TSA Rules Threaten In-Flight Technology Use

Published February 24, 2010

The terrorist dubbed the “Underwear Bomber” for trying to take down a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day is no longer a threat, but his scheme may have done great damage to the emerging in-flight technology industry.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian recruited by al-Qaida to attack the United States, unsuccessfully attempted to ignite liquid explosives hidden in his underwear on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it was making its approach to Detroit.

TSA Cracked Down Quickly
The immediate response to the plot by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was to issue a memo demanding airlines prevent passengers from visiting the restroom or having “any blankets, pillows, or personal belongings on the lap beginning one hour prior to arrival at destination.”
The memo also mandated airlines “disable aircraft-integrated passenger communications systems and services (phone, internet access services, live television programming, global positioning systems) prior to boarding and during all phases of flight.”

The public and the press immediately criticized the rules, and TSA loosened them in short order—declaring adherence up to the pilot’s discretion.

Blowing Up In-Flight Wi-Fi?
TSA’s abrupt imposition of new rules, and concerns regarding what other rules might be implemented in reaction to upcoming events, has many analysts wondering about the future of the burgeoning business of in-flight technology.

Several airlines have begun offering wi-fi service on their flights in the past year, but that technology could be restricted as a technology threat before the business really gets off the ground.

“Are such restrictions justified? No,” said Ryan Young, the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The only way to prevent terrorism is to make terrorism difficult.

“Banning in-flight entertainment would not do that,” he added. “Terrorism is a rare threat, and it should be treated accordingly. Every time you board a plane, your odds of being a victim of a terrorist attack are about 1 in 10.4 million. You are 20 times more likely to be struck by lightning,”

‘Chipping Away at Freedoms’

“Terrorists can’t win by killing people,” Young said. “There are too many of us and too few of them. They win by making us overreact in fear. And that is exactly what the TSA is doing.

“Chipping away at freedoms like in-flight wi-fi might make people feel safer. But it doesn’t actually make them safer,” he said. “The TSA should make sure that all cockpit doors are reinforced. It should diligently screen checked baggage. Passengers know that sometimes they have to take matters into their own hands. Anything beyond that isn’t security. It’s security theater.”

Using, Not Banning, Technology
James T. Purcell, president of SIG Advisors and Consultants in Chicago, said TSA has it backwards. Technology use shouldn’t be banned on flights, but exploited.

“First, we have the technology right now to accept and deny [Internet protocols] on wi-fi services,” Purcell said. “If we accepted profiling of terrorists as the war criminals they are, we could limit their participation in electronics, not ours.

“In general, our rights are being trampled on in the name of security, when in fact we are passing up much easier and efficient steps of monitoring the minority—the terrorists,” he added.

Dangerous Driving
Young adds TSA’s reaction to the Christmas Day bomber and other potential threats could not just stifle tech innovation but also harm the ability of the airline market to improve its services.

“Banning in-flight wi-fi would hurt both the airline industry and technology companies,” Young said. “Some airlines, such as JetBlue, compete by offering fringe benefits that competitors don’t, like in-air wi-fi. Taking that away would make the airline market more homogeneous and less competitive.

“Banning in-flight wi-fi also poses a safety risk,” he added. “When flying becomes more onerous, some people will opt to drive instead. Per mile traveled, driving is far more dangerous than flying. Car accidents kill at least 200 times as many Americans as terrorists do each year.”

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.