58 thoughts on “Dear Airlines”

  1. Ah, long term travel. It’s like a microcosm of examples of how government destroys commerce. You’ve got the inefficient undead Amtrak, a wholly owned subsidiary of Socialism, Inc. You’ve got the oligopoly with the jackboots guarding the door of Fascist Air, and you’ve got the abject common-man poverty of long-range bussing. Way to go, America.

  2. I had been using Megan’s 500-mile rule before 9-11. Counting travel time to airport, check-in, security, likely flight delays, baggage retrieval, car rental, and travel from airport to destination, driving is competitive at 250 miles and a tolerable alternative at 500. In the last few years, I’ve taken three 1250-plus mile car trips, and was struck by how pleasant they were. With ubiquitous wireless and cell phones, I was never out of touch, and got work done; plenty of good, comfortable reasonable-priced motels in the heartland; and I got to visit with friends in Chicago and Omaha on the way I never would have seen via air travel. They say Nebraska is boring, but with good music in the car, it was a hell of a lot less boring or unpleasant than standing in a TSA line.

  3. To riff on Jim’s observations – almost sounds like the kind of imagery a car company could use to pitch sales and/or rentals. “Drive, and enjoy.” Show kids happily playing with snowglobes in the back seat, and contrast that with someone pitching a crying kid’s ‘globe into the trash during airline security screening. It almost writes itself! I know intellectually that flying is safer, but as with so many things in life, maybe staying on the road is worth the risk.

  4. My wife and I made a road trip that totaled 3100 miles last month. It took 4 days of driving which is a long time to be sitting down. Still, it was a pleasant experience with lots of time to talk to one another. Airline travel for the same trip would’ve ended up taking most of a day in each direction, so driving really only cost us 2 days additional travel time.

    We had a family emergency that required us to travel without much lead time. Short notice airline tickets for travel between two smaller cities can be pricey. We packed food, drinks and snacks so we didn’t have to eat much at restaurants on the way and had to spend two nights in motels. Factoring in all expenses, we probably saved a few hundred dollars at the expense of two additional travel days. I don’t know if I’ll make that road trip again anytime soon but it is an option, as is flying my Piper Cherokee. I only wish my company allowed my to use my plane when traveling on company business.

  5. Sheesh. Why punish the airlines? They’re already on life-support, what with the cost of fuel, and the fact that people have already been trading car trips for short airline trips. There was a time in my memory when you could arrive at the airport 15 minutes before the plane took off, and make the flight. Air travel was convenient as well as fast.

    These rules were made by Congress. Congress can stop them. Elect different people to Congress, and the problem goes away. Simple as that.

  6. Jim Bennett,

    I enjoy driving and have driven coast to coast many times. Being able to get off the Internet and listen to 3 or 4 audible books while you drive is like taking a mini-vacation. Not the mention the great scenery which really makes you appreciate what a great nation the U.S. is.

    As a side note I have always felt sorry for those folks that must get on the flying cattle cars to get somewhere, always standing in a line, packing their luggage by the pound and completely at the mercy of others in terms of when and how they will reach their destination.

  7. Carl, the project of changing politicians can be aided by enlisting allies, especially in a system as “corrupted” by corporate money as this, to wit: Hurt the airlines, and the airlines will change the politicians — either their minds, or the pols themselves.

  8. Yes — my prior comments were about the competitiveness of driving from a strictly pragmatic viewpoint. I didn’t mention the freedom, or the sense that you’re really engaged in travel, as opposed to being in a very slow, uncomfortable teleporter. I love being able to decide that the conversation I’m having is worth the extra hour it’s putting onto the day’s travel schedule, or that I will take advantage of a slightly longer route in order to stop off and see somebody who lives an hour north of the Interstate. And I love hearing the accents gradually change with each stop, or the landforms, or the climate. I always like the fact that somewhere between Des Moines and Omaha, I will stop for gas and, when I get out of the car, the air will feel noticeably drier.

    And yeah, I always loved seeing the land below change when I was flying, if the flight attendants weren’t nagging everybody to close the windowshades so that the crappy videos wouldn’t be totally washed out. I always liked watching the land boundaries change from metes-and-bounds patchwork to the rectilinear patterns of Mr. Jefferson’s grid. I’ve seen amazingly neat things from the air, both in the US and abroad. But it’s getting less and less worth it, particularly when the odds are you won’t be able to see anything.

