TERMINAL MADNESS: What Is Airport Security?

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IN AMERICA AND ACROSS MUCH OF THE WORLD, the security enhancements put in place following the catastrophe of September 11th, 2001, have been drastic and of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational and pointless.

The first variety have taken place almost entirely behind the scenes. Comprehensive explosives scanning for checked luggage, for instance, was long overdue and is perhaps the most welcome addition. It’s the second variety, unfortunately that has come to dominate the air travel experience. I’m talking about the frisking, x-raying, body scanning and confiscating that goes on at thousands of concourse checkpoints across the globe. These procedures waste our time, waste our money, and humiliate millions of us on a daily basis.

There are two fundamental flaws in our approach:

The first is a strategy that looks upon every single person who flies — the old and young, fit and infirm, domestic and foreign, pilot and passenger — as a potential terrorist. That is to say, we’re searching for weapons rather than people who might actually use weapons. This is an impossible, unsustainable task in a system of such tremendous volume.  Up to two million people fly each and every day in the United States alone. Tough-as-nails prison guards cannot keep knives out of maximum security cell blocks, never mind the idea of guards trying to root out every conceivable weapon at an overcrowded terminal.

The second flaw is our lingering preoccupation with the tactics used by the terrorists on September 11th — the huge and tragic irony being the success of the 2001 attacks had almost nothing to do with airport security in the first place.  As conventional wisdom has it, the 9/11 terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard boxcutters. But conventional wisdom is wrong.  It was not a failure of airport security that allowed those men to hatch their takeover scheme. It was, instead, a failure of national security – a breakdown of communication and oversight at the FBI and CIA levels.  What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset — a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings and how they were expected to unfold.  In years past, a hijacking meant a diversion to Beirut or Havana, with hostage negotiations and standoffs; crews were accordingly trained in the concept of “passive resistance.”  The presence of boxcutters was merely incidental.  They could used anything — onboard silverware, knives fashioned from plastic, a broken bottle wrapped in tape — particularly when coupled with the bluff of having a bomb.  The weapon that mattered was the intangible one: the element of surprise.  And so long as they didn’t chicken out, their scheme was all but guaranteed to succeed.

For a number of reasons just the opposite is true today. The hijack paradigm was changed forever even before the first of the Twin Towers had fallen to the ground, when the passengers of United 93 realized what was happening and began to fight back. The element of surprise was no longer a useful tool.  Hijackers today would face not only an armored cockpit, but a planeload of people convinced they’re about to die. It’s hard to imagine a hijacker, be it with a boxcutter or a bomb, making it two steps up the aisle without being pummeled. It’s equally hard to imagine that organized terrorists would be willing to expend valuable resources on a scheme with such a high likelihood of failure.

In spite of this reality, we are apparently content spending billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened and cannot happen again — guards pawing through our luggage in a hunt for what are effectively harmless items: hobby knives, scissors, screwdrivers. Not to mention, even a child knows that a deadly weapon can be crafted out of virtually anything, from a ballpoint pen to a shattered first class dinner plate.

The folly is much the same with respect to the restrictions on liquids and gels, put in place following the break-up of a London-based cabal that was hoping to blow up jetliners using liquid explosives. Allegations surrounding the conspiracy were revealed to substantially embellished. In an August, 2006 article in the New York Times, British officials admitted that public statements made following the arrests were overcooked, inaccurate, and “unfortunate.”

Among first to express serious skepticism about the bombers’ plans was Thomas C. Greene, whose essay in The Register explored the extreme difficulty of mixing and deploying the types of binary explosives purportedly coveted by the London plotters.  “The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane lavatory is pure fiction,” Greene said during an interview. “A handy gimmick for action movies and shows like ’24.’ The reality proves disappointing: it’s rather awkward to do chemistry in an airplane toilet. Nevertheless, our official protectors and deciders respond to such notions instinctively, because they’re familiar to us: we’ve all seen scenarios on television and in the cinema. This, incredibly, is why you can no longer carry a bottle of water onto a plane.”

