Air Safety

09 April 2011
Don’t miss Michael’s rant about airport security
Brian Micklethwait

And about how, as a consequence of airport security, he missed his flight to Italy yesterday.

23 November 2010
Junk-touching roundup
Rob Fisher

Not so long ago we were looking forward to a new era of sensible airport security. Now everyone is getting their junk touched.

This all started when backscatter naked X-ray machines were introduced in US airports recently. If you don’t like it, you can opt-out, but you get an “enhanced” pat-down. Then John Tyner coined a phrase when he told a TSA officer, “if you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested”. He is now a Legendary Internet Hero and everyone is having a go. Since then he’s made a few more posts on the subject. They are sensible and articulate. He makes a point I’ve made myself, which is that people don’t really want maximum safety at all costs. Citing an article in reason, Tyner writes:

if a plane was hijacked and crashed once per week, one’s odds of dying would be 1 in 135,000. One would be almost three times as likely to be killed crossing the street, eight times as likely to be murdered, and over twenty times as likely to be killed in a car crash. Really think about that for a second. If a plane was hijacked and crashed once per week, you would still be more likely to be killed driving to the airport to get on that plane. The takeaway from this should be that terrorism (in the air) just isn’t that common. However, it has certainly achieved its intended end, to terrorize.

He goes on to say that since 4 out of 5 people walk through the metal detector anyway, molesting the remaining 1 out of 5 doesn’t do any good anyway. It’s a lot of cost for no benefit. Oddly enough, the Daily Mail (via Angry Teen) thinks you’re just as likely to die from the radiation from the backscatter machine as to die from a terrorist attack.

Really it’s worth keeping an eye on Tyner’s blog. There are a few other articles so far in which he defends himself from various criticisms, including the old “flying is a privilege” line, in which post he analyses the situation from the point of view of his contract with the airline.

Since then, blogs have declared open season on the TSA:

  • I first became aware of the new security procedures via Samizdata, wherein we learn that Andrew Ian Dodge got his junk, and his scar from surgery, touched.
  • Eric Raymond does not want to fly any more.
  • (He thinks the real solution to air terrorism is to arm the passengers.)
  • One of his commenters links to a cartoon showing a spoof cover of a book titled “My first cavity search: Helping your child understand why he may pose a threat to National Security”. The cartoon turns up displayed in a TSA office.
  • People don’t like their children being patted down by the TSA. Angry Teen links to a video of this happening. The TSA say that the boy’s father removed his shirt to expedite the screening and no complaint was made. However, a video taken in 2008 of a three year old girl who screams “stop touching me” has resurfaced. Her father *was* complaining.
  • TSA agents don’t like being called “molesters” and “perverts”. They also don’t like feeling inside the flab creases of obese people. Imagine what it must be like for the obese people! The Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler has no sympathy.
  • It’s not just fat people who suffer indgnity: One poor chap was left soaked in urine after a TSA agent broke his urostomy bag. A poor woman was forced to show her prosthetic breast.
  • All kinds of people are likely to be *really sensitive* about being groped by strangers. A rape victim reports being traumatised by the TSA.
  • Somebody is selling backscatter-machine thwarting underwear.
  • NickM at Counting Cats has a good old rant.
  • Plane full of soldiers returning from Afghanistan. They’re all carrying rifles. The TSA confiscates one soldier’s nail clippers.
  • Heresy Corner points out that since security theatre only works when everyone plays along, a large scale backlash will be a huge problem for the TSA. He also links to a story about a porn star who mocks the TSA, insisting on being examined while wearing see-through underwear. It’s the sexualisation of airport security which is fuelling the backlash, he says.
  • In a similar vein, Nate Anderson at Ars Technica suggests wearing a kilt in the traditional manner.
  • An organisation called We Won’t Fly wants people to opt-out of backscatter machines en masse.
  • Slashdot has a discussion about ways to make backscatter machines less objectionable by using computer vision. One commenter argues that planes can’t be used as missles any more, that blowing them up isn’t cost effective for terrorists, and best of all:

I don’t even think the TSA should be the one scanning the people at all, it should be the individual airlines. That way you can choose to pay for your security if you really want it, and competitive practices can find the optimal solution.

That’s all for now. I have a feeling there is going to be much more.

27 October 2010
Security, iPads and biodiversity
Rob Fisher

First liquids are to be allowed on planes, and now the chairman of British airways is complaining about security theatre. Taking off shoes and taking laptops out of bags is a waste of time, he thinks. The “aviation industry” agrees with him. Air travellers have had enough and the tide is turning. This is good news. And this is very funny, and typical of authorities unable to keep up with technology:

...confusion over whether the iPad is a laptop or not, thereby requiring further examination, was one example of inconsistencies.

Meanwhile, Airbus are getting in on the biodiversity bandwagon. Why?

26 October 2010
EU to lift flight ban on carry-on liquids
Brian Micklethwait

Looks that way.  About effing time.  Via Johnathan Pearce at Samizdata.

