Sunday, January 04, 2009

More security charades

The TSA is proposing a new set of security regulations for "large" aircraft, defined (rather arbitrarily) as anything over 12,500lbs. Among the proposed requirements are criminal background checks for any crew members, matching of passengers to no-fly lists, prohibiting weapons or dangerous materials, and audits - at the operator's expense.

At one level, this proposal may seem reasonable. After all, all of these are currently required of the airlines; airplanes in the 12,500lb category and up include small jets like Citations which are often used for charter operations, so this may seem like it is simply closing a loophole in current aviation security.

But there are two fatal problems with this point of view. The first is that commercial and private aviation are fundamentally different. The former is scheduled prior to being sold, and any individual consumer of the transportation has a reasonable expectation of being provided security from the strangers around them; in the private aviation world, this is not the case: one does not fly with strangers, and there is no up-front schedule.

The second problem with the "closing a loophole" point of view is that this "loophole" has no limit. Fundamentally, if the goal is to close off transportation options for terrorists, surely an 11,000lb aircraft would work just as well as 12,500lb aircraft but would avoid the additional layers of security. And if an 11,000lb aircraft works, then perhaps the regulations should cover anything larger than 6,000lbs. In which case I suspect that any terrorist with half a brain would find a way to get a 5,000lb aircraft to work. And so on until all private aviation in the country is subjected to TSA-level security every time they want to dust their crops or fly their friends to the next county for a hamburger. And at that point, a smart terrorist would follow Timothy McVeigh's example and pack a pile of explosives into a rented U-Haul (which, incidentally, can pack a lot more punch than a small jet). Which would argue in favor of similar restrictions on U-Hauls. Perhaps you see where I am going with this, and where I believe this sort of security creep ultimately leads.

Fundamentally, what is so dangerous about this proposal is that it is crossing a line from public and commercial transportation into private and charter transportation. This may seem like a semantic distinction, but it is precisely the boundary between where they have a legitimate role to play and where they have no business. If this proposal is put into effect, then it will be a precedent to allow the TSA to declare jurisdiction over any random thing they want, and it will only be their good intentions and discretion that limits abuse.

There are, of course, other reasons to strongly dislike this proposal. There is the fact that there is no problem which is being solved. General aviation simply has not been a security problem.

And even if we were to take on faith that there really is a problem here to solve, these sorts of security measures don't increase actual security, and in fact likely make security worse. My evidence for this is the flying restrictions that were placed around the Washington DC area immediately after Sept. 11. In the years since, a large number of pilots have violated this airspace, after which they are typically intercepted by military fighter jets, detained by the FBI for a period of time, lose their license and undergo considerable expense and hassle. Now I have little tolerance for pilots who should know the rules and follow them (despite the rules being hard to follow, but that's a separate rant), but consider that fully 100% of these airspace violations turned out to be inadvertant and by pilots who posed no security threat whatsoever. Think of the cost of the fighter jet intercepts and the opportunity cost of having the FBI grilling pilots who simply made a mistake, and you realize that we're spending a lot of time and energy on people who are not security threats. What the TSA is proposing only expands this ludicrous approach to security.

We Americans take it on principle that we should have freedom of movement in this country without having to justify anything. We accept that we may lose such freedom after appropriate process (e.g., losing a license after a proper DUI conviction), but we do not accept having the burden of proof that we are entitled to do something. As a means of transportation, general aviation differs from privately owned and operated automobiles or taxis/limousines in really only two respects: speed to destination, and cost. And Timothy McVeigh proved rather conclusively that they don't differ much from a security point of view either. So this regulation, if passed, provides

The TSA should rescind this power-grab and focus on things that actually provide security and simultaneously protect our freedom, rather than trampling it.

No comments: