Category: Air Travel

Why Is Air Travel So Cheap?

The cost of last minute ticket doesn’t seem to be enough for airlines to break even.

How much of this is due to a lingering fear of flying? How much of it is the extra cost to travelers, in inconvenience and hassle, of being bit players on the security stage?

As long as a carrier is flying a route, it makes sense to fill as many seats as possible, even for $5, because the airline has high fixed costs, and low marginal costs. (Assuming that they don’t bring up new gate personnel or flight crew for a busy flight. If they do, then the bottom price for a ticket is higher.) Now, they don’t want to sell $5 tickets because if they do, then no one will pay $200 for the ticket. It’s framing effects. But costs are clearly too low, long term, for airlines to survive.

But I’m curious. Does our color-coded alert system, people pawing through bags, and all the rest of it has a measurable economic impact?

Airport Screening Still Fails Tests

Do current security plans depend on no guns getting onto the planes? I hope not.

Covert government tests last November showed that screeners were still missing some knives, guns and explosives carried through airport checkpoints, and the reasons involve equipment, training, procedures and management, according to a report by the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department.

From The New York Times. Use BugMeNot if you need a login.

In other “guns on planes” news, John Miller, the head of the LAPD’s counter-terror unit was detained Thursday after forgetting about a gun in his bag.

It’s interesting that Miller got where he is via a PR and reporting background. The obvious charge is security as theater. However, reporters often end up knowing a huge amount about their subjects, and so I don’t want to throw that charge without more research than I can do before dinner.

Acceptable ID

Virginia Postrel writes about flying without ID:

Coming home today from New York, I was a little more prepared. I still didn’t have “government-issued i.d.,” but at least I knew I was headed for trouble. I got to JFK several hours early. The young security guard wasn’t sure what to do with me and asked a more senior guard. The elder guard sternly insisted that I must have a photo.

“This is a little weird,” I said to the young guard, as I opened my bag and pulled out one of the extra paperbacks I’d snagged from my publisher. “I wrote this book, and here’s my photo in it.” He laughed and let me through. This time, they didn’t even search my bags.

Below, I wrote about discretion for screeners. This is a great example of that discretion being used in a harmless and entertaining way. Of course, since anyone can get a book published, this can’t last.

Testing Airline Data for …what?

The New York Times reports that
“The Transportation Security Administration said Tuesday that it planned to require all airlines to turn over records on every passenger carried domestically in June, so the agency could test a new system to match passenger names against lists of known or suspected terrorists.”

The data will vary by airline. It will include each passenger’s name, address and telephone number and the flight number. It may also include such information as the names of traveling companions, meal preference, whether the reservation was changed at any point, the method of ticket payment and any comment by airline employees, like whether a passenger was drunk or belligerent in encounters with airline personnel.

Now, I may have missed it, but it seems that no hijackings took place in the US in June. So what does a successful test look like? What’s more, information about how belligerent a passenger is on the plane is clearly not available before they fly, unless there’s a new database of belligerent passengers that will be maintained. I saw no mention of such in the PIA or Federal Register notice.

The question is partially answered: “What we’re looking for is the people who are actually on that list,” said Lisa Dean, of TSA. Does TSA need a month of real data to see if they can match names, addresses, and phone numbers from a database?

This whole article forces me to ask, does the current system work at all? If there’s a list of people who are a threat to aviation, shouldn’t we have arrested some of them when they tried to fly?

This system isn’t ready for testing, never mind using real data.

CAPPS as Corporate Welfare

I’ve written in the past about how government-validated ID acts as a subsidy to privacy invasion. In the absence of such a card, I can give you whatever name I want, protecting my privacy. With such a card, it becomes easy to invade people’s privacy.