The threat of liquid explosives does exist, but they cannot be readily brewed from the kinds of liquids we have devoted most of our resources toward. “I would not hesitate to allow that liquid explosives can pose a danger,” adds Greene, recalling Ramzi Yousef’s detonation of a small nitroglycerine bomb aboard a Philippine Airlines flight in 1994. The explosion was a test run for the so-called Project Bojinka, the long-forgotten Al-Qaeda scheme to simultaneously destroy a dozen widebody airliners over the Pacific Ocean. “But the idea that confiscating someone’s toothpaste is going to keep us safe is too ridiculous to entertain.”

But of all the half-baked measures we’ve grown accustomed to, few are sillier than the policy decreeing that pilots and flight attendants undergo the same x-ray and metal detector screening as passengers.  As this book goes to press, a program is finally under testing in the United States that will soon allow on-duty pilots to bypass the normal checkpoint.  It’s a simple enough process that confirms a pilot’s identity by matching up airline and government-issue credentials with information stored in a database.  That it took twelve years for this to happen, however, is a national embarrassment when you consider that tens of thousands of US airport ground workers, from baggage loaders to cabin cleaners and mechanics, have been exempt from screening all along.  Many of these individuals have full, unescorted access to aircraft, inside and out. Some are airline employees, though a large percentage are contract staff belonging to outside companies.  An airline pilot who once flew bombers armed with nuclear weapons is not to be trusted and is marched through the metal detectors. But those who cater the galleys, sling the suitcases, and sweep out the aisles, have for years been able to saunter onto the tarmac unmolested.  If there has been a more ringing, let-me-get-this-straight scenario anywhere in the realm of airport security, I’d like to hear it.  Although nobody is implying that the hardworking caterers, baggage handlers, and the rest of the exempted employees out there are terrorists-in-waiting, this is nevertheless a double standard so staggeringly audacious that it can hardly be believed.

The Transportation Security Administration will point out how the privileges granted to tarmac workers are contingent upon fingerprinting, a ten-year criminal background investigation and crosschecking against terror watch lists, and that ground employees are additionally subject to random physical checks.  All right, but the background checks for pilots are no less thorough. And as for those random spot-checks, one apron worker told me that he hadn’t been stopped or patted down in over three years. “All I need is my ID, which I swipe through a turnstile. The only TSA presence we notice is when the blue-shirts come down to the cafeteria to get food.”


A version of this essay appears in the new book. Click here!


Here’s a true story:

I’m at the TSA checkpoint at a major US airport.  I’m on duty, in my full uniform, and have all of my gear with me.  I hoist my luggage onto the x-ray belt, then pass through the metal detector.  Once on the other side, I’m waiting for my stuff to reappear when the belt suddenly groans to a stop.

“Bag check!” shouts the guard behind the monitor.  Two of the most exasperating words in air travel, those are.

The bag in question turns out to be my roll-aboard.  The guard has spotted something inside.  The seconds tick by as she waits to confer with her colleague.  One minute passes.  Then two.  Then three.  All the while, the line behind me grows longer.

“Bag check!”

At last another guard ambles over.  There’s a conference.  For some reason these situations require a sort of football huddle, with lots of whispering and pointing, before the belt can be switched on again.  Why an offending piece of luggage can’t simply be pulled from the machine and screened separately is a topic for another time, but let us ponder, for a moment, how much time is wasted each day by these checks.

Finally the second guard, the meanness of whose scowl is exceeded only by the weight of the chip on her shoulder, lifts my roll-aboard from the machine and walks towards me.  “Is this yours?” she wants to know.

“Yes, it’s mine.”

“You got a knife in here?”

“A knife?”

“A knife,” she barks. Some silverware?”

Yes I do. I always do. Inside my suitcase I carry a spare set of airline-sized cutlery – a spoon, a fork, and a knife. Along with packets of noodles and small snacks, this is part of my hotel survival kit, useful in the event of short layovers when food isn’t available. It’s identical to the cutlery that accompanies your meal on a long-haul flight. The pieces are stainless steel and about five inches long. The knife has a rounded end and a short row of teeth — I would call them serrations, but that’s too strong a word. For all intents and purposes, it’s a miniature butter knife.

“Yes,” I tell the guard. “There’s a metal knife in there – a butter knife.”

