The new TSA screening procedures for flyers have struck a raw nerve. TSA behavior, "security theater", civil liberties, the health effects of x-ray based body scanners. These are all worthy topics of discussion. And are they ever getting discussion-ed. Will boycotts of the new procedures materialize at the height of holiday travel? Have Americans finally reached the limit of what they will give up for security? Will an actual junk-stuffed-bomb get detected by the new methods?
I don't know. But I don't think we're thinking about the risks of air travel clearly.
All the focus on screening passengers obscures the facts that the aircraft and the personnel that operate them are a much richer target for terrorists and security experts.
Last weekend an exception to the new security measures was granted for commercial pilots. Pilots (and maybe soon flight attendants) will be able to skip the x-ray machines and junk-touching pat-downs. To make clear my point about rational thinking on security, let's consider a specific question.
Who should we worry more about when it comes to suicidally crashing airplanes? Pilots or passengers?
Below is a simple analysis of intentionally-caused airliner crashes originating from the US over the last two decades.
Consider suicidal hijackers and passengers first.
In the last 20 years, hijackers who were passengers on board US flights have killed about 3000 people. (Outside of Sept 11, I could find no other US-originating flights that passengers intentionally crashed)
In 2008 there were about 800,000,000 US passengers. This number has grown significantly over the last two decades. So, let's say the total number of passengers over the last 20 years has been ~ 20 x 500,000,000 = 10 billion.
That gives us rough odds that a passenger will successfully be involved in crashing a plane:
~ 19 hijackers/10billion ~ 1 in 500,000,000.
Airport screening is designed to catch these people.
What about pilots?
In 2008, there were about 125,000 active commercial pilots. So, over the last 20 years, in round numbers we can say that there were something like 200,000 commercial pilots operating in the US, with some retiring, quitting or dying.
How many planes have commercial pilots on US flights intentionally caused in the last 20 years? It seems clear that there was at least one such pilot and it caused all 200+ people on board to die. William Langeweische wrote a great article about it in the Atlantic.
So the odds over the last 20 years that a specific pilot would intentially and suicidally crash a commerical plane are at least 1 in 200,000.
Or: The annual rate of successful suicidal pilot crashings is a thousand times greater than the rate of successful suicidal passenger crashings.
Looked at another way, the number of airline deaths caused by suicidal passengers over the last 20 years is 3000, with the average number of deaths caused per passenger at 3000/500,000,000 ~ 6/1,000,000 or 6 in a million. The number of deaths caused by suicidal pilots over the last 20 years is about 200, with the average # of deaths caused per pilot at 200/200,000 ~ or 1 in a thousand. Death caused per pilot/deaths caused per passenger ~ (1 in a 1000)/(6 in a million) which is ~ 167.
Or, pilots are 167 times more likely to kill you by intentionally crashing your plane than your fellow passenger is.
Potential objections to this analysis:
- Egypt Air 990 wasn't conclusively caused by a suicidal pilot. Possibly. Seems pretty certain if you read the Langewiesche article. However, the point remains that a single pilot suicidal crash, should it occur, would instantly make my argument, because the "effectiveness" of a single pilot-induced crash is so high.
- Other crashes, ruled as accidental, may have actually been caused by highjackings. Possibly. But even if you added up ALL the deaths and crashes ruled as accidents over the last 20 years, it wouldn't change the death toll, or the number of crashes, by a large enough factor to change the "effectiveness" of pilot suicidal crashes over passenger suicidal crashes.
- I treated pilots as countable individuals, but passengers were counted many times (that's how you get an average of 500,000,000 passengers/year in a country with only 350,000,000 people). This is a serious potential flaw in my analysis. But that's a fair way to treat the numbers today, because that's how the airline security industry treats pilots today. Passengers are "fresh" to be screened each time they come to the airport, while aircraft crew members are not. This is really my point actually. If we treated pilots more like passengers, they'd get screened much more intensively than they do now.
So who should we be screening? History and a simple analysis suggests pilots should be scrutinized much more closely than passengers. But, as with many acts in air travel security theater, rationality is not part of the performance.
Kinda junky, don't you think?