  9. McG, I don’t think the airlines have that kind of influence. If they had, they’d have stopped the TSA in the first place. They knew very well it would hurt their business. Why do you think they would have influence? They don’t have buckets of cash to give out, or sweet consulting gigs selling to government after you get out of office.

    Besides, I question your premise. We don’t need “allies” — we’re the people, and we’re sovereign. All we need to do is say Hey Mr. Congressman (or hopeful Congressional candidate), where do you stand on TSA screening? Let me know, because my vote and whether I write this check out to you or your opponent depends very much on how you answer. That’s all it takes.

    If you’re arguing that, when push comes to shove, the majority of voters will support the TSA’s thuggishness, then indeed resigning from the game is all you can do. In a democracy, there’s no recourse against the will of the majority, as the Democrats are about to find out.

  10. You’re kidding right? The airlines have made it abundantly clear that they think no-one would fly if the TSA wasn’t around to ensure the safety of their product. They won’t know otherwise unless you tell them.

    See my poll: http://twtpoll.com/oqujgr around 11% of people wouldn’t fly if the TSA went on strike. The airlines see that as losing customers.. they have no idea how many people are choosing not to fly.

    It’s the squeaky wheel getting the oil.

  11. There’s a simple test… offer alternatives. In this line you get the TSA. In that line you get 15 minutes to board with no invasion of privacy (plus a nice selection of clubs and knives if it helps you feel more secure.)

  12. Er…Trent, if you’ve got a quote, lay it on me. Incredulity at my denseness is not a credible substitute.

    Turn on the tv sometime.

    God forbid. If I want to rot my brain I’ve got some Kentucky whiskey in the pantry.

  13. I used to go on road-trip type vacations with my parents when I was a kid, and I’ve done a couple as an adult. I’ve always liked roadside motels. Many of them are relatively inexpensive, and they are usually clean and comfortable. Heck, they’re a lot cleaner than my own house. 🙂

    Bob in FWB, FL: I like the way you think!

    I’ve never flown commercially, and I sure as hell am not about to start now the way things are. Security should be handled by the airlines themselves. They have a powerful incentive not to have their airplanes blown up or crashed into buildings. They could use any methods they wanted, and could compete on security. Travelers would be free to take their business elsewhere if they didn’t think a particular airline’s security measures were sufficient, or if they were too intrusive.

    For this to work, though, there would need to be a serious overhaul of federal antidiscrimination laws. Those laws serve a purpose in preventing the government from discriminating against its citizens (but affirmative action laws are a whole ‘nother issue). However, they went too far in prohibiting private discrimination. Business owners should have the right to refuse service based on any criteria they choose. If airlines were allowed to do that, they could keep suspicious characters off their planes without unduly inconveniencing their customers.

  14. Oh, and why shouldn’t concealed-carry permit holders be allowed to carry on airplanes? That would introduce an element of uncertainty for would-be terrorists.

  15. Maybe one airline could install instant death devices in each chair, like Blofeld used to have under all the henchmen’s rich Corinthian leather seats at the super-secret SPECTRE lair. I think in one movie the seats dropped into a tank of piranha, but the weight of the water required, even if you don’t expect the fish to survive the flight, would make that prohibitively expensive I think, unless we simultaneously move to Orion-style pulsed nuclear bomblet propulsion.

    I would suggest the death controls be both in the cockpit and the stewardess section, but the latter concerns me. Do I really want the ill-tempered fat guy turned into a smoking side of ham just because he gave the stewardess grief over her only accepting a major credit card for his $6 1.75-ounce bottle of Smirnoff’s? It’s hard to say. Maybe if he’s also one who hogs both armrests and stands up the instant the plane touches down, despite being seated in the 35th row.

    And if we’re talking a milk chocolate instead of dark chocolate stewardess, of course.

  16. “Oh, and why shouldn’t concealed-carry permit holders be allowed to carry on airplanes? That would introduce an element of uncertainty for would-be terrorists.”

    If we knew they were all equipped with frangible bullets, it would probably be a good idea. Otherwise, the cure could be worse than the disease.