She opens the compartment and takes out a small vinyl case containing the three pieces. After removing the knife, she holds it upward between with two fingers and stares at me coldly. Her pose is like that of an angry schoolteacher about to berate a child for bringing chewing gum to class.

“You ain’t taking this through,” she says. “No knifes [sic]. You can’t bring a knife through here.”

It takes a moment for me to realize that she’s serious. “I’m… but…. it’s…”

She throws it into a bin and starts to walk away.

“Wait a minute,” I say. “That’s airline silverware.”

“Don’t matter what it is. You can’t bring knifes through here.”

“Ma’am, that’s an airline knife. It’s the knife they give you on the plane.”

“Have a good afternoon, sir.”

“You can’t be serious,” I say.

With that she grabs the knife out of the bin and walks over to one of her colleagues, seated at the end of the checkpoint in a folding chair. I follow her over.

“This guy wants to bring this through.”

The man in the chair looks up lazily. “Is it serrated?”

She hands it to him.  He looks at it quickly, then addresses me.

“No, this is no good. You can’t take this.”

“Why not?”

“It’s serrated.” He is talking about the little row of teeth along the edge. Truth be told, the knife in question, which I’ve had for years, is actually smaller and duller than most of the knives handed out by airlines to their first and business class customers. You’d be hard pressed to cut a slice of toast with it.

“Oh come on.”

“What do you call these?” He runs his finger along the miniscule serrations.

“Those… but… they… it…”

“No serrated knives. You can’t take this.”

“But sir, how can it not be allowed when it’s the same knife they give you on the plane!”

“Those are the rules.”

“That’s impossible. Can I please speak to a supervisor?”

“I am the supervisor.”

There are those moments in life when time stands still and the air around you seems to solidify. You stand there in an amber of absurdity, waiting for the crowd to burst out laughing and the Candid Camera guy to appear from around the corner.

Except the supervisor is dead serious.

Realizing that I’m not getting my knife back, I try for the consolation prize, which is getting the man to admit that, if nothing else, the rule makes no sense. “Come on,” I argue. “The purpose of confiscating knives is to keep people from bringing them onto planes, right? But the passengers are given these knives with their meals.  At least admit that it’s a dumb rule. ”

“It’s not a dumb rule.”

“Yes it is.”

“No it isn’t.”

And so on, until he asks me to leave.

This was wrong, on so many levels, that it’s hard to keep them straight. Just for starters, do I really need to point out that an airline pilot at the controls of his plane would hardly need a butter knife if he desired to crash the plane?

I know this comes across a self-serving complaint, but at heart this isn’t about pilots. It’s about how diseased our approach to security is overall.  Like most airline crewmembers, I’d have no problem going through screening if it were done fairly, logically, and rationally.  In a way, TSA is going about this backwards.  They’re working to come up with a system that exempts pilots, when what they ought to be doing is improving the rules for everybody.

Thousands of travelers, meanwhile, have their own versions of stories like mine: the girl who had her purse confiscated because it was embroidered with beads in the shape of a handgun; the woman whose cupcake was taken away; the pilot in San Francisco whose infant daughter’s baby rattle was taken because it had liquid inside; a four-inch plastic rifle from toy action doll confiscated on the grounds that it was a “replica weapon.” Or the woman and her toddler son refused passage through a checkpoint because they boy was carrying his plastic lightsaber.

Each of those things really happened.  There’s no real need to arrange them order of ridiculousness, but it’s that last one, with the lightsaber, that makes you wonder if we haven’t lost our minds.  A lightsaber, if you’re not familiar, is a make-believe weapon made famous throng the Star Wars franchise.  In Earthly terms it’s a flashlight covered by a rounded plastic cone.  As a weapon, though, it exists only in fantasy. The product neither looks like a real weapon nor contains parts that are TSA contraband. It is an imaginary weapon hazardous only to a race of imaginary space-people invented by George Lucas.  Thus, confiscating a lightsaber is a little like confiscating a genie bottle or a magic wand.

Actually, it’s a lot like confiscating a genie bottle or a magic wand.  And this is the lunatic world of security we now live in: one of blind adherence, stripped of reason, in which even the stupidest of policies are enforced to the letter of the law.

