Can We Stop Airline Terrorism?

Posted on December 31st, 2009 in Commentary by EngineerBoy
The Crotch Bomb

The Crotch Bomb

The Christmas Day Crotchbomber was simply the latest in a long, long string of airline terror attacks, including the Shoebomber, Lockerbie, 9/11, etc…the list goes on and on.  There is now talk of using full body scans as part of our increasingly intrusive and futile airport security procedures.

So the TSA makes us throw out our shampoo, but that does nothing to prevent continue threats to air travel.  Even full body scans won’t do much, particularly if the terrorists know about them.  What’s next, full body x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs to look for ingested, explosive-filled balloons?

The issue is that, given the nature and purpose of air travel, we simply do not have a technical solution to preventing airline terror attacks.  There are no security screens, scanners, sniffers, or profilers that can block every potential vector.  Everybody on the plane is wearing clothes, carrying bags, using electronics, eating food, holding books, etc, any or all of which could contain the tiny amount of explosives necessary to poke a hole in the thin, light skin of a jetliner.

And that, to me, is the crux of the issue.  We are flying around in what amounts to reinforced mylar tubes, and all that is needed to bring one of them down is a small explosion.  And punching a hole in the airframe is usually all that is necessary to cause the horrific death of every single passenger and crew member.

However, what if we were to design our aircraft to not be so vulnerable?  What if blowing a hole in the skin simple meant that a handful of people in the blast radius might be injured or killed, but the rest of the passengers survived?  Still a tragedy, but not the horrifying, fiery mass-murder that feeds the tidal wave of fear that the terrorists hope to create.

There are many ways to solve this, but the most feasible (to me) is the use of detachable passenger cabins with parachutes, which can be ejected in the event of an airborne incident and float to the ground/water below (presuming some type of flotation capability, as well).  Picture a jet that looks pretty much like today’s jets, but that the passenger compartment sort of snaps into place, perhaps even in multiple sections, making for lighter payloads and multiple pathways to survival.  This is not my original idea by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it’s something we need to consider.

Part of the issue is that the airline corporations don’t have any real motivation to do this.  It remains cheaper for them to settle lawsuits than to swap out their entire fleets of aircraft, so human lives are lost to the balance sheet.  This might be an area where the government has to step in, like they did with seatbelts, anti-lock brakes, and airbags.

It’s also possible to make the argument that terrorists would simply move on to other targets if airliners became less fruitful fear generators.  This is true in some respects, but airline travel is a fairly unique and one-of-a-kind target.  Humans have a genetic fear of great heights, and even the coolest traveler will still sometimes get that jolt of panic at being at such a height and having no control over their destiny.  If you blow a tiny hole in a jetliner you’ve sentenced every passenger to a terror-filled, certain death.

And there are no other targets that have the psychological impact of a downed passenger jet.  Air travel is something that most of us do on at least a semi-regular basis, and every air travel related incident becomes front-page news even when nobody dies or is even injured (think Sully Sullenberger and the Hudson River Miracle).  Terrorists know that airline tragedies are *huge* newsmakers, and they get the double win of striking fear and also (to a lesser extent) attacking our freedom to travel and to engage in geographically dispersed commerce.

Having jets that could allow most passengers survive an in-flight catastrophic incident would not solve terrorism, but what it would do is remove one of the primary civilian targets of terrorists.  Those who traffic in fear would probably redirect their efforts to other vectors, but none would be as psychologically effective as bringing down a passenger jet in a fiery ball of death. 

We have the technology, so this is simply an engineering and economics task – how many people have to die for this to become viable?

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