Change is constant, progress is not

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.

The suggestion that aviation has changed over the past several decades will surprise no one. It obviously has. However, the disparity between the positive change, and the debatable change, is worthy of public discussion. So why not get the ball rolling here? That’s what blogs are for, after all.

When I was a small boy, boarding an Eastern Airlines flight to visit my grandparents, my parents would often board the airplane to seat me, personally. There were no metal detectors, airport security checkpoints, baggage searches, pat-downs, or full-body scanners. There was absolutely no risk that an image of my pre-pubecsent body would be stored on a computer for future reference. In those days the whole family could walk to the gate, and even get on the airplane to see their party off.  Sure, the aisles were crowded, and the stewardesses probably hated the hassle (the term, “flight attendant” had not yet come into fashion). But commercial aviation was friendly back then. I loved it.

Today, things are different. The cockpit has been upgraded in ways that pilots of the 1960s hadn’t yet dreamed of. Glass panels and GPS positioning has replaced the old steam gauges and bags filled with checklists and approach-plates. Life outside the cockpit has changed a bit too. And it’s not just apparent in the fact that travelers are run through a series of security checks while their family members have restricted access to the airport, and are barred from the airplane altogether. Even pilots are required to submit to security checks of various kinds that may, or may not, be effective or efficient – depending on your perspective.

It’s a post Sept. 11th world. Some would say that this is the price of security. Others would disagree. And while I have no special insight into what the correct answers to this befuddling mass of security concerns might be, I do have questions, and I harbor a very deep suspicion that a serious, public discussion on the subject is called for. As members of the aviation community, we may be the natural starting place for this discussion – provided we keep in mind that we have a lot of listening to do, too.

Commercial aviation got its start on the Gulf Coast of Florida in January 1914, when SPT Airboat Line began regular, round-trip service from St. Petersburg to Tampa. The direct flight took roughly 20 minutes, but it was significantly quicker than the long, bumpy drive around Tampa Bay, in a time when the horsepower of vehicles was often rated by the number of actual horses pulling the wagon. Four months later the company closed shop, after reportedly carrying well over a thousand passengers across the bay in an aircraft that today we would consider to be flimsy at best.

By the 1930s commercial aviation was becoming common, albeit still only affordable to a select segment of the population. World War II put a crimp in the idea of leisure travel, but by the 1950s commercial aviation came back in a big way. Twenty years later, the introduction of jumbo jets brought the price of a seat down to a point that allowed the average John, and Jane Q. Public to travel farther, faster, and less expensively than their grandparents had even dreams was possible. Commercial aviation was for the first time available and affordable to the masses.

But that’s not when security became a problem. Bombs were showing up on airplanes by the 1940s, and not just in a military context. There were isolated cases where the relatives of passengers began to see dollar signs in catastrophe, and sought to cause a disaster in order to realize a personal profit. As with most plans for violence that victimize others, the perpetrators were caught, convicted, and executed as criminals. Security was tightened, of course.

Guns, knives, bombs, and hoaxes threatening all manner of bad things about to happen, have plagued commercial aviation from its early days. That will not stop, unfortunately. Not in our lifetimes, anyway.

In fact that is the history of security as it relates to commercial aviation. Each new disaster acts as the impetus for a new layer of security being added. The specter of new fatalities provides a rationalization for an increased tightening of the security net around the airport, the airplane, and each of the people who come in contact with it throughout the day.

The irony is that the very technology that serves us so well has been transformed into a threat – not because of the machinery itself, but rather because of the way a small percentage of the population would use it to satisfy their own nefarious schemes. This is the history of humanity. We tend to hurt each other in order to advance our own desires. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is an accurate reflection of the species.

Keep in mind, the Gatling gun was intended to be so devastating a weapon that it would make war, and killing, too abhorrent for mankind to stomach. In reality, it did just the opposite. Modern high-speed Gatling guns can launch up to 4,000 rounds of depleted uranium ammunition per minute.

Is that progress? Maybe yes, maybe no. It all depends on which side of the gun you’re standing on.

Aviation is important. As is the security of our families, and friends – not to mention our economic stability. As with all subjective issues, there is no right answer, no one-size-fits-all solution to the concern regarding security at the airport, and in the skies. But the discussion has to be more inclusive, more public, and more honest than it has been up to this point. As aviation enthusiasts with a vested interest in the outcome, and significant insider knowledge of the system that the security measures are designed to operate in – it is in our best interest to get engaged on this topic and help steer the discussion in a productive direction, for the mutual benefit of ourselves, as well as the public at large.

Comments

  1. Jamie Beckett says:

    What I truly love about writing this blog is the participation of the broad GAN readership, who have proven to be intelligent, pro-active, and well informed.

    Dave Hook’s suggestion and link are outstanding. Thanks, Dave. Ignorance of the process is one of the most powerful impediments to public involvement in government. Your insight and willingness to share the link to the Federal Register website is a fantastic resource for readers. Thanks so much.

    Kent makes an outstanding point too, which causes me to smile. Just recently I took a stand on a new ordinance being suggested in my city, which I suggested was unnecessary, ineffective, expensive, and potentially discriminatory. What simultaneously entertained and saddened me was when another individual agreed that the ordinance would not prevent the activity it was designed to prevent, yet he enthusiastically took an all too common position, which I will paraphrase. He said essentially; But we have to do something.

    Doing the wrong thing just for the sake of doing something is not the kind of decision making I would be comfortable with in the cockpit, the state house, or the United States Capital.

  2. My background is in system safety engineering, wherein for many years, I dealt with quantified risk of potential accidents. I note that nobody has come forward to say that any of the terrorist countermeasures have or will demonstrate an increase in security. The whole strategy seems to be a matter of emotional gut reaction and simplistic (read moronic) thinking. As an example, ask what reduction in risk will be achieved b establishing a TFR? When I was in the USAF, we called it “mass punishment”.

  3. You are cordially invited to see my StrongMobile Flying Car Project at http://www.strongware.com/dragon. You can view a 2-minute video of my full-size mockup model.
    Rich Strong (Major,USAF,Retired)

  4. Hey Jamie,

    Thanks for another outstanding article!

    “We the People” need to stay engaged in federal rulemaking, especially rule proposals which involve aviation and flying. A technique to do that is to go to the Federal Register website at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/ and do a search using a term like “aviation AND security”. Most public response periods are 45 to 60 days. So if someone were to do that regularly–say the first of each month, a proposed federal rule that we may want to comment on won’t slip by.

    Sad to say, it’s not the strength of an idea that stops or even slows down the federal government’s rulemaking process, but the number of responses. It took some 7,000 responses–mostly negative–to get the TSA to rethink its approach on LASP. So we should be prepared to respond as the large community that we are to proposals that are important to our General Aviation community.

    Cheers from the Alamo,

    Dave Hook

  5. Great, and accurate comments, Jamie. I too recall that first flight to the grandparents, the visit to the cockpit & family coming on board to make sure we kids were OK. I recall a flight in 1979 from Opelika, AL to Atlanta on a C310 from a tiny, 2-plane commuter company (Their other plane was a DeHavilland Dove, flown daily.) When the single pilot heard that I was a pilot, he put me in the copilot’s seat and I flew the leg to Atlanta, with four wide-eyed passengers in the back. Those were the days. Too often pilots, and voters in general, choose to stick their heads in the sand, thinking that non-involvement in government and political issues is an option. It is – if you are prepared to give up your liberties and freedom.

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