Air fright.
Air fright.
Military analysis.
Dec. 1 2002 2:07 PM

Air Fright

Why Nov. 28 will prove scarier in the long run for airline passengers than Sept. 11.

I avoid making predictions. But I'll risk this one because if it's wrong everyone will be glad, including me. The prediction is that Nov. 28, 2002, the day terrorists shot surface-to-air missiles at a chartered Israeli airplane in Kenya, will be a more important divide in the history of airline travel than Sept. 11, 2001. Here's the reason: We can be fairly sure that attacks like those on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will never happen again. We can be equally sure that other missile attacks will occur and that they will succeed. So, while the effects of Sept. 11 have slowed the airlines with ponderous layers of security, the effects of Nov. 28 could add a level of danger that deeply affects people's willingness to fly.


The difference between the two forms of terrorism involves the "demonstration effect." Once the civilian world saw that hijacked planes could be turned into weapons, it became much harder for future attackers ever to pull off that feat again. Everyone now understands the "United Flight 93" principle: While passengers cannot prevent an airplane from being hijacked or crashed, they can keep it from being used as a flying bomb. But once the terrorist world has seen missiles nearly hit an airliner, future attackers are more likely to try. They'll have better missiles; they'll take more careful aim; they'll learn from whatever mistake the attackers in Kenya made. And there is nothing the airlines can do to protect themselves—except stop flying.

Everything about airliners makes them vulnerable to attack. To land smoothly and safely, they must fly slowy, low, and in a straight line for many miles as they approach an airport. My house is seven miles, as the Airbus flies, from National Airport in Washington. When planes are making an instrument approach to National, in bad weather, they pass so low over my roof I could practically hit them with a bow and arrow. Airliners are more maneuverable than they look—a Boeing 707 prototype once did a barrel roll over Lake Washington in Seattle. In theory they could land the way fighter planes do, with an "overhead break" procedure that involves a dramatic last-minute swoop to the runway. But that would hardly reassure passengers, and in any case it can't be used in bad weather. I suppose airliners could, at great cost, be equipped with military-style spoofing devices to thwart some missiles. But at that point most sane passengers would decide to stay home.

The reality is that in anything resembling today's normal operating procedures, airliners are inescapably vulnerable to ground attack within a many-mile radius around any major airport. We couldn't hope to secure a dozen-mile safety zone around airports in Atlanta or Dallas, let alone Cairo or Jakarta. Surface-to-air missiles are so small, cheap, portable, and (reportedly) abundant on the black market that sooner or later terrorist groups will get and use them. The missile threat will mean to airline travel what the recent sniper episode means to metropolitan life. That is, once terrorist groups see how easy it is for a few people to generate widespread fear, and how impossible it would be to mount an effective defense, it is only a matter of time before it's done again. (If there were the slightest chance that terrorist groups had not already figured this out, I wouldn't mention it. But let's not kid ourselves.)

What this newly demonstrated vulnerability will eventually mean for airlines, for airplane companies, for international travel and tourism, for public confidence, for economies as a whole is more than anyone can predict. Whatever it means can't be good. For the moment the point is: Something important has just occurred.

James Fallows is national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and author, most recently, of Free Flight.

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