  17. Carl, sure it is. Me: the sky is blue, so.. You: the sky is blue, since when? Me: is it daytime there? look up. You: no, send me a photo! Me: I’m sorry, why was I talking to you?

  18. MfK: I think the majority of permit holders would have enough sense to use frangible bullets. Besides, it’s not a problem if they get enough range time and their aim is good. It’s not distance shooting.

  19. Letting the airlines do their own security would require some changes at the airports. Security screening would have to be done at the gate instead of at the airport before reaching the gates (maybe United doesn’t like Southwests’ screening policy, maybe Horizon doesn’t bother screening passengers on turboprops at all). If the screening could be made relatively quick and painless then maybe it could be done on the jetways, otherwise retrofitting the various airports could get pricey.

  20. Mfk/Rickl: Frangible bullets are not needed. Ordinary cartridge ammunition would be fine. The damage done by a bullet piercing the fuselage of an aircraft in flight is not enough to affect its airworthiness, and the pressure differential between the outside and inside is not great enough to suck people through the hole or anything like that. In fact, you could empty the magazine of an Uzi into the fuselage of the average airliner while in flight and in most cases all you’d suffer in return is a loud hissing sound, or perhaps a burst eardrum or two. As long as the bullets don’t sever any of the aircraft’s hydraulics, fly-by-wire connections, cables, or other vital components (few of which are located in the sides of the fuselage) the plane will fly on. You can stuff a towel in the hole if the hissing sound becomes annoying.

    Most people do not realize just how much punishment a commercial airliner is built to take. A structure capable of supporting 450,000 pounds while being slammed onto a concrete runway at 180 kt over and over again is not going to fail due to a few bullet holes. A properly-maintained commercial aircraft is basically a flying box girder; a few 9mm diameter holes aren’t going to bring it down.

  21. Don’t grope me or strip-search me
    Tell the flight don’t wait for me
    Hold that cab, I’ve got to go
    Cause I’m leavin’ from this jet plane
    Don’t know if I’ll be back again
    TSA has got to go…

  22. Carl, don’t be dense — that, “the airlines have made it abundantly clear that they think no-one would fly if the TSA wasn’t around to ensure the safety of their product,” is ubiquitous on “tv.” Not only is it in all the beer commercials, it’s the name of the hot new prime-time drama!

  23. OK, people. Several actual useful courses of action are apparent here. They include:

    1. Complain to your representatives and senators about the TSA. Enough people complain, some of them will do something.

    2. Your airport can choose to use private contractors for security rather than TSA. Put pressure on the governing body of your local airport to do so.

    3. When travel looms, evaluate whether it’s practical to drive or (where available) take the train. It may be more practical than you think. As Glenn says, vote with your tires.

    Energy spent venting in comments sections could probably be more usefully spent on the above-listed options.

  24. I just checked outside. The sky is blue. Carl is still right. No information available on airlines not flying without TSA. I do know that Qantas tends to do fine without TSA, but not so well with jumbo Airbuses.

  25. I don’t know that the TSA searches are unlawful. The search isn’t mandatory, it’s a precondition for flying on a commercial jet, you could presumably either drive or hire a private jet if you wanted to avoid them. The searches are, and have always been, ridiculous and ineffective, but that’s not the point. The airlines probably weren’t too fazed by them–a small percentage of passengers would take alternate means of transportation, but the airlines profits may actually have increased–the new regulations made it much more difficult to purchase an unused ticket from a third party, for example.

    However, the argument was that the airlines should provide their own security–that the profit motive would inspire them to be at least as effective as the TSA. And the question is how they would implement it. If you couldn’t do the searches before you reached the gates you would have to do it at each gate, which would require substantial modifications to the terminals.

  26. If you couldn’t do the searches before you reached the gates you would have to do it at each gate, which would require substantial modifications to the terminals

    This should be an intelligence operation, not a search operation. Of course theirs no evidence of intelligence in this government, but if they found some they could do exactly what the Israeli do. Spend time on each passenger talking and observing. They could even do it on the plane after the passengers board before pulling away from the terminal.

    We are a free people and need to demand our government respect that. These smug bastards that say they understand it’s intrusive but we’re going to do it anyway need to be run out on a rail.