TSA parody logo by Travis McHale

One day in 2006 my mother caused a small commotion at a checkpoint at Boston-Logan after screeners discovered a container of homemade tomato sauce in her bag. What with the preponderance of spaghetti grenades and lasagna bombs, we can all be proud of their vigilance; and, as a liquid, tomato sauce is in clear violation of TSA’s carry-on statutes. But this time there was a wrinkle: the sauce was frozen.

The icy red block had the guards in a scramble. Liquid, solid, gel, what was it? A supervisor was called over to assess things. He spent several moments stroking his chin before, drawing from an exquisite knowledge of refrigeration, he observantly sized things up. “It’s not a liquid right now,” he noted. “But it will be soon.”

“Please,” urged my mother. “Please don’t take away my dinner.”

Lo and behold, they did not. Whether out of confusion, sympathy, or embarrassment, she was allowed to pass with her murderous marinara.

And this got me thinking. Why can’t TSA exhibit common sense now and then?  If we’re to believe that TSA screeners are well-trained professionals, as the agency maintains, why can they not handle the responsibility of an occasional judgment call?  Why can’t they be empowered to allow some on-the-spot decision-making?  If a screener is shown a six-ounce tube of toothpaste that is obviously only half full, does it really need to be taken and flipped into the waste bin, as currently happens 90 percent of the time?

“Our screeners are allowed to exercise leeway in some cases,” a TSA spokesperson told me. “They have the training, and the obligation, to exercise discretion.” Maybe, but the tomato sauce incident notwithstanding, I’m not seeing much leeway and discretion.  I’m seeing a draconian obsession with the exactness of container volumes and the dimensions of objects, up to and including whether a pilot’s tiny knife has serrations on its blade, as if they alone could be the difference between unsafe and safe.  Enforcement of this kind transcends mere tedium and becomes downright unsafe. Maybe you’ve heard the story about a test in which TSA screeners are presented with a suitcase containing a mock explosive device with a water bottle nestled next to it?  They ferret out the water, of course, while the bomb goes sailing through.

Notice too the uniforms adopted by TSA. Screeners are now called “officers” and they wear blue shirts and silver badges. Not by accident, the shirts and badges look exactly like the kind worn by police. Mission-creep, this is called. In fact TSA workers do not hold law enforcement power as such — much as they have done a good job of fooling people into believing otherwise.  TSA holds the authority, legitimately, to inspect your belongings and prevent you from passing through a checkpoint. It does not have the authority to detain you, interrogate you, arrest you, force you to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or otherwise compromise your rights.  Both TSA and the traveling public need to remember this.

In 2010 things were taken to the next level with the introduction of full-body scanners at US airports. This is the latest and one of the more disheartening developments in our long war on the abstract noun called terrorism.  What’s next, we have to wonder?  Where will it end?  Or is this the end?

We’re asked to believe the body scanners are a critical tool, yet the strategy behind their deployment makes no sense.  You’ve got a scanner at one checkpoint, but no scanner at the one right next to it; scanners at some terminals, but not at others.  Are terrorists that stupid?  And what about overseas?  If somebody is going to sneak a bomb through a checkpoint, it is far more likely to happen someplace in Asia, Africa, South America or the Middle East than it is in Peoria, Wichita or Cleveland.  But domestically is where you find the majority of scanners.  It’s easy to be cynical.  Are these machines really in the interest of safety?  Is that what this is about?  Or is it about the corporations who stand to make billions of dollars in their design and deployment?  It’s questionable whether the scanners are making us safer.  But rest assured they’re making somebody wealthy.

When asked to pass through a scanner, I “opt out” and take the pat-down instead.  I don’t opt out because of worries about radiation.  I do it for the reasons above, and because I find it appalling that passengers are asked to pose naked in order to board an airplane.  A decade ago, nobody would have believed such a thing was possible, and the suggestion would have been met with howls of outrage.  But here it has come to pass, and our reaction, aside from one or two muffled complaints, has been a sheep-like acquiescence.

