Today in Security Theater, Air Force One Edition

By James Fallows
Flight Aware, via Ari Ofsevit

Ari Ofsevit, of the Boston area, sent out a Tweet this afternoon saying "If you're flying in to Boston right now, uh, you aren't." It included the image above, from Flight Aware.

WTF? The answer is that Air Force One, bearing POTUS, was at Boston's Logan Airport, so other planes were not allowed to operate there. 

It's always exciting to hear, on the normal Air Traffic Control frequency, calls involving AF1. "November Five Sierra Romeo, climb and maintain six thousand feet." "Climbing six thousand, Five Sierra Romeo." "Air Force One, contact Atlanta Center on one-two-two point three." "Atlanta Center, one-two-two point three, Air Force One." But the idea that the plane should paralyze normal airport operations by its mere existence is an extension of security theater that comes across as Caesarian grandiosity, no matter who occupies the White House. (I will always remember being at the Wright Brothers centennial at Kitty Hawk NC, in 2003, when suddenly AF1, bearing one-time National Guard pilot George W. Bush, arrived, and a Praetorian guard of security officials put the whole area under its control.) As Ofsevit said in a follow-up note:

Watching POTUS fly in to Boston today (and listening in on LiveATC) I decided that it is quite silly anymore that we shut down the airport for AF1. Airports are just about as secure as it gets, and air traffic control is run in such a manner that there hasn't been a plane-to-plane collision in the US in decades. [JF note: For a riveting account of the most dramatic such collision, one between a TWA and a United flight over the Grand Canyon back in 1956, check out this.] Are we admitting that ATC is [fallible], since we ground everyone during presidential visits? Or is this a holdover from earlier days?

I understand, say, keeping planes off the active runway and taxiway when AF1 is landing as a precaution. But keeping everyone at the gate until the president not only lands and taxis, but until his motorcade has left the airport? Does it make any sense?

Once the plane is parked—usually on a section of airfield away from runways, taxiways and ramps, couldn't other planes push back and move towards the runways, and couldn't you land planes which have been circling?

I think this is security theater at its finest, but maybe there's an aviation or security answer beyond that. Is there?

On the Let's Be Reasonable side: American presidents are under a constant barrage of threats; Obama is under a special threat barrage of his own; it matters, and is a kind of miracle, that the violence against political figures that so grossly distorted the 1960s has not recurred. Thank you, Secret Service.

But -- at an airport? Already the distillation of America's security state? To imagine that one of the other airliners conducting normal operations might constitute a threat would require: knowing in advance when Air Force One was about to arrive, which is usually announced at the last minute; knowing in advance which airline crews would be on which planes to carry out a threat, also subject to last-minute change; somehow getting something on those planes that might be dangerous; knowing exactly where those airplanes would be, on the airport's runways, taxiways, and gates, at the moment Air Force One was parked and vulnerable; disregarding ATC instructions so as somehow to impinge on Air Force One's space; and so on. Anything could happen, but ...

In Washington DC, presidential "ground movements" -- the motorcades with all the police-motorcycle forerunners and the rest of the entourage -- have been worked out to paralyze the city as little as possible. Maybe we could apply that logic to airports too? Given that they are already so much more thoroughly controlled than our roads? Just a thought.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/03/today-in-security-theater-air-force-one-edition/284257/