Airline safety over time (or why you should feel comfortable flying)

Are you one of the millions of nervous passengers with a fear of flying? Then these statistics should put you at ease. Despite the rapid growth in air travel over the past forty years, the number of incidents per 100,000 flight hours is dropping precipitously, and in 2009 (the most recent data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics) you were nearly 60 times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident when traveling by car instead of by aircraft. Some airline safety food for thought for next time you experiences turbulence at 30,000 ft.

Airport security — what works, and what does not?

With so much talk about new explosive detection equipment and the upcoming full body scanners, we decided to look into some of the current technology in place at airports around the world. What works, and what does not?

Will the future of airport security involve everyone stripping down to their underpants? Or will technology evolve to the point where computers can detect terrorists from a distance?

Metal detector

The airport metal detector is a piece of equipment that works absolutely perfectly – for finding metal. It won’t detect explosives, ceramic knives or anything else that is not metallic. And it isn’t designed for that – its sole purpose is to detect metal objects.

Anyone who has left their belt on, or had some loose change will know how sensitive these things are.

Why they don’t always work: Can only detect metal. Can’t sense explosives, ceramic blades or liquids.

The x-ray machine

At the airport, baggage is checked at two places – at the security checkpoint, and at the checked bag drop-off. These machines are pretty good. But they have a fatal flaw – they can’t detect anything without the presence of a human operator. And lets be honest – someone that has to sit in front of a monitor looking at bags move past them will never reach a 100% accuracy. Things will slip through the cracks.

Why they don’t always work: The human element is the weak spot. Unable to “sniff” for explosives.

Passenger puffer machine

The “puffer machine” was supposed to be the ultimate in airport security. You step into the machine, it blows puffs of air on you, and “smells” for explosives. It all sounds like the perfect solution. These machines were in place at several airports on a trial basis before they were all removed due to “unforeseen technical problems”.

Millions were invested in the devices, which are now probably collecting dust in a storage facility. High profile research labs are still working on better solutions, and there are several very promising technologies in the very early stages of development. Sadly, without some really serious government money, those machines won’t be at your local airport any time soon.

Why they don’t always work:
Citing “technical difficulties”, they are no longer in use at US airports.

Swab explosives detector

Anyone who has been pulled aside for a secondary search (the dreaded “SSSS” on your boarding pass” will have seen the screening expert “swab” their bag and place the sample inside an expensive looking machine. The machine sniffs for explosives, and can detect the smallest trace of stuff that can blow up a plane.

Why they don’t always work: only passengers selected for secondary screening are pulled aside for a swab detection. Easy to get a false positive.

Full body imager

The full body imager (or whole body imager / millimeter wave scanner) is supposed to be the holy grail of airport security. After the Nigerian underpants bomber was pulled off his plane, these new machines popped up in the news and within days, the first ones were being ordered for European airports.

Tests have been conducted on the machines, and there is a very big chance that the underpants bomber would not have been caught had he passed through one. Then there is of course the issue of privacy. We all want to fly on a plane without any terrorists wearing bombs wrapped around their groin, but apparently we draw the line at letting security staff stare at our naked bodies on a TV screen. To make matters worse, we were promised that none of the US based machines could store or send our images, but CNN already discovered that was was a lie.

Why they don’t always work: Only at select airports, only passengers pulled aside for secondary screening are asked to voluntarily go through the machine, possibly not 100% reliable.

Passenger no-fly lists

The super secret passenger no-fly lists collect data from several sources. It isn’t necessarily filled with the names of the worst terror suspects in the world, and the list has been proven to be terribly inaccurate. Worst of all, those people that have a name that matches something on the list have had a hell of a time getting through airport security.

The Nigerian underpants bomber was on one list of terror suspects, but apparently was not considered dangerous enough to warrant adding to the no-fly list. At the same time, 8 year old kids are stopped because their name matches someone dangerous.

Why they don’t always work:
Too much data, but not enough ways to find the bad guys.


Pat-downs have been proven to be ineffective – and for one simple reason; fear of embarrassing travelers. The underpants bomber would have successfully passed a pat-down because screening staff don’t do a comprehensive search. The only kind of search that will work, is the kind used in prisons.

You can’t find explosives attached to someones private parts if you don’t physically search that area. Is a full effective pat-down embarrassing? You bet it is. But it is a heck of a lot more effective than just waving a wand up and down your legs.

Why they don’t work: You can’t perform a full search, without performing an actual FULL search,

(Images courtesy of Flickr users Daquella Manera and jcortell – click images for direct source)

What strange things have been found on planes?

Annoyed passenger goes head first in the X-Ray machine

Here is one you don’t see every day. Apparently, this passenger was not in the mood to empty his pockets and remove all his metal objects, so he jumped head first into the X-Ray machine.

Sadly, as with many of these video clips I can’t help feel that it’s a hoax. Why else would there be someone standing at the other end of the checkpoint with a camera? Plus, it’s not like they grabbed the footage off a security camera, as you can clearly tell its someone with a handheld camera.