No less frustrating is the strained notion that, beginning with the events of September 11th, air travel suddenly entered a new age of danger and threat.  The grandiosity of the 2001 attacks, with their Hollywood thriller plotline and operatic fireballs, has gummed up our memories.  We talk of the “post-9/11 era,” whereas politically motivated violence against civil aviation has been with us for decades.  In fact, we see it a lot less often than we used to.  The 1970s through the 1990s were a sort of Golden Age of Air Crimes, rife with hijackings and bombings.  In the five-year span between 1985 and 1989 there were no fewer than six major terrorist attacks against commercial planes or airports, including the Libyan-sponsored bombings of Pan Am 103 and UTA 772; the bombing of an Air India 747 that killed 329 people; and the saga of TWA flight 847.  Flight 847, headed from Athens to Rome in June of 1985, was hijacked by Shiite militiamen armed with grenades and pistols. The purloined 727 then embarked on a remarkable, 17-day odyssey to Lebanon, Algeria, and back again. At one point passengers were removed, split into groups, and held captive in downtown Beirut. The photograph of TWA captain John Testrake, his head out the cockpit window, collared by a gun-wielding terrorist, was broadcast worldwide and became an unforgettable icon of the siege.

I say “unforgettable” but that’s just the thing.  How many Americans remember flight 847?  It’s astonishing how short our memories are. And partly because they’re so short, we are easily frightened and manipulated.  Imagine TWA 847 happening tomorrow.  Imagine six successful terror attacks against planes in a five-year span. The airline industry would be decimated, the populace frozen in fear.  It would be a catastrophe of epic proportion — of wall-to-wall coverage and, dare I suggest, the summary surrender of important civil liberties.  What is it about us, as a society, that has made us so unable to remember, and unable to cope?

But all right, enough of what we shouldn’t be doing. What about things we should be doing?  If I’m going to spend all this time complaining, it’s only fair that I offer up some solutions, no?

Well, airport security overall ought to be scaled back into a leaner but more focused operation.  I wouldn’t say that we have too much security, necessarily, but we certainly have too much in the wrong places, out of synch with the hierarchy of threat.  First up, every dime currently being spent looking for pointy objects, double-checking people’s IDs and confiscating innocuous liquids needs to be reallocated.

The primary threat to commercial aviation is, was, and shall remain, bombs.  Therefore every piece of luggage, both checked and carry-on, as well as cargo, ought to be scrutinized for explosives.  This already happens, officially, though I reckon we could be doing a more thorough job of it, with a stronger emphasis on airports outside the United States.  The likeliest point of entry for a bomb is not Omaha or Tucson, and I’d suggest shifting a good 35 percent of TSA resources to locations overseas.  If that should require some touchy negotiations with foreign airport authorities, so be it.

And like it or not, the time has come to put greater emphasis on passenger profiling. Profiling is a dirty word to some, but it needn’t be a one-dimensional preoccupation with skin color or national origin. Indeed, as security specialists will tell you, racial or ethnic profiling doesn’t work.  Routine is weakness, and the more predictable our methods, the easier they are to foil.  Effective profiling uses a multi-point approach that takes in a wide range of characteristics, both tangible and behavioral.  TSA has in fact been training staff in the finer points of behavioral pattern recognition. That’s good, though for the time being screeners are a lot more adept at picking out scissors and shampoo bottles than picking out terrorists.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has proposed a plan in which passengers would be categorized into one of three risk groups, and then screened accordingly. Biometric proof-of-identity, such as a fingerprint or encoded passport, will be checked against a stored profile containing various personal data, and also against watch lists. This, together with flight booking data will determine which of three lines a traveler is assigned to. Those in the first line would receive little more than a cursory bag check.  Those in the second line get a slightly closer look, while those in the third would face an enhanced inspection similar to the current TSA procedures.  This wouldn’t be perfect — and like many people, I get a little nervous when I hear the words “biometric” and “profile containing various personal data” — but it’s maybe the best idea yet when it comes to restoring sanity to airport security.  IATA says that an early version of the three-tiered system could be up and running in under three years.

That is, if governments cooperate. IATA is making sense, but I’m afraid it lacks the clout of the US Department of Homeland Security, the federal branch under whose auspices TSA operates. Enacting serious change would take, more than anything else, the political will and courage of our leaders in Congress. We have thus far seen little political opposition, bipartisan or otherwise, to TSA’s squandering of our time and money. While I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist, our leaders talk and act as if they enjoy the status quo, unwilling to disenfranchise any facet of what has become a vast and profitable security-industrial complex.

