Selling the drama

I have some respect for the passengers of Northwest Flight 253, especially Dutch filmmaker Mr. Jasper Schuringa, who reacted quickly and appropriately to a dangerous situation.  But please, pundits professional and amateur, put aside the euphoric army-of-Davids, pack-not-a-herd rhetoric.

NWA253 wasn’t saved because of alert passengers.  It was saved because the would-be bomber was incompetent in both design and fabrication of his explosive device. The passengers did nothing to pre-empt impending tragedy; they merely restrained the bomber after his unsuccessful detonation.  It is not even on the same level as the passengers and cabin crew of American Airlines 63, who halted the attempted ignition of Richard Reid’s shoes.  The fuse leading into Reid’s shoe hadn’t been lit; let alone lit and providing an obvious warning in the form of firecracker-like noises and smells.

The moral of the Flight 253 story is not that ultra-vigilant passengers will save the day (although this is not a bad thing and sometimes, they might).  Remember that had the explosive device been properly designed and fabricated, there would have been precious little for those passengers to do except fall to their deaths.

There are instead three better lessons from NWA253. The first is that you cannot always rely upon airport screeners (whether foreign or domestic) to have and use the best possible equipment.  They might not have the equipment, or when they do, they might use it selectively—by prioritizing it for something other than routine screening (like say, narcotics smuggling).  This might require certain nations (or air carriers themselves) to have their own screening personnel and equipment at the originating airport.

The second lesson is that intelligence and law enforcement services need greater cooperation and coordination in order to effectively act upon leads given to them.  Having received a timely warning from Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father, the bomber should have been set aside for more intensive scrutiny prior to boarding, which—presumably—would have led to denial of boarding.

The third lesson is that the approach to security screening that we have today—a widely-cast net, inefficiently searching one and all for a limited range of explosives and weapons—is inadequate; it is not focused, accurate or granular enough to detect the threat.

There are other, more manpower-intensive approaches—just one example would be the behavioral profiling used by Israeli carrier El Al.  El Al interviews every passenger before boarding, relying on the experience and intution of its screeners to weed out the nervous and suspicious.  Our own airport security screeners do not tend to focus on human intelligence and psychological factors; they rely on technical means (x-ray scanners and chemical detectors) instead.  And technology, of course, is not as infallible as many would like to think.

Perhaps the best defence is a fusion of these methods; human intelligence buttressed with technical intelligence.  Surely that is several times better than your seat-mates reacting to a bomb after it’s failed.

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2 Responses
  1. You are completely correct that the passengers did not prevent this attack, and merely responded after the attack’s failure, but there is, perhaps, a lesson to be learned from the reaction of the passengers.

    Current airport security measures devote tremendous resources (in terms of money, time, and most importantly, the mental attention of screeners) to intercepting objects which have been rendered harmless by current realities such as reinforced flight deck doors and the type of passenger reaction demonstrated on NWA 253. Given these realities, there is virtually no chance that a sharp or pointy object, for example, can ever cause an airliner to crash or be hijacked, and yet screeners devote tremendous mental effort to intercepting pocket knives, cockscrews, nail files, and even plastic toy swords from Disney World. And since people tend to focus their mental energy on tasks which are likely to be rewarded, and since pocket knives and nail files are far more commonly encountered than explosives, this further magnifies the extent of attention that screeners devote to identifying objects which are completely harmless but commonly found, at the expense of looking for anomalies (such as explosives hidden in new and innovative ways) which are truly dangerous but rarely encountered. The hunt for pointy objects has become a distraction we can no longer afford.

    The only way to encourage screeners to focus their mental effort on real threats is to relieve them of the burden of identifying fake threats, and the reaction of the passengers on this flight demonstrates (if there was any remaining doubt) that most of the objects we take so much trouble to intercept no longer pose any real threat to aviation safety in the first place.