Terror In Air Travel

The threat of new airplane attacks should not keep us grounded

If you are anything like me, you can’t fly without an instant of doubt about the danger of being in an aircraft. For the last few years, that danger has mostly been the fear of terrorism, since the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 or September 11th. Each time I fly, I remind myself how many flights reach their destination safely every day and shake off the thought along with the other usual fears.

The “air freight bomb plot” of last week shows that such fears—although highly unfortunate—may still be justified, as on-plane hijackers have been the biggest perceived threat recently . National Public Radio touched off a controversy by firing Juan Williams for saying that he felt nervous when he sees people who are noticeably Muslim on a flight. Williams is certainly not the only American to feel that way. But it turns out that Al-Qaeda and other organizations may be moving to a different tactic, packaging explosives and shipping them on flights. Logistics giants such as FedEx and UPS have become masters of sending packages quickly around the world, but that connectivity might have created new difficulties for counter-terrorism.

Quick shipping around the world requires private air fleets that carry only parcels and packages, and it was originally thought that these bombs traveled in the same way from their origin in Yemen. It now appears that one of the packages traveled on a Qatar Airways passenger jet. It’s a scary thought that the biggest threat we face may lie in the belly of the plane, out of sight of everyone above from passengers to air marshals. The marshals are trained to stop a hijacking attempt, but they cannot spot concealed and packaged PETN, the explosive favored by Al-Qaeda for such operations.

The pressure is on the carriers and airports to detect such materials before they travel in the air and put people at risk. In the case of the plot last week, the bombs were found—but after they had been in the air for several legs of travel. The fact that they did not detonate is fortunate but not necessarily reassuring for the future.

We have a new risk to accept and make a variable in our risk assessments of air travel. If anything, the counter-argument to that statement could just be that this risk is not even new; we just have not had the danger brought home in such fashion until last week. It’s difficult to gauge whether this is the tip of the iceberg, or a stand-alone attempt—but expect security and terrorism experts to be reviewing the tactic.


Apart from the quantifiable aspects of such a risk, there will at least be a psychological effect. It’s similar to any disaster—natural or man-made: We hear about it and think of those in the vicinity or involved, and can’t resist asking, “Was I ever at that beach/airport/building? How long ago did I walk/fly/drive by there, and could it have been friends/family/me?” Personalizing a disaster in this way is not really a bad thing. It helps us empathize and consider the people affected; we also consider our own safety by wondering how we fit in its context.

My friend and I shared this process just yesterday, when a suicide bomber injured 32 people in Taksim Square of Istanbul. We stayed in a hostel near Taksim in June, even walked through a public rally about Israel’s attack of the flotilla held in the square. The statue of Mustafa Ataturk seemed oddly juxtaposed then, as people waved Hamas flags and sang songs praising the Palestinian group. It must have seemed a poignant contrast for the New York Times journalist at the scene of yesterday’s bombing attack, who noted the proximity of the terrorist’s body to the statue in the report on the attack. Of course, basically every tourist who visits Istanbul spends time in and around Taksim Square, and many thousands pass through. Yet I would bet that my travel friend and I were not the only people to find it particularly horrific that the attack happened somewhere we knew and had been not so long ago.

Turkey has experienced bombings in past years, often by Kurdish separatists from the turbulent southeastern region of the country. This attack could have been by a Kurdish group, especially given that a truce was set to end later in the day, but it might have been a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Such a group murdered 28 people in a bombing in Istanbul in 2003.

Even as I grieve for those hurt in yesterday’s attack, I would still go back to Istanbul as soon as I could—I loved the city. And in a similar way, I will continue to use air travel whenever it makes sense for me. Such risks never go away. All we can do is file away their knowledge and continue with our daily routines. I, for one, will accept the variable and continue to fly. I just might not accept any packages from Yemen.

Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.