To be fair, there are plenty of bright and resourceful people at the TSA who know a lot more about the challenges of airport security than I ever will.  And they openly admit that a philosophical change is needed — a shift toward focusing on passengers themselves rather than on their belongings.  This, they understand, is the only viable strategy for the future.  But TSA is, in the end, a bureaucracy.  No doubt it sees the IATA proposal, and others like it, as a threat to its funding and authority.  This was an agency created in haste, granted considerable powers and relatively little accountability. Any idea, however beneficial, faces an uphill battle against such a potent government entity, especially when aided and abetted by a lethargic populace and an irresponsible media.

What TSA has signed off on are third-party programs, run by outside contractors, in which passengers submit biometric and personal data in exchange for expedited screening — for a fee.  Count me among those who find these programs objectionable.  Rather than fixing the problem, citizens can pay money and cut to the front of the line.  Your taxes will continue to support a dysfunctional system, and now you can pay even more to circumvent that system.   This is progress?

It doesn’t have to be this way. The solution is out there. Give us good intelligence-gathering and law enforcement, together with on-site random searches, thorough explosives scanning, and smartly managed profiling, and what have we got? A security strategy that is frankly pretty good.

As good as it can be, anyway.  Somewhere beneath all of this rests the uncomfortable fact that no matter how hard we try, we’re never going to make flying completely safe.  Neither all the determination in the world nor the most sweeping regulations we dare codify will outsmart a cunning enough saboteur. Sound, competent security greatly improves our chances, whether against the concoctions of a single deranged individual or organized terror from the caves of Central Asia.  But with every new technology and pledge of better safeguards, we correspondingly inspire the imaginations of those who wish to defeat us.  There will always be a way to skirt the system.

This brings us to a third fundamental flaw in our approach, whereby we refuse to acknowledged that the real job of keeping terrorists away from planes is not the job of airport screeners in the first place.  Rather, it’s the job of government agencies and law enforcement. The grunt work of hunting down terrorists takes place far off stage, relying on the diligent work of cops, spies, and intelligence officers.  Air crimes need to be stopped in the planning stages. By the time a terrorist gets to the airport, chances are it’s too late.  And the rage of angry radicals, dangers as it may be, is a long-term anthropological mission to be dealt with separately; it is not an excuse to turn airports into fortresses and subvert freedoms.

In the end, I’m not sure which is more distressing, the inanity of the existing regulations or the average citizen’s acceptance of them.  There ought to be a tide of opposition rising up against this mania. Where is it? At its loudest, the voice of the traveling public is one of grumbly resignation. The op-ed pages are silent, the pundits have nothing to say.

Airlines, for their part, are in something of a bind. That carriers and industry advocates seem content with such high levels of aggravation among their customers suggests a business model that is almost surreally masochistic and self-destructive.  On the other hand, imagine the outrage in certain circles should airlines be caught lobbying for what is perceived to be a dangerous abrogation of security and responsibility—even if it’s not. Carriers caught plenty of flak, almost all of it unfair, in the aftermath of September 11th. Understandably, they no longer want that liability.

How we got to this point is an interesting study in reactionary politics, fear mongering, and a disconcerting willingness of the public to accept almost anything, no matter how illogical, inconvenient, or unreasonable, in the name of security. Conned and frightened, what we get is not actual security, but security spectacle. The idea that this spectacle “helps travelers to feel better” is about its only excuse, and is hardly enough justification to keep it funded and running. And although a high percentage of passengers, along with most security experts, would concur that it leaves us no safer, and perhaps even increases our risks, there has been little to no protest. In that regard, maybe, we’ve gotten exactly the system we deserve.



1970: A Pan Am 747 bound for New York is skyjacked after takeoff from Amsterdam. The flight is diverted to Cairo where all of the 170 occupants are released.  Radicals then blow up the plane.


1970: In what were known as the Black September hijackings, five jets, including planes belonging to TWA, Pan Am, and Israel’s El Al, are commandeered over Europe during a three-day span by a group called the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).  After all passengers are freed, three of the five planes are diverted to a remote airstrip in Jordan, rigged with explosives and blown up.  A fourth is flown to Egypt and destroyed there.


