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.