The Bright Coast

Progressive Thoughts from San Diego Alums on Law, Politics, and Culture

Are New Airline Annoyances Really Worth It? (The Odds)

Posted by demkid on December 30, 2009

By now, we all know about the new travel restrictions affecting airline passengers in the United States, brought on by the Nigerian terrorist’s attempt to light his underpants on fire on Christmas Day.  These restrictions include less freedom to move around the airplane during flight, removal of blankets and pillows off laps during the final hour of the flight, no bathroom access during the final hour of the flight, shutting off in-flight entertainment systems with embedded maps or GPS software showing the plane’s location, and enhanced security check-ups and body searches at the airports.

This has clearly been the main news story this past week.  In addition to the new restrictions, there’s been thorough discussion of the Obama administration’s response to the incident, how the 23-year-old could have attempted this when he was on a watch list and his father had allerted authorities, and how Yemen has now become the hot zone for Al Qaeda activity.  The one thing that really hasn’t gotten any airtime though, in my opinion, is a discussion of whether this singular failed attempt should really result in so many additional petty restrictions on travelers.  It seems to me that banning blankets or bathroom trips during the last hour of flights is silly.  If a terrorist wanted to take down a plane, wouldn’t he simply try doing it now before that 1-hour time limit is reached?  We can all wait on the now likely news story of a mother having to be physically restrained because she became hostile after not being allowed to take her child to the lavatory for one full hour. 

Bring in Nate Silver to shed some statistical light on this story.  In a recent post, he used some “non-fancy math” to determine the odds of being the subject of an attempted terrorist attack on a commercial flight.  While his analysis doesn’t take into account some points (one really can’t accurately examine a 10-year range when 4 of the 6 incidents happened on the same day, the odds of an incident on a large international flight are likely larger than those on a turbo prop flight from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles), the main conclusion, I think, is a valid one.  If you’re concerned with being blown up in a plane, don’t be.  As we can see from the last incident, the odds of an attempted attack are extremely low, and the odds of that attack succeeding are even lower, particularly due to the heightened diligence of airline passengers after 9/11.  Furthermore, after considering these odds, one really has to ask whether the ever increasing inconveniences to passengers are worth it.  Sure, screening of bags and people is important.  I really wouldn’t mind going through a full body scan prior to boarding if it ensures absolute safety.  It’s entirely arguable though, that little things like blanket and bathroom restrictions (and restricting bottled water from being carried on), are simply overkill.  From Nate’s post:

There were a total of 674 passengers, not counting crew or the terrorists themselves, on the flights on which these [terrorist] incidents occurred. By contrast, there have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

So don’t fret, people.  Let the media do that for you.

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