1971: A man using the name DB Cooper skyjacks and threatens to blow up a Northwest Orient 727 flying from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle.  Over southwestern Washington he parachutes out the back of the plane with a hefty ransom and is never seen or heard from again


1972: A JAT (Yugoslav Airlines) DC-9 en route from Copenhagen to Zagreb explodes at 33,000 feet. The Ustashe, a.k.a. Croatian National Movement, admits to the bombing.


1972: Explosion aboard a Cathay Pacific jet flying from Bangkok to Hong Kong kills 81 people. A Thai police lieutenant is accused of hiding the bomb in order to murder his fiancée.


1972: In the arrivals lounge of the Lod airport near Tel Aviv, three men from the Japanese Red Army, recruited by the Palestinian PLFP, open fire with machine guns and grenades, killing 26 people and injuring 80.


1973: As passengers board a Pan Am 747 at the airport in Rome, terrorists spray the plane with gunfire and toss grenades into the cabin, killing 30.


1973: Eighty-one perish as an Aeroflot jet explodes over Siberia during an attempted skyjacking.


1974: A TWA 707 flying from Athens to Rome falls into the sea near Greece, the result of an explosive device hidden in a cargo compartment.


1974: A man detonates two grenades aboard an Air Vietnam 727 when the crew refuses to fly him to Hanoi.


1976: A Cubana DC-8 crashes near Barbados killing 73.  An anti-Castro exile and three alleged accomplices are put on trial but acquitted for lack of evidence.


1976: Air France Flight 139, bound from Tel Aviv to Athens to Paris, is hijacked by a combined force of PFLP and Revolutionäre Zellen (RZ). The plane is diverted first to Benghazi, Libya before continuing to Entebbe, Uganda.  At Entebbe, 105 hostages are held until the plane is raided by commandos from the Israel Defense Forces.  During the raid, three passengers, seven hijackers, one Israeli and approximately forty Ugandans are killed.


1977: Both pilots of a Malaysian Airline System (today called Malaysia Airlines) 737 are shot by a skyjacker. The plane crashes into a swamp.


1977: Lufthansa flight 181, on a scheduled flight from Mallorca to Frankfurt, is hijacked by four members of the PFLP. Over the next six days the plane is taken to Rome, Larnaca, Dubai, Bahrain, Aden, and Mogadishu, Somalia. Captain Jürgen Schumann is murdered during the stop in Aden. The remaining hostages are freed in Mogadishu after a daring rescue by German commandos. Flight attendant Gabriele von Lutzau, known as the “Angel of Mogadishu” for her role in the ordeal, would o on to become a world-renowned sculptor.


1985:  The Abu Nidal group kills 20 people in a pair of coordinated ticket-counter assaults at airports in Vienna and Rome.


1985: Shiite militiamen hijack TWA Flight 847 on a flight from Athens to Rome, holding hostages for two weeks.  The sole casualty is a US Navy diver who is shot and dumped on the tarmac. All remaining hostages are eventually released, but not before the Israeli government agrees to free more than 700 Shiite prisoners.


1985: An Air-India 747 on a service between Toronto and Bombay is bombed over the North Atlantic by Sikh militants.  The 329 fatalities remain history’s worst single-plane act of terrorism.  A second bomb, intended for another Air-India 747, detonates prematurely in Tokyo before being loaded.


1986: As TWA flight 840 descends through 10,000 feet toward Athens, a bomb goes off in the cabin.  Four people are ejected through a tear in the 727’s fuselage.


1986: At Karachi international airport, a Pan Am 747 is preparing for departure when four heavily armed members of the Abu Nidal group seize the aircraft. When Pakistani forces storm the plane, the terrorists begin shooting and lobbing grenades. Twenty-two passengers are killed and 150 wounded.  Although all four terrorists were captured and sent to prison in Pakistan, they were released in 2001.


1987: A Korean Air Lines 707 disappears over the Andaman Sea en route from Baghdad to Seoul. One of two Koreans suspected of hiding a bomb commits suicide before he’s arrested.  His accomplice, a young woman, confesses to leaving the device — fashioned from both plastic and liquid explosives — in an overhead rack before disembarking during an intermediate stop. Condemned to death, the woman is pardoned in 1990 by the president of South Korea.