Under CAPPS-2, the government would like the airlines to collect your name, home address, phone number, and date of birth. (Perhaps more, depending on the phase of the moon. Social security numbers have been mentioned.) The courts have already declared that airline privacy policies are meaningless. So, what will happen is that the airlines will get a very high quality data stream because you’ll be under threat of arrest if you choose to creatively fill their database. They’ll then be able to use this data for marketing purposes, a la their frequent flyer programs. They’ll be able to pass it along to the credit agencies. They’ll be able to do whatever they’d like to profit from data that they could never collect without a government program to back them.

Testing Airline Customers

Ed Hasbrouck has another pair of good posts (1, 2) on the “Free Wheelchairs” program. In the first one, he quotes from “Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2005”, H.R. 4567:

(2) the underlying error rate of the government and private data bases that will be used both to establish identity and assign a risk level to a passenger will not produce a large number of false positives that will result in a significant number of passengers being treated mistakenly or security resources being diverted;

(3) the TSA has stress-tested and demonstrated the efficacy and accuracy of all search tools in CAPPS II or Secure Flight or other follow on/successor programs and has demonstrated that CAPPS II or Secure Flight or other follow on/successor programs can make an accurate predictive assessment of those passengers who may constitute a threat to aviation;

There’s an analogy here to intrusion detection programs, which was first pointed out by Taosecurity. That is that you may not have false positives, people mistakenly identified as terrorists, and you may not have false negatives, that is missing those who “may constitute a threat to aviation.” In the computer security world, Intrusion Detection Systems are notoriously hard to tune so that they get the attacks you want, and don’t produce huge amounts of noise. Some companies are dumping their IDSs because of this. Can we learn something about what may happen to CAPPS-2?

Assuming for a moment that the meaning of “constituting a threat to aviation” is that someone imminently and demonstrably plans to hijack, blow up, or otherwise attack a plane, then you need to catch them with tools handy. That might work better if we concentrate on looking for the tools, rather than collecting home phone numbers. If the meaning is broader than that, it may mean that you need to arrest them, or risk exposing an intelligence operation. If you tip your hand and show that a suspect is on a watch list, then the terrorist pool can be adjusted to deal with that.

It seems that meeting subparagraphs (2) and (3), which are both good criteria, is going to be quite difficult. Perhaps airline security should start with a focus on people bringing dangerous things onto planes, rather than who they are, and trying to discern their motives.
That’s not to say that if intelligence agencies are watching someone, they should never share that with TSA for extra scrutiny. But this isn’t about a watch-list, its about behavioral profiling of the American people, in a manner that has never been shown to work.

Free gropes for travellers

Over at BoingBoing, Cory points to a USA Today story at NewsIsFree about more screening. There seem to be four components:

  • Explosives Detection Secondary screening will now always include nitrate detection swabbing. This is a fine step, but why has it taken 3 years to come in? (In fact, every time I’ve been thrown into the secondary system, my bags have been swabbed, so I’m surprised that it’s new.)
  • Outer garment removal Remove bulky outer clothing. Again, I thought this was already in place.
  • More discretion “TSA screeners will be given greater authority to refer passengers for extra scrutiny if clothing looks bulky, misshapen or otherwise suspicious. Some passengers also will receive expanded pat-downs when screeners consider it warranted.” I have very mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, it may make the life of a terrorist harder. The 9/11 hijackers knew what they were allowed to take, and the screeners didn’t have much discretion. On the other hand, it’s going to lead to more abuses where the screeners make strange or offensive decisions. Those incidents (“drink your own milk,” “drop your trousers”, etc) will greatly outnumber terrorists caught, however good the screeners are. There are a lot more innocents than terrorists traveling and so the silly-season perception of screeners will increase.

    As to the “groping,” it was inevitable. If the goal is to keep all knives off planes, then you need to rub-frisk every passenger. Maybe they can at least hire better looking screeners to do it?

  • Document scanners “For traces of explosives,” they claim. No, its more reliable data capture, and an attempt to cut down on fake ID being used. As if any of the terrorists ever travelled with fake ID. They travelled on fraudulently issued ID, a market driven by the immigration and work policies of the US.

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