08 October 2008
Qantas Woes
Rob Fisher

Poor old Qantas.  First the hole of horror, now the plunge of, er, horror.

On the bright side, the safe landing of these flights should provide some comfort to those experiencing future in-flight anomalies.

Update:  ATSB has released information on the preliminary investigation.  It looks like a navigation computer fed erroneous data to the flight control computer.  Pertinent questions have been raised on the Risks Digest mailing list: the primary flight computer is supposed to compare information from multiple navigation computers, so why didn’t it notice something was amiss?

09 September 2008
Ice in fuel caused Heathrow crash
Rob Fisher

Remember the Boeing 777 that crashed back in January?  Investigators are saying it was probably caused by ice crystals that formed in the fuel.

Investigators said three unique factors came together in flight BA038 that had not been found in 13,000 other flights: the length of time that fuel temperatures stayed below 0C; low fuel flow demands in cruising flight, and high fuel flow demands during landing. They added that the amount of water in the fuel supply - around five litres - was not abnormal.

No matter how carefully aircraft systems are designed, once in a while a combination of events will occur that you hadn’t tested for.  But at least it won’t happen again, and air travel will be just that little bit safer from now on:

Boeing said last night that it had devised “a number of operational changes” to prevent ice building up in 777 fuel systems that used the type of Rolls Royce engine involved in the crash.

Hat tip: The Google News Alert I set up, knowing that the follow-ups to this story probably wouldn’t make the front pages.

Update: Incidentally, in this story there’s a lot of insight into how air crash investigations are done.  13,000 normal flights were compared with this one.  That suggests that black box recordings from many flights are archived, and that statistical and data mining techniques can be used to find out what’s unusual about a given flight.  I wonder if enough computing power and clever enough software could be installed in the cockpit, comparing current data with all previous flights and warning the pilot of anything unusual.

08 February 2008
“I would have loved to have had another go…” - a passenger on board the plane that crash landed at Heathrow describes using the emergency chutes.  …link
Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (2)Air Safety
31 January 2008
Airport on stilts
Brian Micklethwait

Weirdness blogger deputy dog doesn’t do capital letters, but on the plus side collects strange structures and circumstances.  His latest weirdness is Funchal Airport, in Madeira, which is mostly not on the ground, but up in the air on pillars.  Lots of pillars.  It was on the ground, but was too short for comfort, and this was how they made it longer, apparently.  Underneath, there’s a big car park, which makes sense.

DD has photos of this, but the best photo of it that I found was this, on Flickr:


Whenever you find an interesting object, it’s worth looking for it on Flickr, I find.

This elaborate contraption - which looks rather like an aircraft carrier, I think – illustrates what an economic impact aviation can have on a region.  This is the trouble they are prepared to go to just to have airplanes serving them satisfactorily.  See also: Heathrow.

22 January 2008
Low-cost airlines: a Transport Blog podcast
Patrick Crozier

Last week Michael Jennings and I sat down in a Central London café to record a podcast on low cost airlines.  Here’s my favourite bit.

We talked about how the low cost airlines operate, the lengths they go to to cuts costs, and the lengths they don’t go to, the situation before deregulation (bizarre as well as amazing) and how the low-cost way is now starting to spread to Asia.

Listeners will notice there’s quite a lot of hubub in the background.  I can only hope it’s not too distracting.

Oh, and there’s an odd bit of distortion as the microphone saturates.

10 November 2007
QI on air safety
Rob Fisher

On tonight’s episode of QI, after an entertaining discussion on the unlikelihood of the whistle on the lifejacket being of any use in a plane crash, Stephen Fry revealed the following fascinating information:

Between ‘83 and 2000, in the US, there were 568 plane crashes.  53,487 people aboard, 51,207 survived.  The main problem experienced is, oddly enough, getting seatbelts off.  We all get bored with the hostess reminding us how this incredibly simple buckle works, but apparently under stress people revert to trying to undo them the way that’s familiar to them in the car.  So it is very unlikely [to die in a plane crash].

The reason you’re made to open the window blinds when you’re landing and then they turn off the cabin lights to make it dark, is if there’s an accident, the emergency services can see in the windows if they need to, and also that passengers’ eyes are accustomed to low light in case they need to evacuate in the dark.

The frustrating thing about QI is that they don’t quote their sources.  A quick Google search for “53,487 51,207” revealed that their source is BBC News, who got their information from Professor Ed Galea of the University of Greenwich.  In the same article, Tom Barth of AmSafe Aviation is interviewed about the company’s air airbag.

QI at

08 January 2007
Airlines quit Bristol over dangerous runway. Don't these capitalists know that they are supposed to put profits before safety?

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Air Safety
14 November 2006
Happy Landing!
Patrick Crozier

I have no idea if this is dangerous or not but it doesn’t look good.  Hat-tip to Rob Fisher who links to a clip of how it should be done - or rather how it should have been done - Hong Kong’s Kai Tak, the airport in question, has since been closed.