Monday, February 7, 2011

Aviation Security in Perspective

Fourth Amendment? What Fourth Amendment?

The TSA continues its foray into aviation with an announcement this week that it will fund a research project to create a backscatter scanner (the kind they use on airline passengers now) intended to scan General Aviation airplanes. That sounds like yet another violation of the Fourth Amendment to me. I know what your argument is: "But Aaron, it's already been established that airports are Fourth Amendment-Free zones."

My response: "Really? Has that been tested specifically in the Supreme Court?" Fear not. Several lawsuits are working their way through the system that will allow just that to happen.

Let's Get Practical

Case law aside, let's look at some practical matters. People who aren't involved in aviation are all-too-willing to regulate airplanes because "it's worth it for safety." Even at the price of their rights. What would people say if there were simliar restrictions on automobile travel?

"But airplanes are much more dangerous than cars." Don't we always assume that the things we don't understand are dangerous?

Let's look at that argument, and compare the security risks that land-based automobiles present.

1. Tracking. It's true that General Aviation aircraft are not required to file flight plans. But the idea that they could be "practically anywhere" is a little misguided. Temporary Flight Restrictions, Prohibited Areas, and controlled airpspace are created for a reason. And, when's the last time you filed a driving plan in your car? We don't know who you are or where you are. That sounds scary to me, and it gives you a great opportunity to slip under the radar and do damage. It's happened before.

2. Mass. The average light General Aviation aircraft has a maximum weight of between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds. According to the New York Times, the 2003 average car/light duty truck weight in the U.S. was 4,021 pounds. Given an average top speed of 120-160 mph, and a virtually unlimited payload (not the case with aircraft), that's some serious destructive potential. What would have happened to the IRS building in Austin if the attack had been made with an explosive-laden Ford Expedition?

3. Access. Even the "least secure" General Aviation airports have a suspicious eye cast over them by law enforcement. More and more are being fenced with coded gates, and the pilot community is pretty vigilant for random outsiders. How many of those 4,021 pound cars were stolen last year? Heck, how many were stolen yesterday? Do we know their whereabouts? Again, pretty scary.

4. Track Record. This is a biggie. Since airplanes were used on 9/11, surely they'll be used again. That's the rationale, anyway, and aviation has borne the brunt of security measures as a result. What about Oklahoma City? What about the two recent plots in Dallas and New York City? All involved automobiles. Where are the calls to restrict their passengers, payload, access, and routes?

5. Border Security. It's not Politically Correct, but I could care less. Until our borders are secure, no amount of security in any other arena will protect us. Bottom line. Terrorists are not stupid, and our borders offer a path of least resistance. Why screw with flying anymore?

Do you see a pattern here? We can go around and around and make the argument that just about anything is a security threat if we want to. Aviation has made a convenient whipping boy because we're all willing to tolerate it and many of us are willing to be rused into thinking that the measures are effective.

It's easy to say that security is worth giving up a few of your rights, but how are are you willing to go? Since automobiles clearly have at least as much destructive potential as aircraft, are you willing to give up your Fourth Amendment rights in your daily life?

"Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."
---Benjamin Franklin

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