Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fuzzy body contours and a clear picture of conflict

A few thoughts on the ire I've stirred by accusing my fellow Americans of being cry babies. The response from so many people whose opinion I value (Don, Frank, Brian...) had me doubting how well I expressed myself in my previous post

Let me make this clear. I am not a proponent of full body scan screening. Neither do I oppose it. The best summary of my attitude comes from a Tanya, a commenter on Patrick Smith's Ask The Pilot column this week in Salon. She wrote...

I can't figure out whether we're having a collective adolescent moment, ("you can't do that to me!")--blended with Puritanical modesty -- or legitimate push-back. I mean, where were all these passionate defenders of civil rights when we started torturing other human beings? NOW they're upset?

Where, in your opinion, is a good place to put the line between safety, and privacy? What actually can help save lives? How do we factor in the very real desire to save lives, even if it means some sacrifice/inconvenience/ooginess?" (Ooginess? Search me, its her word, not mine.)

Like Tanya, what I find offensive about this debate over advanced imaging technology is the nagging sense that despite all the talk of constitutional rights and the right to privacy, there's something far more self-serving going on. Because she's right, if so many Americans were preoccupied by threats to the principals of our founding fathers, what about our role in the torture of terrorism suspects? And worse, where the heck were these civil rights advocates after 9-11 when the Bush administration's Attorney General John Ashcroft went about rounding up Arabs and Indians right here in the U.S. and throwing them into detention centers as material witnesses?  

But coming back to the present, I'm no legal scholar but the constitution never granted us the right to fly. We make a choice to travel by air. We purchase airline tickets in full knowledge of the restrictions that go along with it. These days that includes paying for checked luggage, squeezing into cramped seats and agreeing to levels of security deemed - rightly or wrongly - necessary for public safety.

In Patrick's column, he concludes he also has ambiguous feelings about airport security from the user perspective. Whether its "resistance against TSA" as Patrick calls it, or Tanya's "push-back" (or my less than sensitive characterization of whining) there are larger questions. Patrick writes that the heart of the matter isn't the pat downs.

"It distracts us from asking important questions about the agency's approach to security overall."

Yes. Right you are, Patrick. Let me beg John Pistole, the TSA chief to be the leader here. Don't cave on the small stuff and leave the larger issues unaddressed. It is not possible, not logical, not sensible, not safe to approach security with the idea that we are all potential terrorists until the hourly workers at the check point prove otherwise. 

Effective counter-terrorism starts at the top. Or as Richard Bloom, the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University professor explained to me last month and expanded on even more eloquently in a New York Times blog post last year; security is multi layer process; heavily reliant on intelligence gathering and analysis of how our transportation systems work, analyzing global trends and risks and keeping an eye on the rest of the world and our role in it. But of course, Mr. Pistole, you already know this. In our heart of hearts, we do too. 
The most thought-provoking thing the TSA chief said lately, however, is that "security is a shared responsibility" and he doesn't mean shared among government agencies. He's talking about all of us.

So can we please, Please, PLEASE, put the kabosh on our national inclinations to demonize the government, hunker down into the rightness of our position and paint the controversy as an irreconcilable us-versus-them conflict? If we could only.....we'd have so much to be thankful for.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Full Body Scanner Reveals American National Character

Forgive the whipsaw, but I'm right back to annoyed and this time it is by the if-you-touch-my-junk protester who has become the American air traveler's new spokesmodel. I've written twice about the uproar over airport security and advanced imaging technology. First I criticized the ExpressJet pilot who refused to submit to the full body scan at at Memphis International Airport, then I semi-apologized a week or so later when it appeared that his not-gonna-take-it-anymore approach had the effect of prompting his fellow pilots to take a more unified and responsible position. They've written the chief of Homeland Security to review 21st century airport security. 

Negroni predicts the full-body scanners now in use at 65 airports around the country that allow TSA workers to detect what's underneath travelers' clothes are on their way out. And their rapid rise and fall present a high resolution picture of an American character flaw. Forget the fuzzy genitalia, what the full body scan is revealing is Americans as a bunch of cry-babies.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Bullets Dodged on Qantas Flight 32 - Much To Be Thankful For

Trent 900 engine being removed from Qantas A380
photo courtesy ATSB
I know its only us Americans who are poised to celebrate a day of thanksgiving later this month, but may I suggest that the 466 people on Qantas Flight 32 - whatever nationality they are - express their gratitude to the Almighty for the bullets they dodged two weeks ago? 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Helicopter Ambulances - The better-safe-than-sorry scare tactic

The grounding of Airbus A380 airplanes sporting Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines was certainly warranted following the in-flight disintegration of an engine on a Qantas flight from Singapore. But what has made global news for more than a week now, also demonstrates a dramatic disparity in aviation safety. The Airbus near-disaster is being treated with tremendous respect. 
Yet, across the United States, another sector of the aviation industry is crashing aircraft at a rate equal to an airline disaster every day and unbelievably, this carnage is accepted as the cost of doing business.
I'm talking about business of medical transport and the price paid by patients who are moved by air.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Balls of Steel Required for Investigation of A380 and Its Engines

Damage to the left wing of Qantas A380
The grounding of Airbus A380 airplanes sporting Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines was certainly warranted following the in flight disintegration of an engine on a Qantas flight from Singapore a week ago. The Airbus near-disaster is being treated with the kind of respect and attention not usually given to events in which everybody goes home unscathed.

Air travelers from Auckland to the Big Apple are watching, anticipating that investigators will determine not just what happened to cause the engine to come apart at 6,000 feet, but what the event demonstrates about how the world's largest airliner holds up in such a scenario. So far, the answer appears to be, not well.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Choice of Airbus A380 engines comes home to roost

This photograph is reproduced with the permission of
Rolls-Royce plc, copyright © Rolls-Royce plc 2010
Many, many factors come in to play when an airline decides what engines will go on the brand new airplanes it purchases. But right about now, I'm guessing that executives at Qantas, Lufthansa and Singapore are casting a wistful eye at Emirates  and Air France, both of which opted not to put Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines on the Airbus A380 airplanes they operate, selecting the Engine Alliance GP7200 instead.

But the Rolls Royce engine customers are probably too busy thinking about their own decisions. Certainly much of their time these days is consumed trying to keep up with the investigation into why the left inboard engine on a Qantas A380 deconstructed in flight shortly after takeoff from Singapore last week. (I've blogged about some of the airplane-related issues that are coming to light, here.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

New engine, new airplane, new jumbo-sized worries

A380 arrives in New York 2008
It is dramatic and it plays hell with how comfortable passengers feel with the airplane, but the short-term grounding of the super jumbo Airbus A380 was a good thing. Its not about the size of the airplane or the number of people it carries. It is about finding out what caused the apparently unprompted deconstruction of the Rolls Royce Trent 900 engine on a Qantas flight from Singapore last Thursday.

New engine, new airplane, new worries about whether there's some design flaw and the disaster-that-didn't-happen is the free pass investigators get to figure it out without anybody having to die.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pilots take their security complaint to the right folks

I won't claim credit, but I will praise pilot Dave Bates of American Airlines for taking pilot complaints about whole body scanning to the right place. He did not take on lowly TSA officers just trying to do their jobs like ExpressJet pilot Michael Roberts did at Memphis International Airport last month.

In a letter to the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, the president of the Allied Pilots Association, American's union, explains that pilots in uniform find the process of undergoing "pat down" security checks demeaning and he asks that some accommodation be made for a private pat-down for pilots who refuse the controversial full body scan