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Paying Attention In Flight

long airport security line, viewed from ground level
Security line at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Photo by Josh Hallett.

Back when investigative journalists tried to report news rather than nonsense, a Boston Globe editor might have asked what was newsworthy about air marshals and other security officers keeping an eye on travelers before and during flights.

We will return to the Globe’s pseudo-expose about the Transportation Security Administration’s “Quiet Skies” initiative shortly. First, let me tell you from recent personal experience what can happen when nobody is paying attention.

A few weeks ago my wife and I took a three-hour domestic flight within Brazil. Airport security was casual; removing shoes was optional and we made just a quick pass through a metal detector while our carry-ons were X-rayed. (The procedure was much more stringent, on par with American standards, when we later boarded our international flight back to Florida.)

We both like aisle seats. Often, we reserve places opposite one another, as we did on this single-aisle Airbus A320 with three-across seating. As we took our places in the third row, we saw that my wife was assigned to sit next to two unaccompanied children – a girl of about 9 and her brother, around 7. My wife speaks no Portuguese, while I speak a bit, so we swapped. She got the seat next to the young couple traveling with their small dog, and I took the kids.

They were perfectly nice children and well-behaved for their age, but they still needed a lot of attention. I kept the boy from pulling down his tray table during takeoff and landing. During most of the flight, he commuted frequently to the forward galley to visit the flight attendants, at least when he wasn’t pushing the call button. Call buttons are a lot more fun than I remembered, apparently.

At one point the pilots wanted to leave the cockpit to get some refreshments and visit the forward lavatory. As usual, the cabin crew used a food cart to block the aisle leading to the galley, lavatory and flight deck – but they did so while a passenger was in the lavatory. Nobody seemed to care. Then, while the pilots were taking their turns in the cabin, they left the cockpit door open. Not for just a moment, but for something close to five minutes. My wife was so stunned that she took a photo to send back to our kids. I had not seen anything like this in close to two decades. But other than us – as far as I could tell, we were the only Americans aboard this flight from Campinas to Recife – nobody seemed startled.

In summary, our flight had a distracted cabin crew, an open cockpit door and a passenger in an area that was supposed to hold only airline personnel at the time. If anything like this happened on an American flight, I certainly would hope some official on board would notice and respond. Well over 100 lives depended on that aircraft safely reaching Recife.

Now we get to the Globe’s purported expose. The gist is that travelers who are not suspected of any crime are still being watched by law enforcement before and sometimes during their flights. Which is to say, federal air marshals are doing the exact same thing as every police officer who drives a patrol car or walks a beat. In the process, the marshals are supposed to look out for certain behaviors that might indicate someone is particularly nervous or angry: a “cold penetrating stare,” a nervous tic, repeated trips to a lavatory. Also sleeping, for whatever reason. Maybe the theory is that someone planning an attack had a sleepless night and is exhausted.

I sleep on virtually every flight I take. As for lavatory usage, let’s just say there is a reason that I always try to secure an aisle seat. This behavior may well have gotten me a second or even a third look from some plainclothes marshal at some point, since I travel often. Big deal. If I walk past a police station, I expect to be seen by a police officer. If I board an aircraft, I may be seen by an air marshal.

The fact that I take a particular flight, or my flying history as a whole, is no secret and is hardly personal. Flight attendants on my regular airline usually approach me by name and thank me for my loyalty as a member of their rewards program. The TSA knows enough about me that I fairly often get free access to the speediest security line. I call it winning the Precheck lottery, but I’m sure it is not purely random. At least, I hope not.

On the other hand, if I visited Pakistan, Somalia or some other known terrorist haven, I would expect the TSA and other monitoring agencies to take note. Likewise, if I suddenly started making unusual cash deposits or withdrawals at my bank, especially if money was also moving between me and countries that have spawned terror attacks, I’d expect someone to pay attention. And if something in my behavior or background triggered extra scrutiny while I was in transit – so what? I already have no expectation of privacy in today’s aviation system. Nobody, at least as far as the Globe’s report on Quiet Skies states, is reading my email or listening to my telephone calls. Nobody is placing cameras in my home. Once I leave the airport upon arrival, my contact with the TSA is over until my next flight.

The other prong of the Globe’s story is that some air marshals believe the heightened scrutiny and behavioral observation are a waste of time. This is a management question, not a privacy question. And the big news here is that some employees think they could do their bosses’ jobs better than their bosses do. (The air marshals collectively are under the supervision of the TSA.) When journalists regularly practiced journalism, this was called a dog-bites-man story. Not much news there, either.

Americans are not alone in being terrorist targets, and I hope my Brazilian friends never have reason to lose the false sense of security they apparently enjoy when traveling in their home country. But Americans know – we don’t guess, we know – that we are targets wherever we are. We also know that since 9/11, there have been multiple attempts to place bombs, and sometimes suicide bombers, aboard aircraft bound for the United States. It is no accident that none have succeeded, and it is no coincidence that every such flight since 9/11 that is public knowledge originated abroad.

Our domestic aircraft security system is not perfect. No doubt it isn’t perfectly efficient either. Yet it works. In nearly 17 years since 9/11, we have seen Americans and visitors to our country killed in terror attacks committed with motor vehicles, knives and all sorts of firearms. But apart from one gunman who forced himself through security in Los Angeles a few years ago, killing a TSA officer in the process, none of these attacks have occurred beyond airport security in this country. No fatal attack since 9/11 has occurred on a U.S. aircraft.

This has not been the case overseas. A Russian jet was bombed on takeoff from Sinai a few years ago. A Malaysian jetliner disappeared under highly suspicious circumstances in Asia. Chechen separatists hijacked and bombed two Russian airliners simultaneously in 2004. A suicide bomber tried to bring down a Somali-owned airliner on a flight out of Mogadishu in 2016; the bomber died, but the jet was able to make an emergency landing.

So what of the fact that a particular individual may be targeted for observation on multiple flights? Critics jumped on the Globe story to say this may be evidence of profiling, and thus a violation of travelers’ civil rights. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center both expressed concerns of this nature. The case against such so-called profiling boils down to an assertion that a 69-year-old grandmother from Biloxi, Mississippi who has never left the United States should have the same chance of being scrutinized as a Belgian citizen on a tourist visa who previously traveled to Turkey and whose activities after arriving there are unknown.

This is absurd. Many of today’s terrorists have some personal or at least virtual connection to certain places, even though most people from those places have no connection whatsoever to terrorism. Of course nobody’s background makes them a terrorist, or even a terrorist suspect, and no innocent person ought to be harassed. But we expect authorities to keep us safe from attack, not merely to apprehend attackers after the fact. You have to look for potential wrongdoers where you are most apt to find them.

Quiet Skies has operated since 2010 – the Globe stated the program was new, but the TSA subsequently clarified its start date – and was not even public knowledge until now (at least in this explicit form, although we could have easily presumed a program like it existed). If most travelers who have been observed and allegedly profiled are unaware that the scrutiny even happened, what rights have been violated? The primary right that ought to concern any traveler is the right to arrive safely at the journey’s end.

This story boils down to a ginned-up fuss about an unpublicized but unsurprising security initiative that supposedly infringed the privacy rights of travelers by observing them in a public space and by connecting other dots with information that the government is widely known to accumulate. Thus the traveling public is supposed to have been unknowingly abused for the past eight years.

Back in the day, any capable editor would have spiked this nonstory and would have curtly informed the reporters that there is a difference between news and nonsense.

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