Either way, the clip made me chuckle, and it certainly is a creative way to get around the annoying beep from the metal detector. Of course, just in case any of you are considering doing this next time you pass through the airport – don’t. The X-Ray machine delivers a pretty hefty dose of radiation, and is designed for luggage, not bored passengers.

(Via Liveleak, thanks Robert!)

Looking back at ’08 – 5 things we gained this year

Welcome to part 2 of my “looking back at ’08” segment. In part 1, I listed 5 things we lost in 2008, and in this article I will list 5 things we gained. While you reminisce about 2008, why not check out my list of 10 New Years resolutions that could help make 2009 a much better travel year!

There is no denying that 2008 will take up a pretty decent chunk of history books in years to come. Between the Chinese Olympics and the total destruction of our economic civilization, I’d say it’s been a pretty interesting year. Oh, and we also elected our first African American president. Awesome stuff. Of course, not much of this means much to us travelers, so here are 5 things we gained in ’08:

Internet in the air

I’m a geek, so I have listed this one first. Needless to say this is also the one that excited me the most in 2008.

Internet in the skies has long been a something airline passengers have wished for. The first glimpse of its potential came from Boeing back in 2004, but like many new technologies, this one failed pretty quickly.

In 2006, United Airlines tried to breathe new life into the seatback Verizon Airfone handsets, by offering some very basic online access. Needless to say, that one did not last long either. For some reason, people were not willing to pay $10 for instant messaging and 5 pages of news clippings.

Then, out of the ashes of the Verizon Airfone infrastructure came Aircell. This company purchased the rights to some of the airwaves used by the old Verizon system, and began offering high speed Internet access on American Airlines.

The first flight to take to the skies with the Aircell Gogo inflight Internet service was an American Airlines plane on August 20th 2008. But before passengers were able to download their emails in the air, a lot of other milestones had to be reached. I’ll take a closer look at what went on behind the scenes in a separate article.


Relaxed TSA rules for laptop computers at the checkpoint

Things just kept getting better for us in 2008 at the security checkpoint. After years of harassing us, removing our bottles of water, and treating us like terrorists for carrying a nail clipper, the TSA decided it could put a smile on our faces by allowing certain kinds of laptop bags to pass through the security checkpoint without having to remove our laptops from the bag.

In all, it probably saves no more than 20 seconds, but every second counts at the airport, especially when it involves doing what you can to get as far away from the checkpoint as possible.

We entered 2008 with zero TSA friendly laptop bags, and we’ll be bidding it farewell with over 30 different designs, many of which are listed here.


More fees and surcharges

Honestly, I wish this list could contain only happy things. Sadly the year has been pretty rough on the airlines, and when things get rough, they take it out on us.

Fees are what the airlines use to make money, because ticket sales alone apparently don’t work. Clearly someone took a close look at the movie theater business and decided that the expensive popcorn trick would work just fine in the aviation industry.

The worst offender this year was US Airways, but almost every major airline introduced at least one or two new ways to make some money.


New runways

While some airports are still stuck with just a single runway, others can’t get enough of them to keep things flowing.

New tarmac was opened this year at Dulles, Seattle and Chicago. The Dulles runway was their first new one since 1946, and is expected to handle over 100,000 flights a year.

Of course, Chicago’s O’Hare airport was probably the one most in need of a new runway, as they had been operating under special flow control restrictions for several years due to congestion.

The new runway in Chicago is part of a much larger “masterplan” to expand the airport, which includes a new ATC tower and terminal renovations.

In other good news, those awful people movers at Dulles are scheduled to be scrapped later next year!


New airlines, new routes and new mergers

It sucks to be a legacy carrier. You are doing everything you can to keep your fleet in the sky, and newcomers like Virgin America and OpenSkies pop up, acting like they own the place.

The thing is, many people are so fed up with the state of air travel, that these new carriers are a very welcome addition. Why fly the “friendly skies”, when you can fly an airline that actually is friendly?

In 2008, JetBlue started flying Chicago to Boston, Virgin America added 6 new routes, including New York to Vegas and OpenSkies (a British Airways subsidiary) started flights from New York to Paris and Amsterdam.

And finally, in the “if you can’t beat em, buy em” department; Delta airlines purchased Northwest airlines bringing 2 of the more decent airlines in the skies together as one. One thing is for sure; 2009 is going to be a bumpy ride for many airlines.

TSA inspector damages planes and causes major flight delays

As one of the duties to make sure air travel is safer, TSA inspectors check planes for security issues while the planes are parked.

Unfortunately, knowing which parts of planes should not be touched, and what a ladder looks like is a skill set that still needs some fine tuning.

According to this ABC News report, an inspector at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport used sensitive instrument probes as handholds while climbing into nine American Eagle airplanes. These TAT probes, pictured, are important to the operation of flight computers. As a result, 40 commuter flights were delayed.

At the time, the TSA agent was attempting to determine if the aircraft could be broken into and an agency official is quoted as saying “Our inspector was following routine procedure for securing the aircraft that were on the tarmac.”

Next time, try using a ladder and a brick.

Other tales from the skies
Amazing and insane stories from a real-life flight attendant and co-pilot