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Talking Air Travel Safety with Patrick Smith

I recently sat down for a conversation with pilot and writer Patrick Smith. Smith's weekly Ask the Pilot column is a favorite here at SmarterTravel, and required reading for anyone who wants an insider's take on how the industry works.

Today in Travel: The topic on everyone's mind is the evolving security situation following the attempted attack on Christmas Day. So with that in mind, what's your take on the 14-nation screening policy announced recently?

Patrick Smith: It's better than nothing, and a good sign that the TSA might be inching toward a more effective profiling approach. I'm cautiously optimistic that the TSA will move away from its wasteful fixation on nail clippers and the like. Having said that, the TSA's focus should be on searching for terrorists and weapons, and too much attention has been placed on the latter. This is more of the same: looking for weapons instead of people, while assuming we know where the next attack is coming from. Remember, airplane crime was around long before our current terrorism threat.

TNT: OK, so let's talk about a more effective profiling approach. You often reference El Al's behavioral profiling methods as an ideal model. Why?

PS: El Al uses an efficient, effective profiling method based on various data points, of which race is only one. Screeners are trained to look for behavioral signals—the way a person talks, moves around, their mannerisms. The screeners are focused on the passenger as much as what's in his or her bag. Find the terrorist, not the weapon.

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TNT: So could something like that work here in the U.S.?

PS: Maybe.  A streamlined version could be possible. But the reason it works so well in Israel is they really only have one major international airport, in Tel Aviv. One major airport.  We have hundreds, not to mention some of the busiest in the world, and the cost and complexity of a similar system here in the U.S. is simply unreasonable. It would cost too much and be too difficult to train thousands of TSA workers to master this complicated screening method.

That said, we could look for ways to bring elements here to the U.S. Train a few screeners at each airport, perhaps. But the fact is that our system is too large to rely on profiling alone, and we'd need random screening to strengthen it.

TNT: OK, this question is a bit cliche, but I think it's useful: Imagine you're TSA chief for a day—what do you do?

PS: Well, first thing I'd do is overhaul concourse screening protocols. I'd back off the sharp objects ban—after all, no metal detector is going to find a six-inch composite hunting knife hidden on a passenger's body. And anyway, the hijacking paradigm has changed so drastically that sharp objects aren't really a threat anymore. Think about it: On 9/11, the real weapon the terrorists used wasn't box cutters, it was our mindset. It was the idea that what ended up happening couldn't happen. Now, if someone tried storming the cockpit, he wouldn't make it to the door because passengers would take him down.

Having done that, I'd reallocate manpower. Take the screeners that were looking for sharp objects and get them looking for explosives or trained in behavioral profiling. I'd like to see a TSA more focused on searching for bomb-making materials. Bombs have and always will be the primary threat to aircraft, and effective screening for bombs and bomb-making materials should be priority number one.

Beyond that, I'd look at the feasibility of getting rid of the liquid ban. The liquid rules aren't as farcical as the sharp objects ban, but there's a lot about them that isn't logical. I mean, you could just bring 10 three-ounce containers of explosives aboard. So there, again, you have the issue of explosives and figuring out how to find them. But instead, the TSA just throws out your water because it's easier than figuring out what's in the bottle. It's kind of a joke.

TNT: What about body scanners?

PS: You know, a year ago I would have said "No way," because of the privacy issue.  And the privacy issue is a major sticking point. But now I'm not so sure. They work pretty well, and are certainly more effective than metal detectors. But the privacy issue is a problem.

TNT: Moving from airport security to airline safety: Do you think airline safety data should be more available to the public?

PS: Well, the data is out there, but I think it lacks clarity. The problem is that "airline safety" is a massive thing. What are we talking about? Paperwork infractions? Crashes? Near-crashes? Maintenance issues? How do you rank, collate, and present all that data to passengers in a way that's useful? I don't really know. But sure, I think the FAA could do a better job categorizing data and displaying it in a way that makes sense to passengers.

And while we're talking about the FAA—a lot of people say, "Oh, the FAA is in bed with the airlines," and yes, that's true to a certain extent, but look at the numbers: We've gone eight years without a major crash here in the U.S. That's astounding. There have been accidents and mishaps along the way, and while you can't discount those, the fact remains that large-scale air travel is the safest it's ever been.

TNT: Speaking of government agencies, what's your take on the DOT's new tarmac delay restrictions?

PS: I think it does more harm than good, and puts crews and air traffic controllers in a bind, because it places hard and fast rules on a process that is anything but. I mean, the quickest way to take a three-hour delay and turn it into a seven-hour delay is to send a plane back to the gate. You have to start the flight from scratch, and could find yourself dealing with crew time issues and all sorts of hassles. What if you get to the gate and have to switch crews? It would be a nightmare.

The other thing is that this is such rare issue. I think it's what, 1,500 a year? (Editor's note: It's actually 1,111 between October 2008 and November 2009, a fraction of one percent of all flights). In my entire career I've never been stuck on the tarmac for three hours. My record is two hours and 20 minutes.

TNT: But there are exemptions for pilots and ATC. Have you heard much about when you'll be able to override the restrictions?

PS: Honestly, there's been very little talk about that so far, at least from what I've seen.

TNT: So do you see this as the DOT being out of touch with reality, or trying to push the industry to reform itself?

PS: A little bit of both. The airlines definitely had this coming. Most delay incidents are easily avoidable, and the airlines had ample time to correct the systemic flaws that allow them to happen.

One thing the industry needs to fix is our overreliance on regional jets. Take LaGuardia, for instance. 50 percent of the traffic is these tiny little jets that, between them, are carrying maybe 15 percent of the passengers flying that day. At JFK, I look at the runway and see a 747 behind half a dozen regional jets, and I think to myself, there's more people on the 747 than on all those regional jets combined. It's so inefficient that it makes hardly any sense.

In fact, if it were up to me, I'd implement a rule at busy airports like JFK that prevented planes with under 200 seats from taking off between, say, 5 and 9 p.m. That's a pipedream of course, because airlines love to boast about how many flights they offer and to how many destinations. And let's face it, people eat that stuff up. But the cost of being able to say that is efficiency and, ultimately, time.

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