Of Airplanes, Fences, and National Security

Although I've written about aviation for over 20 years now, I rarely write about it on The Atlantic's site because Jim Fallows already does such an excellent job of covering the topic here. But I do want to add a few words to what Jim's already said (all of which I wholeheartedly agree with) in response to Jeffrey Goldberg's "Private Plane, Public Menace" dispatch piece that ran in this month's Atlantic.

After getting a ride in a friend's corporate jet, Goldberg concludes that privileged "general aviation" airplanes threaten national security because their passengers aren't subject to the same TSA security that airline passengers are, and he argues that we need to impose that kind of security at general aviation facilities and airports.

I disagree with Goldberg's position on a couple of different levels. First, his description of what constitutes "general aviation" is skewed. And second, attempts to impose TSA-type security at small airports are not only, as Jim said, "wrongheaded" -- akin to attacking a fly with a clumsy and ineffective sledgehammer -- but they are also destroying one of the most valuable resources that airports offer America.

To understand why I agree with Jim that TSA-style security measures are neither required in the world of general aviation, nor the best approach to what security risk does exist in that world, it helps to understand, first, what "general aviation" really is. From there, it's easier to understand why the risk is not what many people imagine, as well as what's wrong with taking a TSA approach to security for every airplane and every airport across America.

Recommended Reading

So, what is "general aviation"? The way Goldberg describes the world of non-airline flying: "'general' being a euphemism for 'private,'" and private, in Goldberg's eyes, being a euphemism for "toys of the spoiled rich" -- is not uncommon among non-pilots. It describes a segment of aviation that is very visible, and which surely does exist. But that segment is also a very small piece of the picture.

Corporate or individually-owned jets constitute only 4 percent of privately owned aircraft. (Another 3 percent are jet engine-powered propeller planes, akin to the smallest of commuter planes.) The overwhelming majority of private aircraft are less-expensive and less-powerful piston-engine airplanes, and a whopping 68 percent of all private airplanes are single-engine piston aircraft.

In addition, most of those piston-powered, single-engine airplanes are not the shiny new models pictured in the magazines. Almost 90 percent of general aviation aircraft are more than 20 years old. Every airplane has to go through a thorough mechanical inspection every year, and essential parts (like engines) are replaced at set times. So the age of most planes isn't a safety issue. But it is reflected in their cost and value.

A brand-new Cirrus might carry a price tag of a half a million dollars, but my first airplane -- a 1946 two-seat Cessna that I bought in 1986 for only $5,000, could still be bought today for under $15,000. And my current airplane, 1977 Grumman Cheetah, which has a larger piston engine and four seats, has a current market value of around $30,000. Or about the price of a new Saab sedan.

What's more, many of those piston-powered single engines aren't the performance machines people imagine them to be. To fly coast to coast in my own single-engine airplane, for example, takes -- west to east, when the winds are predominantly at my back -- 30 flight hours. Which generally equates to six days, given that I don't fly in bad weather and limit my "pilot-in-command" time to about six hours a day, because I don't have an autopilot. In other words, you could drive the distance in less time.

There are also pilots like Jim, who have faster airplanes and "instrument" pilot ratings that permit them to fly in bad weather, allowing them to get a lot more utility out of their airplanes. But only 15 percent of licensed pilots have a current instrument rating. For the rest of us, flying isn't something we do for utility's sake.

So why do pilots sacrifice and scrape together the money to fly, if not for a useful purpose? The reasons vary, of course. But for many, many pilots, it has to do with remembering something we all used to know, back when we were still young enough to believe that anything was possible and dreams could come true. "Three year olds," I once wrote in an essay on the subject, "may not know much about physics, investment banking, literature, or even the meaning of life, but they understand something very important about living.... [They understand] that life is in the ever-changing moment of the present, that joy is more important than possessions, and that dreams are the lifeblood of a heart and soul."

Unfortunately, as we grow older many of us find, or are told so many times that we start to believe it, that anything is not possible and dreams are for dreamers; irresponsible luxuries not related to putting food on the table. We live long enough to know the demons of disappointment and the restrictions of life's boundaries. Little by little, we lose that three-year-old belief in magic, dreams, and possibilities. And little by little, an important piece of our hearts dies.

And that is why many pilots fly. The exact incidents that draw future pilots to airports differ widely. But for many of them, the reason they stay is that in some way they can't even quite articulate, airplanes and flight bring that piece of their heart back to life. After all, flight itself a metaphor for freedom and possibility. A couple thousand feet up in the air, all the limits and disappointments of daily life fade away beneath an endless horizon and the thought, remembered again, of how unbelievably beautiful and vast the world is; how full of possibilities and roads still untraveled.

It's why airports are -- or can be -- such magical places. On a practical level, they're all a valuable part of our national transportation system. But they are also community resources; places where anyone can go, watch, sense, and perhaps recapture a little of that childhood belief in dreams, freedom, and possibilities.

Why does that matter in a discussion of national security? Because when we fence small airports off behind 14-foot barbed-wire barriers and rigid TSA procedures, we separate them from the communities they were built to serve, and separate communities from a resource that might offer them something even more valuable than transportation. We also kill the magic itself. It's hard to imagine someone wandering out to the airport pictured below and seeing it as a place full of dreams and possibilities. And yet, post-9/11 Homeland Security funding is leading to far more fences like this one:

1. It's a rare airport fence that can't be gotten around, if you know your way around. The high fences and intimidating signs make airports seem unapproachable by community people, but they tend to fall more into the realm of "security theater" (which Jim has talked about many times) than a real deterrent for someone intent on getting access to an airport or airplane for nefarious reasons.

2. Despite the public's fears of a rogue pilot with terrorist intentions, most general aviation airplanes are extremely limited in the damage they can inflict. There's a reason the 9/11 attackers chose 767 airliners filled to the brim with fuel for transcontinental flights for their weapons. Something smaller wouldn't have been effective. Recall that in the same week as a van driven by an elderly man went out of control in Herald Square, New York, killing half a dozen people, a small airplane flown by a suicidal teenager crashed into an office building in Tampa, Florida, doing serious damage to a desk.

3. The power of human connections. Aviation is a small community, and individual airports are like very small towns. Strangers stand out. And pilots look after each other. A private plane is also a different environment than an airliner. Airliners carry a large number of people who don't know each other. So the risk of a lone terrorist making their way on board is real. That's not the case on a private plane. You know your fellow passengers. What's more, if you blow up an airliner, you kill a lot of innocent people who are on board with you. That's not the case with a private plane--which is another reason they're less attractive as a target.

But what about Goldberg's fear that a group of terrorists could charter an aircraft large enough to do some amount of damage on the ground, if they incapacitated the pilots? It could happen, of course -- with or without TSA procedures. But here I think Jim Fallows is correct in arguing for the power of internal HUMINT (HUMan INTelligence) over TSA robo-screeners. Charter operators I've talked to say they take a number of measures to make sure their customers aren't going to turn out to be nightmares: they don't take cash, they do background credit checks, and they also pay a lot of attention to their gut when it comes to accepting potential customers. After all, the operators have a multi-million dollar asset to protect. If something about a potential customer, or their behavior, doesn't smell right, they don't take the job.

The bottom line is that there's some level of risk in a lot of places (see my earlier post on this subject). But by overreacting with a sledgehammer to the relatively small risk that general aviation airplanes pose, we lose something that is perhaps even more important to preserve, in this post-9/11 world: a connection and access to places that have the ability to remind us that fears and limits can be overcome, and dreams and possibilities are still worth believing in.

This post originally appeared on James Fallows's blog.