City of Brass

City of Brass


airline “security” after Detroit flight 253

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I didn’t really hear the news about the Nigerian muslim who tried to blow up Detroit-bound Northwestern flight 253 until I arrived at the airport and read about it in discarded newspapers while waiting for 5 hours in transit in Chennai. The would-be bomber Abdulmuttalab is clearly another Richard Reid shoebomber type, with delusions of grandeur and ineptitude to match.

My personal interest in the story is heavily influenced by the fact that I was in transit when I learned about it, as its direct impact upon me was felt by the usual response of our airline security bureaucracy to incidents of this sort: treat passengers even further like a herd, instead of a pack. The concept of pack vs herd is a simple one: a pack hunts together, acts as one unit, and defends its whole against outside threats. A herd, in contrast, is a mass of particles that simply flow according to outside forces, loosely cohesive but utterly mindless. Think of wolves and cows as the iconic example.

The airline industry has long treated us like a herd, even though we, the passengers, are the sole reason for its existence. Shut up, sit down, walk here, walk there, wait here. Much of this is necessary due to simple need of efficiency but there’s a mentality that has taken hold now, especially in the area of security, which rationalizes the passenger as a kind of enemy, or at least a necessary yet annoying burden which interferes with the noble ideal of moving planes around.

The story of Flight 253 is of a pack – the passengers themselves subdued the idiot, as they have done many times before (including on 9-11 itself). Yet the answer? new rules stating that on the final hour of the flight before landing, passengers may not stand up from their seats, use the restroom, or even take any items out of their personal carry ons – including those under the seat, not just those in the overhead. This is utterly insane. The logic of it is ludicrous – would these rules actually stop a committed saboteur? Why just the final hour of the flight? Why would there be anything in your carryons – which have passed through security already – be a sudden threat? And what if there was a real threat in that last hour – would a civic minded citizen hesitate to get up and act to save his fellow passengers if he saw something suspicious from a few aisles away? Without the ability (or rather, a severe disincentive) to even stand up and stroll over to see whats going on, the first line of defense is now effectively castrated.

Like almost everything else the security people come up with, these aren’t rules for actual safety but solely to provide the appearance thereof. Having flown out of India I can personally vouch for the direction that our domestic industry is headed – towards a state where the passenger has no rights and ultimately is treated like cargo. A security policy that actively involves the passengers as an integral element to safety is one that would be robust enough to stop any attack, whereas these silly rules serve only to imperil us all.

Related – Talk Islam’s excellent coverage of our hapless halfwit Abdulmuttalab‘s history and path to radicalization.



  • thabet

    He’s not a “British Muslim”. He is a Nigerian citizen who was studying in the UK.

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  • The Barking Unicorn, Denver, CO

    I have not flown on a commercial airliner since November, 2001. I will remove my shoes and belt only for medical, hygienic, or sexual purposes.
    Brilliant ideas that have been seriously debated by transportation security authorities:
    - magnetic bracelets that deliver electric shocks by remote control
    - put all passengers into comas for flight’s duration
    - strip them naked and issue paper robes
    Fortunately, the US issues a passport card in lieu of the book. It costs $70 less and is good for travel by land and sea, but not air. I can do without the air travel, thank you!

  • Bdq

    To begin, of course I understand the sentiment that airlines should treat their passengers with respect as human beings. And of course, in an ideal world we would be able to mingle throughout a flight, moving here and there, finally landing safely with a group of new friends and aquaintances. We do not live in such a world.
    I think your analogy of passengers as a pack instead of a herd breaks down upon deeper analysis. In general, a collection of human beings placed randomly together (as in an airport or airplane) will act as a herd. I’ve certainly never felt any identity with those with whom I’ve flown, and that “identifying with” is needed for a pack to exist. However, if I had ever been on a flight with someone on board trying to bomb it, I (and everyone else save the bomber) would instantly identify with the group, and a pack would form. The reason? Self-preservation.
    While checking in to a flight I’ve no reason or need to “hunt together, act as one unit, and defend against outside threats” with those around me. But, as soon as that over-arching threat appears (i.e. the bomber), I *do* have a reason (as does everyone else) and the transformation from herd to pack occurs. And I am quite sure that the vast majority of people would not hesitate to stand up and walk over to another part of the plane if they felt their lives were potentially at stake.
    Now, to the idea that passengers are treated as almost enemies: I think the more accurate statement is that passengers are now treated more and more as *potential* enemies. It’s not fun or pleasant, but what alternative is there? Just rely on the pack to sniff out the “lone wolf” while 25,000 feet above the ground and neutralize the threat then? Far better to comb carefully through the herd before loading the plane, and hopefully circumvent the need for a pack to ever form.

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