it out in the public domain.

What if everything we're trying to do with airline security is wrong? I don't mean any particular procedure or an isolated policy. I mean the basic concept, the entire approach to security.

What if trying to keep the skies safe by proactively pre-screening passengers before they board a flight is just wrong? Wrong because it takes too long, annoys too many and misses too much. Wrong because it costs too much and catches too little. Wrong because, in point of absolute fact, it just doesn't work.

And what if there is a better way, a tried-and-true way that law-enforcement officials around the planet use successfully every day of the week.

Before we get to what I've been thinking about, we need to make sure we are on the same page with what happened on Tuesday night at Dulles and on Wednesday morning at London's Heathrow airport, when the security lapse hit the metaphoric fan. It really is important that we know--and understand--exactly what happened because it shows all the flaws of and misconceptions about how we do airline security now.

If the wire-service reports have it right, a 45-year-old Sudanese man arrived at Dulles Airport on Tuesday evening. We have to assume he approached the security checkpoint and did what we all do: Took off his coat, took off his shoes and put his carry-on bag on the belt for the X-ray machine. We have to assume he passed through the magnetometer. In fact, there is no reason to assume he didn't clear all the security regimens that have been so onerous at U.S. airports in general since 9/11 and at Dulles in particular after a slew of Dulles-bound flights from London were delayed or cancelled for security reasons during the year-end holidays.

The Sudanese man boarded Virgin Atlantic Flight 22 and it took off around 7:15 p.m. on Tuesday evening. He flew uneventfully and arrived at Heathrow airport at around 7:15 a.m. local time. The Sudanese man then approached a security station at Heathrow because he was ticketed to board an Emirates flight to Dubai.

At about 7:40 a.m., however, he was detained at the security checkpoint and arrested by Scotland Yard. The reason? He was carrying five bullets. "A quantity of suspected ammunition was found in his possession," a statement from the Yard explained. "The items are being forensically examined."

What did we learn from this bizarre incident?

Well, obviously, the first thing we learned is that all of our security checkpoints and searches are all for naught. Over and over again--and again on Tuesday evening at Dulles--we have learned that our proactive pre-screening measures are demonstrably ineffective.

We learned something else: This Sudanese passenger carried dangerous contraband through security, boarded the plane and flew it across the Atlantic Ocean without endangering or harming his fellow passengers. As far as we can tell, he just happened to cross the pond with a pocket full of ammunition. He had no interest in doing anything but getting from Washington to London so he could catch a flight to Dubai. And, at this time, there's no fact or extrapolation of fact to suggest that he meant any harm to the Emirates flight.

And I think we learned one other thing: It may be time to try something new, something radical. It may be time to assume that passengers are innocent until they are seen committing an actual crime. Forget about what they are carrying and focus instead on making sure no one is about to harm their fellow travelers.

In fact, it's time that we consider policing airplanes like we police city streets. Get rid of all the X-ray machines, the magnetometers, the security checkpoints, the security screeners and all the other stuff. Put a couple of armed, uniformed marshals on every flight and let them police a plane like they police a city street.

A radical idea? Yeah, probably. Out there? Absolutely. But impractical? Maybe not.

Let me ask you a question: When you get up in the morning and leave your home or your hotel, do you have to pass through a magnetometer to get onto the street? Do you have to run your briefcase through an X-ray machine to go onto the sidewalk? Before you jump into your car, do you have to pack your Swiss Army Knife or your cuticle scissors into a piece of luggage so you don't have it with you as you cruise to the shopping mall or the supermarket?

Of course not. In a free society, we assume you are an adult and need not be searched before you are allowed to go out in public. We let you carry Swiss Army knives, scissors and even the odd firearm. And we have uniformed, armed cops on patrol to keep order in case you misbehave.

So why don't we try it for planes? As our Sudanese friend proved on Tuesday night, even the stringent security measures at an airport we are supposedly watching extra carefully will not screen out everything. Without working very hard, you can get a clutch of bullets or a knife or god knows what else on a plane. And what our Sudanese friend also proved is that just because you're carrying bullets or a Swiss Army Knife or really pointy scissors doesn't mean you're about to try to hijack a plane.

So why not mothball all the checkpoints and the X-ray machines and the phalanx of security screeners peering into security monitors? Why not put two armed, uniformed marshals on every flight and try and get back to something like the old normal. Have the air cops police the aisles during every flight just like they walk a beat on the ground.

This tin-stars-in-the-sky approach would undoubtedly be cheaper than what we're doing now. It would rightfully assume that 99 and 44/100 percent of passengers mean no harm, even if they are carrying a few bullets or a knife or, heaven forfend, a pointed stick. It would guarantee that we wouldn't have to strip down in public just to board a plane.

And, perhaps more to the point, it would guarantee that every plane would have armed, competent, uniformed peace officers keeping us safe in the skies. It would guarantee that every flight would be protected by law-enforcement professionals if some lunatic does try to hijack a plane--or just gets into a fight over the armrest with the passenger in the middle seat.

With the best of intentions, we've been trying to proactively pre-screen airline passengers for more than a generation. It really hasn't worked all that well. Even after the horrifying events of 9/11, people can still waltz onto a plane with a pocketful of bullets.

Maybe it's time to switch to the tin-stars-in-the-sky approach. Put uniformed cops on every plane, assume every aircraft aisle is Main Street USA and see what happens.

This column originally appeared at

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