Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Security Silliness

The least favorite part of my workday is at the very beginning, when I am required to subject myself to security screening by the Transportation Security Administration. The checkpoints are usually crowded, power-tripping TSA agents are often barking orders, I feel like a jerk cutting in front of long-suffering passengers, and then there's the process of trying to disassemble and reassemble my luggage ensemble in a timely matter without battering surrounding fellow-sufferers. There are usually no less than five items to send through the X-ray machine: flight kit, overnight bag, lunch bag, bin with laptop computer, bin with hat and overcoat. It's small comfort that they don't make flight crew remove their shoes.

All this inconvenience would be an acceptable part of my job if I felt that it serves some purpose. It does not. It's completely absurd to screen the pilots who will, in less than an hour's time, be seated at the controls of a fuel laden aircraft in flight, with crash axe within easy reach! This was recognized before 9/11 and we were allowed to bypass security. That changed in the wake of 9/11, but not due to any credible threat of terrorist acts by pilots or pilot impostors. Rather, it was believed that seeing flight crews forced to go through security would make the public more accepting of new procedures. This is exactly the sort of useless display that has become the TSA's primary stock in trade, what security expert Bruce Schneier refers to as "security theater."

Recent changes in TSA equipment and procedures have elevated flight crew screening from a mere inconvenience and exercise in stupidity to an outright violation of rights and decency. The TSA recently installed hundred of whole body imaging scanners, both of the Millimeter-Wave (Terahertz) and Backscatter X-ray varieties, in order to better detect non-metallic weapons and explosives. These machines penetrate clothing to create a nude image of the subject. Ostensibly this image is to be viewed in private by a screener of the same sex, and TSA claimed that images cannot be saved; both of these assurances have been shown by events to be false. TSA also asserts that the devices are perfectly safe and cannot cause health problems. Expert opinion is not nearly so settled, particularly regarding backscatter technology, and in any case there have been no independent studies to verify that the TSA's health claims are any more authentic than their privacy claims.

Anticipating these objections, the TSA danced around Fourth Amendment issues by allowing pilots and other travelers to "opt out" of whole-body imaging and subject themselves to secondary screening instead. Simultaneously, the TSA changed their secondary screening procedures to make them infinitely more humiliating and invasive, and thus discourage further opt-outs. I have witnessed this process first-hand at several airports. First, the TSA agent loudly exclaims "Opt out! Opt out!"; this is sometimes parroted by other TSA agents, and has the effect of drawing the attention of other passengers. Then, in full view of those passengers (unless the subject specifically requests a private screening), a TSA agent aggressively pats down the subject's body, including breasts and genitals. The TSA manual states that the breasts and genitals are to be searched using the back of the hand, but I have twice observed TSA agents breaking that rule (at LaGuardia, I even observed an agent take both of a woman's breasts in the palm of her hands and squeeze hard twice - "honk, honk!"). This would be sexual assault if anyone other than the government were doing it. Worse yet, they can and do subject children to the search (again at LGA, I observed a TSA agent groping a crying 3 or 4 year old girl).

It is one thing to pass through a magnetometer and have my belongings X-rayed as a requirement of my job. It is another thing entirely to be forced to choose between a virtual strip-search that adds to the radiation I already get on the job (higher than a nuclear plant worker!) and a government-sponsored molestation. Those are absolutely unacceptable conditions of employment, and it's high time that pilots fight back. Toward that end, both the Allied Pilots Association (American Airlines' union) and the US Airline Pilots Association (USAirways) recently issued recommendations for their pilots to opt out of whole-body imaging, request a private room for secondary screening, require the presence of a supervisor or law enforcement officer during the pat-down, report inappropriate TSA behavior, and call in sick if the process leaves them too shaken to fly safely. That is excellent advice which has the potential to quickly overburden TSA checkpoints. It has already had the effect of reviving a long-stalled program to verify flight crew employment and allow them to bypass security. Sometime soon, I may not have to subject myself to the TSA's goons to go to work.

But what about when I travel out of uniform? What of my wife and parents when they nonrev? What of all our passengers, our customers, our bread and butter? Many of them are required to fly as a condition of their livelihood. Why should they be required to give up their Fourth Amendment rights by dint of setting foot on an airplane? Why have airports become rights-free zones? Because aviation has been targeted by terrorists? Trains and subways have been extensively targeted worldwide, should search and seizure without probable cause be allowed on them as well? New York City itself has been repeatedly targeted by terrorists more than any other city in America; should the Bill of Rights no longer apply on the island of Manhattan?

The standard worn-out answer is, "If you don't like it, you don't have to fly." That's a horrible excuse that can be expanded to cover nearly every trammeling of God-given rights. You don't have to travel by train or subway, or visit or live in New York City, do you? You don't have to use the sidewalk by your house, do you? In that case, should using these purely optional pieces of public property be probable cause for a police officer to detain and strip search you? I'm not saying we shouldn't have security at airports, nor that every right should apply (the 2nd ammd clearly does not, for example). The courts have clearly held that security checks at airports, as previously conducted, are constitutional administrative searches. That said, unelected officials have made a very large leap from minimally invasive passive technologies such as magnetometers and explosive trace sniffers to highly invasive technologies and techniques without a sniff of public debate on the constitutional implications and the poor precedents that might be set. That worries me.