  27. I don’t see any way an intelligence operation can be compatible with comfort and convenience. Wikipedia says that El Al requires passengers to show up three hours before their flight leaves, each passenger is subjected to an intense interview and each of their bags passes through an inspection process. I’m guessing you aren’t advocating this type of approach. I’d guess this would require a couple orders of magnitude more security personnel than are currently used.

    Aircraft are essentially flying bombs–the more fuel on the airplane, the bigger the bomb. This suggests a couple of alternatives–introduce economic incentives for smaller airplanes, or not allow fully-fueled large airplanes near target-rich environments (either land and refuel outside major cities, or move the airports outside the cities and add a (probably single-stop) high speed rail line to connect them).

    Or we could accept the risk and go back to minor security. Maybe put magnetometers and bomb-sniffing dogs in the jetways if we were worried about people going postal in the passenger cabin.

  28. Other alternatives:

    1. No security check at all, except maybe explosives-detection dogs. Passengers fly at their own risk. Ticket purchase constitutes a legally-binding agreement (backed by federal legislation) under which the passenger accepts the risks and agrees to hold the airline, airport, etc. harmless for death or injury sustained as a result of air piracy or terrorism. This is the option I would prefer.

    2. Allow passengers to carry revolvers on their persons. This would enable the passengers to stop any would-be terrorist from attempting to take over the airplane while limiting the amount of damage to the aircraft resulting from stray shots.

    3, No guns, but knives and swords OK. This is the Kill Bill option.

    4. A self-destruct (range safety) explosives package installed on each aircraft. It serves as a weapon of last resort in case the aircraft is taken over by terrorists for use as a flying bomb. May be detonated remotely by ATC or by the cockpit crew upon proper release of the package’s Permissive Action Link-type safety.

    5. The “Battle Cart”. A Battle Cart is a in-flight drinks service cart modified as a armory and weapon. No matter what strategy a would-be terrorist might use in an attempt to seize control of the aircraft, he or she will have no choice but to use the aircraft’s aisles. Once the terrorist is in the aisle, flight attendants can use the Battle Cart as a battering ram to crush them, while the cart’s size and reinforced structure make counterattack with knives or other non-projectile weapons impossible. In cases where the terrorists have firearms, the Battle Cart acts as an armored safe from which flight attendants and/or passengers may withdraw loaded firearms for use against the terrorist.

    The whole airport security thing is stupid. No U.S. airliner will ever be hijacked and used as a missile again, because no group of passengers is going to sit there, strapped in like a baby while some raghead nutjob flies them into a building. The heroes of Flight 93 did not die in vain.

  29. You’re right, a plane can no longer be a guided missile. It can still be a dumb bomb. If you can blow a big enough hole in the plane or in a critical part of the plane it will come down and make a nice big flaming hole. It would seem most newsworthy if it came down just after takeoff, loaded with fuel, in a highly populated part of the city. I don’t see many counters to that, particularly for airports in the middle of a city.

    I’m not sure that there’d be much point to getting an armed terrorist on board a plane anymore. Instead of smuggling explosives on board, perhaps it would be more effective to smuggle nerve gas. The beverage cart of doom would be fairly ineffective against that. As opposed to blowing the plane up, which should be done as early as possible, gassing the passengers should be done as late as possible–it seems that it would be most newsworthy to have the plane land intact, with the pilot and copilot the only survivors.

    Oh. Speaking of security theatre, I’ve heard that individuals in Japan can no longer send medium sized packages (over 300 grams) via airmail. Businesses can still do so. Presumably terrorists are too stupid to get hired by a business that mails packages.

  30. Good points all, Daver. However, I think it’s useful to examine the potential mission a terrorist is likely to undertake. Yes, a Muzi could easily down a plane during climb-out or final using any number of means, both onboard and on the ground (e.g. a MANPADS sniper). But the goal of the terrorist isn’t just to down the plane and kill the passengers; it is to use the plane to strike at a major target (e.g. a stadium, government building, etc.) so as to humiliate the Great Satan. Merely downing an airliner does not accomplish this. (EgyptAir 990 comes to mind here.) Crashing an airliner into a trailer park or car rental lot — the sort of place that might exist near the airport — might kill people, but to the Muzi mind such attacks lack the zing of watching the Capitol burn and collapse.