1987: At Los Angeles International Airport, a recently fired ticket agent, David Burke, sneaks a loaded gun past security and boards a Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) jet on its way to San Francisco. During cruise he breaks into the cockpit, shoots both pilots, then noses the airplane into the ground near Harmony, California, killing all 44 on board.  (Unbelievable as it might sound, the government’s response to this crime was not to implement checkpoint security screening for ground personnel, but instead for pilots and flight attendants.)


1988: Pan Am flight 103 is carrying 259 people when it disintegrates a half-hour after takeoff from London-Heathrow.  The majority of the wreckage falls onto the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 11 more people.  The largest section, a flaming heap of wing and fuselage, drops onto the Sherwood Crescent area of the town, destroying twenty houses and ploughing a crater three stories deep.  The concussion is so strong that Richter devices record a 1.6 magnitude tremor.  Until you-know-what, the destruction of flight 103 represents the worst-ever terrorist attack against a civilian US target.  One of the most intensive criminal investigations in history would bring two Libyan operatives, al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, to trial in the Netherlands.  Fhimah was acquitted.  Al-Megrahi was found guilty and sentenced to life.  He was released by the British government in 2009, and died in Libya three years later.


1989: Libya will also be held responsible for the bombing of UTA flight 772 nine months after Lockerbie.  Most Americans don’t remember this incident, but it has never been forgotten in France.  A hundred and seventy people from 17 countries were killed when an explosive device went off in the forward luggage hold of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 on a flight from Brazzaville, Congo, to Paris. The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet’s most remote areas. A French court eventually convicted six Libyans in absentia for the murders, including Mohammar Khaddafy’s brother-in-law.


1989: In an attempt to kill police informants, members of a cocaine cartel blow up Avianca Flight 203 bound from Bogota to Cali. There are no survivors among 110 crew and passengers.


1990: A young man claiming to have explosives strapped to his body forces his way into the cockpit of a Xiamen Airlines 737 and demands to be flown to Taiwan.  Running out of fuel, the crew attempts a landing at Canton (Guangzhou), when a struggle erupts. The plane veers off the runway and collides with two other aircraft.


1994: Riding along as an auxiliary crewmember, Auburn Calloway, an off-duty Federal Express pilot scheduled for termination, attacks the three-man crew of a DC-10 with a spear gun and a hammer, nearly killing all of them.  His plan, before he’s finally overtaken by the battered and bloodied pilots, is to crash the airliner into FedEx’s Memphis headquarters.


1994: An Air France Airbus A300 is stormed by a foursome of extremist Muslims in Algeria.  The plane is forced to Marseilles where seven people die when French troops rush aboard for a rescue.  News footage shows an Air France pilot hurling himself out of a cockpit window while an stun grenade flashes behind him.


1996: An Ethiopian Air Lines 767 is hijacked over the Indian Ocean. The jet runs out of fuel and heads for a ditching off the Comoros Islands.  Hijackers wrestle with the pilots, and the plane breaks apart upon hitting the water, killing 125.


1999: A deranged 28-year-old forces his way onto the flight deck of an All Nippon Airways 747 carrying 503 people and stabs the captain to death with an 8-inch knife.


1999: Air Botswana captain Chris Phatswe steals an empty ATR commuter plane and slams it into two parked aircraft, killing himself and destroying virtually the entire fleet of his nation’s tiny airline.


And not to forget what might have been.  I’ll remind you again of the near success of the 1994 Project Bojinka conspiracy to bomb eleven widebody jets simultaneously over the Pacific Ocean.  Bojinka, or “big bang,” was the brainchild of Ramzi Yousef, a master mixer of liquid explosives, and his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.  The latter would go on to mastermind the September 11th attacks, while Yousef was, at the time, already a wanted man for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center prelude. The bombs, made from nitroglycerin, sulfuric acid, acetone and other chemicals, would be hidden with the under-seat life jackets.  In 1995 Yousef completed a successful, small-level test run on a Philippine Airlines 747, killing a Japanese businessman.  The plot was broken up after authorities investigated a chemical fire in the Manila apartment of one of Yousef’s accomplices.


A version of this essay appears in the new book.


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