Not everyone is so worried about rights. Some are a lot more worried about terrorism. Some are willing to give up almost any right "so long as it makes us safer from terrorists." It's not a mindset I agree with, but even by this standard there is not much reason to support the new body scanners. Many security experts doubt whether they would've detected the components that the "underwear bomber" of NW253 sewed into his undergarments. They cannot see under the skin, nor in body cavities. Remember that both surgically implanted bombs and bombs inserted into body cavities have already been used in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and presumably any operation sophisticated enough to produce a viable high-explosive device would use one of these methods of gaming the body scanners. In a German test of one of the machines, a subject was able to hide all the components needed to assemble a bomb on his body (not in cavities) and pass through the scanner undetected. The Israelis don't use them for airport security and have no plans to; the head of security at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport called them "expensive and useless." For detecting explosives, sniffer machines are also expensive and maintenance intensive but considerably more useful. More low-tech but still one of the best means of detecting explosives: trained dogs. It just happens that the body imaging companies have far better lobbyists. Chief among them: Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security immediately preceding Janet Napolitano.

I'm on the front lines here. If, God forbid, a terrorist should succeed in detonating an explosive on board an airplane in flight, there's a decent chance that somebody I know will die, and I will find myself out of a job in rather quick order. I'm generally in favor of things that decrease the possibility of that happening. I don't think subjecting ourselves, spouses, and children to a virtual strip search or public molestation does anything to help in that regard, and the one thing it does do is make flying a far less pleasant experience. Meanwhile, rampers and other airport workers with much less extensive background checking than pilots are allowed to bypass security entirely. The TSA refuses to considers the one thing the Isrealis have found to be effective: behavior-based profiling, essentially ensuring that each traveler gets some face time to chat with a trained security officer and tailoring further screening according to their behavior.

I think it's high time we put our foot down to the TSA's incompetence and boorishness. To that end, the recommendations put forth by APA and USAPA show the best way forward: use the opt-out process to bring the whole works to a grinding halt. I suggest that everyone who will be flying on November 24th participate in "National Opt-Out Day."

Friday, November 05, 2010

The "A" Model

There's an old saying in aviation that goes "Never fly the 'A' model of anything!" It neatly encapsulates the conservatism and resistance to change that, whether through innate personality, training, or experience, is an enduring trait of professional aviators. There's also the hard fact that a number of new aircraft designs over the years had hidden flaws that became apparent only after a fatal crash or two. Much more commonly, the bugs aren't serious enough to cause an accident, but cost early-adopting operators considerable time, money, and operational reliability while they work through the teething stage. This was the case with Horizon when they were the launch customer for the Q400, and with the JungleBus when jetBlue, USAir, and Republic took their first deliveries (At jetBlue, it was popularly known as the E180...because you'd always make a "180" back to the gate!).

On Thursday, a Qantas A380 suffered an engine failure six minutes after takeoff from Singapore's Changi Airport enroute to Sydney. Although modern engine failures are quite rare, they do happen, and they're not always indicative of a design or widespread manufacturing flaw. Even in a new design like the A380, an inflight engine shutdown would likely attract little interest outside of Qantas, Airbus, and Rolls-Royce.

This engine, however, failed in a very violent fashion, essentially blowing itself apart - a rare event known as catastrophic failure. When any such failure does happen, it most typically originates in the fan stage. For this reason, cowlings are built extraordinarily strong in the area around the fan blades, and engine manufacturers conduct rather spectacular tests to ensure they are sufficient to contain any catastrophic failure. You can see the "Blade Off" test for the A380's Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines here.

In this case, the failure appears to have originated in the high-pressure compressor or turbine sections, creating an uncontained engine failure. Any uncontained failure is an extremely eye-raising event, given its extreme rarity and potential danger, but never more-so than in a brand new design. What makes this one worse yet is the extensive damage it did to the airplane. The worldwide press, usually happy to hype minor incidents out of proportion, has been unusually reserved in reporting this as a mere engine shutdown or loss of a cowling. Photos of the damage to tell an entirely different story:

There are at least two major complete perforations of the wing visible, along with several smaller ones. Fuel vapor is visibly streaming out of the two large holes in the upper picture. Considering that those holes were likely made by turbine blades that have a normal operating temperature of 500-900ยบ C, and that onboard witnesses reported seeing flames around the engine, I think the potential for a catastrophic fire resulting in the loss of the aircraft and 466 souls was very real. I don't think Qantas, Lufthansa, or Singapore Airlines were overreacting by grounding their remaining Trent-900 powered A380 fleets pending initial inspections.

Whether this failure originated in a design flaw or faulty procurement or manufacturing processes, or was simply a one-off fluke, will probably take some time to determine. In the meantime, there will be plenty of very concerned folks at Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and the early A380 operators - to say nothing of A380 passengers. Meanwhile, I don't think anyone at Boeing is popping champaign corks over their competitor's troubles: the forthcoming B787 is powered by the similar Trent 1000 engine, which suffered a very similar uncontained failure during ground testing this last August.