    Instead, the terrorist wants to fly the plane into a high value target — a Super Bowl stadium on game day, a big city skyscraper, Saint Peter’s, etc. To do this he has to gain control of the aircraft, which means gaining entry to the cockpit. I submit to you that no terrorist or group of terrorists will ever be able to accomplish this feat again. Even if there are eight Muzis armed with machetes, up against 250 enraged passengers they are dead men. No American air passenger is going to sit quietly in his or her seat while Omar the Tentmaker flies the plane into the Space Needle. It’s just not going to happen. As I once told my wife, “In the eight seconds it will take me to get to him, Abdul can’t chop enough off of me to keep me from killing his ass.” This isn’t bravado; I think most people who fly would be more than willing to tackle Achmed al-Boxcutter with their bare hands and take the damage rather than let him crash the plane. Wounds can be healed; auguring into the ground at 550 kt won’t leave enough of a person to bury.

    And that’s why we don’t need airport “security”. There is no technological or procedural way to prevent a smart terrorist from getting on board an aircraft. The only real security as far as air travel goes is provided by concerned passengers who are willing to stop an in-flight hijack attempt by any means necessary.

    Thanks for the comment.

  31. The approach and departure paths from the largish airports I’ve flown out of all go over the downtown area–timing a bomb to go off a few minutes after takeoff should create a large commotion.

    I’m not sure that striking a high value target is of as much importance as getting on the news. I would think that bringing a large plane down in flames in a metropolitan area would essentially shut down US air travel for a month–huge economic impact, big morale boost, pretty good recruitment ad.

    I agree with the rest–there’s no way to prevent a determined adversary from taking down a high value target. Airplanes are kind of low-hanging fruit–it just doesn’t take that much to bring them down. If we were serious about lowering the risk we could (1) step up security outside of the airport, or (2) lower the value of bringing down a plane (fly smaller planes or not fly large ones over high value targets). There’s some value in making it hard for simple plots to work–the more complicated the attack, the more opportunities for (1) to find out about it.

  32. Regardless of everything else, the government does not have the right to do what they’re doing. Private companies could make it a condition of flying and would soon find themselves losing to the competition. Awareness has made use of aircraft as missiles a diminished threat. We might lose an aircraft in the future but I might die in a traffic accident as well. We need to demand the government be put in it’s place and Ron Paul seems to have the right idea with his bill.

  33. “Mfk/Rickl: Frangible bullets are not needed. Ordinary cartridge ammunition would be fine.”

    Not with what I pack…

  34. Actually, I’m surprised that the Fourth Amendment didn’t come up once on this thread. Almost everyone I know is enraged about this because it is a Fourth Amendment issue. “Progressive” through libertarian folk are all on the same page. We need to fight TSA all the way up to the Supreme Court. Then it will become apparent what Obama has done to us there, too…

  35. Hmm, I thought it did come up. Trent Waddington, November 18th, 2010 at 8:31 pm. He didn’t specifically say 4th amendment, but he did say unlawful search; I assume he was talking the 4th.

  36. Anyway, I’m not a lawyer and haven’t been following. Commercial air travel is voluntary, I don’t see how engaging in a voluntary activity knowing that a search is part of that activity is a violation of the 4th amendment. Maybe there’s some way to argue that airlines are service providers and if certain religious or ethnic groups are forbidden from being photographed more or less nude or groped by strangers then they can show that the service providers are discriminating against the groups. And if these groups are as a result allowed to proceed through unscanned and ungroped, the providers are blatantly discriminating against all the other groups.

    It seems the same argument could be applied against a photo ID requirement.

  37. I don’t see how engaging in a voluntary activity knowing that a search is part of that activity is a violation of the 4th amendment.

    I know this is the general argument being made. However, driving a car is voluntary as well, yet police can’t strip search you or your car without probable cause. When people see a 3 yr old girl being frisked, and a young boy having to remove his shirt; they want to know what probable cause the TSA had to search them. To the people; a young child with a ticket to board a plane is not by itself probable cause.

