The Small-Plane Non-Menace (updated)

Our current issue is out -- say it with me, Subscribe! -- and has a lot of important articles about which I will intend to say more in due course. For instance: Joshua Green on the man who has done so much to bring the Senate's business to a near-halt. (I mentioned that just before Christmas I sat in the Senate gallery while a judicial nomination was approved by a 98-0 vote. No one opposed this potential judge -- but for reasons of sheer obstructionism, the vote was delayed for months.) Gary Hart and Andrew Bacevich on what's wrong with the military, and how it could be made more right. From the archives, we've retrieved my complementary article from 25 years ago, "The Spend Up," about how an earlier wave of money-rather-than-strategy left America more indebted but not more secure. A great graphic feature on the effects of the recession, by Timothy Lavin. And lots more, including sex and porn.

The issue also has a feature by Jeffrey Goldberg that is interesting, like everything Jeff writes, but is to my mind completely wrong-headed. And wrong-headed in a way that I think Jeff would be the first to recognize if it concerned a field he was more familiar with.

He talks about taking a private-plane flight -- in a rich friend's twin-engine jet -- from Teterboro airport, outside New York, to Dulles airport, outside Washington. Jeff's surprise is that he didn't go through the formal impedimenta of "security" as we have come to know it in the TSA era. Therefore this must constitute a gaping hole in the nation's security structure. Ie, Security you don't see is security that's not there.

I could write about this at length -- and, hey, I think I will! Of course, the necessary disclosures: One, obviously I'm biased. I am an active small-plane pilot and value precisely the fact that the U.S. general aviation network allows people to travel without extensive advance planning and without matching a commercial carrier's schedule or routes. This flexibility is analogous to the reason cars (as opposed to public buses) become popular anywhere on Earth where people have enough money for them.

And two: Jeff's right that there is a huge class privilege that goes with the private jet world. It lies in the ability to cut through all the hassle that is today's commercial airline system. People rich enough to own or charter jets travel when and where they want; don't have to stand in lines; don't have to give up their water or take off their shoes; don't have to build two extra hours into travel time to allow for everything that can go wrong at the airport. That is "unfair," and it is chapter 12,748 in the ongoing "polarization of America" saga. But a major new security threat it ain't.

After the jump, a sample note -- one of many dozens -- that both Jeff and I received from the pilot diaspora. As the writer says, small-plane pilots as a group feel embattled. They're We're an older, dwindling population -- the surge was the huge group of pilots trained in WW II and two decades afterwards -- and 90% of them fly relatively cheap small propeller planes that give them nothing in common with the private-jet set. Indeed there are obvious class resentments within the small-plane world, for instance when bare-bones hangars at an airport are scrapped to make room for new corporate jet facilities. Their one point of common purpose is valuing the flexibility of the nation's network of 4,000+ small airports, including the absence of security theater TSA-style.

Which brings me to my disagreements. What's wrong with Jeff's article, in my view (as he knows), is that it manifests two forms of thinking that he and I both criticize when we see them in the TSA. They are the "security theater" mentality (if it looks official and intrusive, you're safer), and the "risk elimination" fallacy (since there is some chance that what looks like an elderly nun could be a disguised terrorist, every single person must be inspected in exactly the same way) . Instead, both Jeff and I have frequently advocated a more flexible, less cookie-cutter, more selective and intelligence-based approach to security. That's pretty much how the small plane world already works.

For instance: flight operations anywhere in the vicinity of Washington are very different in the years since 9/11. Passengers wouldn't know it, but anyone operating an airplane is aware of the whole suite of special training, permissions, advance-filing procedures, radio protocols, etc required for operations within the "Special Flights Rules Area" reaching 35+ miles in all directions from Washington (including Dulles), with other restrictions extending about 70 miles out. Since 2000, except when living in China, I've had a small plane based at Gaithersburg, 30+ miles from downtown DC. Every takeoff from that airport, or approach to it from outside the DC area, requires advance security notice. For airports closer in, there are tighter rules -- for instance, fingerprinting and Secret Service pre-clearance for pilots who intend to fly there.

Moreover, the whole small-plane ecology represents the small-scale, tight, HUMINT-based, "neighborhood watch"-style security approach that the TSA would prefer but could never be scaled up to the whole commercial air system. A passenger getting on a private jet might not notice people at the airport, but many people would be noticing him and judging whether he "fits." I know because over the years I've noticed people -- and been noticed. This is why I say that if Jeff Goldberg or others were more of this world they'd have a clearer sense of its non-theatric security

Is there some remaining risk? Absolutely. There is similarly a risk that the Ryder truck next to you will be full of explosives, that the person behind you on the subway stairs could have a bomb in a backpack, that someone at the Safeway could pull out a Glock. As the TSA's John Pistole told Jeff Goldberg and me in our interview, no one can be in the "risk-elimination business." The job is judging relative risks and trying to abate them. Relatively speaking, small planes are not a high area of risk. As I will try to explain to Jeff when I frisk him and take him for a flight.
[Update: And on the other hand, I agree 100% with Jeff Goldberg about the hideousness of this political moment.]

A reader writes:

>>First, I am a typical GA pilot, so I am biased (but hardly rich - which is typical of most GA guys & gals I am aware of - and due in part to the financial impact of their flying habit J).  However, in the relative scope of potential terrorist opportunities I think that GA poses a relatively minor threat.  After the 911 attack, I recall reading an article comparing the total energy content (kinetic, due to mass/speed, and potential, related to the fuel explosive value) of a wide body airliner and a typical GA aircraft.  I will send it if/when I find it.  The differences are MANY orders of magnitude.  The aircraft/building collisions in NY of a Cirrus aircraft (like your buddy Fallows flies), one in Miami, and the idiot right here in Austin trying to find an IRS agent exemplify the limited potential for damage by the average GA plane. 


In my opinion, trucks, railroad cars, ships (yes, and probably private yachts) offer much greater potential threats: 

  1. They are much more commonplace, so tougher to identify (I would think).
  2. They can contain vastly greater quantities of explosive materials (think IED).
  3. They can use much more simplistic explosive materials made from commonly available components that can be carried in sufficient quantities to do real damage (think OKC).
  4. They are far easier to position with significant latitude regarding timing.
  5. They can be detonated remotely so the perpetrator can potentially repeat their gruesome project.
  6. They require little training other than the explosives part.
  7. Their activities are even less controlled than your local airport.


Let's not forget bullets.  A few guys with AK47's can more easily create random deaths than any of the above.  Read "The Gun".  Juarez is closer to a future terrorist society than anything my Cessna can do.


Teterboro NJ airport is not a typical sleepy GA airport.  It is probably close to a quasi commercial airport in practical terms, and with immediate access to a major metro area. Even so, the comments in my 1st pp still reasonably reflect the general risk.  Greater risk is that somebody steals a plane and crashes it, killing themselves and potentially someone on the ground.  Happens every day with cars... Probably ought to lock the up in large secure, monitored facilities... along with all of the trucks... oh, and the yachts too. 


None of this addresses the positive social aspects of having free access to these facilities for most small communities.  The pilot population is currently below 600,000 and declining fast as we baby boomers and our WWII pilot mom's & dad's age and die off.  There were 39,000 registered pilots prior to WWII (see Dec 2010 Sport Aviation).  We're headed to similar rarity status, I fear.  Barb wire and guards at the local airport won't add to our security and they will surely speed the decline of an important part of our economy and recreational opportunities.<<

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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