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November 19, 2010

Engineering Acceptable Air Transportation Safety with a focus on preventing and reducing worst case scenarios

There is too much of a focus on perfecting air travel safety. The USA is spending about $6 billion each year on air travel security and the extra wait times from post-September 11 security procedures add another $8 billion ($50/hour for business and $15/hour for everyone else. Greater use of full-body scanners instead of metal detectors would very likely increase wait times and thus raise those costs. Poole says that getting a passenger through a full-body scanner takes about 30 seconds longer than through a metal detector.

Because driving is so much more dangerous than flying, the thousands of more people who took to the roads rather than the skies after September 11 led to more car accidents. Blalock estimated that from September of 2001 to October of 2003, the enhanced airport security led to 2,300 road fatalities that otherwise would not have occurred. If security delays were to lengthen again, a similar driving fatality effect could happen, Blalock says, as more travelers choose to drive to avoid the increased inconveniences of flying.

So you also have to consider the safety of the overall transportation situation, because more people driving means more fatalities. If we can make the worst case on the airplane the same as bus or train terrorism then that would be a reasonable level. We will not need to overprotect planes if we make buses or trains the targets.


The underwear bomber did not have the explosives to rupture the air plane fuselage according to simulations and tests. Newer planes with composite materials are likely even safer in the event of an explosion.

They placed about 80 grams of PETN's base material, pentaerythritol, near the 747's fuselage where Abdulmutallab was seated. Eighty grams of pentaerythritol contains about the same explosive power as a hand grenade, but lacks the the hot, sharp metal fragments of an actual grenade that cause so much damage. The BBC set up cameras and Wyatt set off the explosives.

In the BBC documentary, entitled "How Safe Are Our Skies," the controlled detonation of the explosives lasted a scant 0.94 milliseconds, but the results were clear to cameras. Shock waves rippled through the exterior aluminum skin of the aircraft like fat water drops of water hitting the surface of a smooth pond.

The metal was permanently bowed out, and a handful of rivets were punched out, but no gaping holes appeared. The pressurized air inside the cabin would have slowly leaked out of the missing rivets, said Joseph, a non- life-threatening situation. The amount of explosives was "nowhere near enough" to bring down the plane, concluded Wyatt and Joseph





Taking 9-11 out of the equation

It should simply be technically impossible to fly a plane into a building. There should be no need to use security to prevent passengers from taking over a plane and flying it into a building. The pilots should not have that capability without an overhaul of electronics and flight systems that would have bank safe like electronic security. You want to prevent over a billion dollars in damage,

There is work on autonomous collision avoidance for unmanned vehicles.

It seems like it should not be that difficult to electronically enforce airplane flight paths to prevent them from getting within miles of downtown buildings. GPS and altitude could be used to force a plane to turn and go around or go over areas where they have no reason to ever enter.

Tall buildings could also have transponders and markers that activate midair collision avoidance.

If we have affordable electronics (up to $1 million) for 5,000 commercial planes then that would cost $5 billion for a fleet upgrade. Southwest has 550 planes, United has 360 planes, American has 621 planes, Jet blue has 160 planes etc.. plus cargo planes.

Enable easier small plane travel

There are many small airports. Another path to easier security is to have more use of small planes. New small jet planes can be almost as fast as larger jets. Less security would be needed because the smaller planes would do less damage and if a plane was blown up midair then 50 people or less would be comparable to blowing up a bus. Look at phased increased use of smaller airports. Look at those with runways over about 3500-4000 feet.

Shift money from airport security to engineering the planes

Besides the electronic preventing of airplane with building collisions. There should be more engineering put into improving the planes ability to keep passengers safe in spite of any explosion. This is not a simple because there is the issues of weight and maintainability. There will be weight savings coming from Nanocomp technologies which will use sheets of carbon nanotubes to replace copper for shielding planes from electronic interference and lightning strikes. Nanotubes could cut the weight of two tons of copper wire in a 747 in half.

More extensive use of airbags should be examined.

Long popular in overseas markets, the airbags are becoming more common among flight training schools like the University of North Dakota and quickly working their way aboard U.S. commercial planes.

Engineering designs should also look at preventing catastrophic failure of the airframe. If you can strengthen enough in the right spots to prevent losing the whole plane in spite of a larger bomb that would reduce worst case scenarios. There should also be some kind of big inflatable patch to try to reseal a large opening. Some kind of cover that can be deployed or put in place to maintain the integrity of the plane enough to enable it to get to a safe level and then land.

Take out the worst case scenarios (planes running into buildings) and make the loss of plane scenarios more rare and then tune the security to get to similar risks as getting on bus or train. We are not screening bus or train passengers as much even though a bomb or hijacking there could cause a loss of everyone on the bus or train.

Engineering and safety can more affordably focus on removing and reducing the special situation risks of airplanes (damage that goes beyond loss of one vehicle and all on board) and then working to improve safety for each form of mass transportation.

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