  38. I don’t follow your argument. Flying in an airplane is not the same as driving a car or walking down the sidewalk. It seems more analogous to getting on a train or going into a restaurant or a club. I could come up with a situation where I think that driving a car or walking down a sidewalk would open you up to searches (let’s say your company build a privately-owned toll road; as a precondition to being allowed to drive on the road you require all cars to undergo a stringent safety inspection and all drivers to pass an invasive drug screening. This seems like it should be legal so long as it was made abundantly clear what all would be involved. It may be that your company would go broke fairly quickly as nobody would want to submit to all that to drive, but it doesn’t seem that any rights would have been violated).

    I’m opposed to the blanket searches and pretty much all of the post-9/11 malarkey, but it’s not obvious to me that it’s a violation of the 4th amendment. It would be kind of funny if some court ruled that evidence gained from these searches could only be used for crimes related to airplane security–that would lower the “success” rate of the TSA searches from insignificant to zero.

  39. Daver, you’re overlooking the fact that the government requires airline passengers to submit to a frisking. Yes, I agree it’s a different case with El Al requiring you to do so as a condition of carriage. That’s fine. If you buy a ticket with El Al, it’s a private contract, you know what you’re getting into, and presumably you like that.

    The problem here is that it isn’t possible for me to start up No Security Theater Airways, and advertise that there will be no security crap whatsoever before boarding our flights, so go right ahead and arrive at the airport a bare 15 minutes ahead of your flight — oh, and all our stewardesses are black belts who carry .38s, and we have one large heavy ex-Seal instructor per flight who doesn’t serve beverages — who is not dressed in uniform — who just watches and waits, maybe has a chat or two with interesting characters in the boarding area.

  40. Actually, no, I wasn’t overlooking that. If you want to fly commercial in the US you have to be scanned and poked and prodded. It’s just not clear to me that it’s a violation of the 4th.

    I didn’t read the letter that went around last week indicating that airports didn’t have to employ TSA agents for security–would they still have to follow the latest grope and nuke guidelines, or would they be allowed to follow procedures that they deemed reasonable?

    Regardless, the last I checked (and this was a while back–after 9/11, but before the recent nonsense) small (like < 15 passengers) aircraft didn't need the passengers or crew to go through the TSA security screening. Most small commercial flights do this anyway because the planes they fly are a bit larger than that and because they want to connect to gates inside the screened area of larger airports. If you wanted to operate FTSA airlines and fly only small aircraft between unscreened gates you should have a lot more freedom. Of course, secuirty wouldn't be necessary because there's just no point in bringing down a rinky-dink airplane–even if it lands in the SuperBowl it'll only kill a few hundred people.

  41. “I don’t see how engaging in a voluntary activity knowing that a search is part of that activity is a violation of the 4th amendment.”


    Airlines are private companies, and their passengers are almost entirely private citizens engaged in perfectly legal transportation, using one of a number of modes of transport to which we have become accustomed. The question isn’t whether *you* think it’s a violation of rights for the government to step in and search those citizens without probable cause, because it is a violation. The real question is how on earth anyone could ever think they had the power to do so under the Constitution.

  42. Yes, really. I haven’t been pulled over for a random stop, the police haven’t entered my house looking for something suspicious; I have voluntarily (more or less) entered into an area where I know I will be subject to a search (and, thanks to all the publicity, I’m pretty well informed as to just what type of a search). Your fourth amendment rights don’t apply if you’re entering a prison (not that I’m drawing any parallels between boarding a plane and entering a prison).

  43. D, the 4th Amendment certainly could apply. It says you’re not to be subject to “unreasonable” search and seizures. It all turns on what “unreasonable” means. There are some, e.g. me, who think that what the TSA demands of people flying on commercial airliners is unreasonable. But the problem is that, when in the 1970s the issue of terrorism on airplanes first got started, air travel was still sufficiently unusual that people accepted an appalling level of intrusiveness, far more so than they would have accepted as a condition of their walking places, driving cars, or even taking the train or ferryboat, far more familiar daily activities.

    I don’t think Thomas Jefferson would have put up with the TSA “Department of Precrime” for one second. I think the Founders in general would have been appalled that government should presume to suspect you in advance of committing some heinous crime and assault your dignity in what history suggests is a futile effort to prevent it. They would have told government in no uncertain terms to fuck off — that if, in fact, they did fly a plane into the Capitol they would expect to be hanged, drawn and quartered, and their chattels sold into slavery, but until that occurred, the state had no right to act as if it had, or would.

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