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Flying in the upper strata

Security expert Bruce Schneier has many wise words to offer about how to sensibly make a safe world, and his recent post on the new Global Struggle against Liquids of Mass Destruction is worth reading:

... the arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation. Details are still secret, but police in at least two countries were watching the terrorists for a long time. They followed leads, figured out who was talking to whom, and slowly pieced together both the network and the plot.

The new airplane security measures focus on that plot, because authorities believe they have not captured everyone involved. It’s reasonable to assume that a few lone plotters, knowing their compatriots are in jail and fearing their own arrest, would try to finish the job on their own. The authorities are not being public with the details—much of the “explosive liquid” story doesn’t hang together—but the excessive security measures seem prudent.

But only temporarily. ...

Perhaps these measures will turn out to be temporary, as Schneier advocates. I’m cautiously optimistic on this one, not because I suspect that Michael Chertoff knows how to do his job, but because he may find himself subject to pressure from unhappy commercial airlines. Otherwise, already-overburdened flight attendants are going to have to spend all their time getting passengers cups of water because they can’t bring on their own damned bottle of Poland Springs. And while I don’t expect the executives of Delta or Northwest to really care about passenger satisfaction, I imagine it must be tiring to have to go into bankruptcy all the time.

Beyond the specific issue of declaring an entire state of matter a security risk, a future full of more such restrictions will have a secondary effect that a lot of people aren’t discussing: The quality of air travel is going to be increasingly polarized by price. Today, most U.S. airports already have a fast security line reserved only for pilots, airport staff—and, of course, business class travellers. And if that’s not convenient enough for you, you can just book your own private plane. The Evansville Courier Press, for example, quotes one charter airline operator in Indiana whose business went up sharply after the September 11 attacks. Travellers on these smaller planes face a lot less security screening, which seems appropriate in a perverse way. There are less people on the plane to kill, and the plane itself is a diminished threat to those on the ground. It’s a lot harder to take down a skyscraper with a twin-engine Cessna.

Of course, there are many reasons for air travel to become increasingly price-differentiated. Because business is increasingly global, more executives are flying than ever. And since our current patterns of economic growth seem to be creating a new class of the super-wealthy, those people won’t mind shelling out big bucks to fly in a rarefied way. But the current Administration’s hysteria-based safety policies aren’t going to help. How much would you pay to have drastically reduced security hassles, in terms of check-in time and what you can take on-board? Some people will pay a lot, and increasingly they are able to.

In June, the Economist reported on a few companies that are designing a new class of plane called very light jets. (Subscription required: Oh, the irony.) The Eclipse 500, for example, seats six, weighs less than a Hummer when empty, and is faster than other smaller planes. And it can operate on a much shorter runway, meaning it can use smaller regional airports that current jets have to steer clear of.

The engineer in me thinks this is all pretty sweet, but the communitarian in me wonders: If these VLJs are the future of aviation for the wealthy, how long before we’re building entirely new airports to serve the needs of financial analysts and regional vice presidents shuttling to and from the home office in Chicago? How long before we’ve got separate airports for Greenwich, Scottsdale, and Orange County?

We may be facing a future in which the wealthy construct a separate world of luxury aviation, which they can use to fly between their gated communities and boutique hotels. And if air travel becomes unbearable for the rest of us, they’ll shake their heads and relax as their pilot carries their bags to the plane. They’ll share the skies with us, but little else.

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Tagged: security, economics

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