Monday, January 10, 2011

The Passion of Pilot Christopher Liu

Maybe you remember about two weeks ago in the midst of the Western world's holidays, when a U.S. airline pilot called Christopher Liu posted a video on You Tube of what he said was lax airport security. Liu took the video down after the Transportation Security Administration ( and the airport in question, San Francisco International (SFO), raised a stink, accusing him of misleading the public and violating security procedures himself.

Well, things are pretty much back to normal now - and that is both a good thing and a bad thing.

It's a good thing because the 50-year-old Liu, a veteran pilot who flies for American Airlines following service in the U.S. military, has returned to the skies. Despite the controversy, American, to its credit, has not fired him for being a whistleblower, as some employers might have done.

Liu has got his life back. But it's a different life. He and his lawyer say that six federal agents came to Liu's home outside Sacramento, California, and confiscated the permit and firearm he was permitted to carry in the cockpit to protect the plane from terrorist attack. His crime? Well, he hasn't been formally charged with anything, but it seems he has embarrassed the TSA, an outfit that normally does a pretty good job of embarrassing itself. That's a serious offense in the unfriendly skies post-9/11 in an America that remains understandably jittery about the prospect of more attacks.

Liu has seemed to relish his time in the spotlight and there is a certain amount of self-regard on display. Still, he continues to campaign for revised airport screening rules that would subject ground crews - some of them are airline employees and some are private contractors - with access to aircraft and runways to much tighter scrutiny. His Web site: is The site calls him "An American Hero.''

He's not a hero to SFO, which responded to media reports by saying that a door opened with a swipe card that Liu showed in his video leads not to the runway but an employee break room. (Liu has responded to the response by saying there is another door leading out further down the hallway.) SFO emphasizes that its security meets or exceeds all federal regulations and said it has often been ahead of the curve - phasing-in what it terms "the first biometric access control system'' in 1993, for example. (

I fly out of SFO a lot and it is one of the few major U.S. airports I can walk into without cringing. It is a clean, well-lighted place for travelers, it is usually well-run and it even has decent food and drink on offer, as well as an excellent aviation history museum. I have met and interviewed SFO officials, including airport director John Martin, spokesman Michael McCarron and other senior executives, numerous times. I have never known them to lie.

Still, regardless of what Liu - an experienced pilot but not a security specialist or professional communicator - got right or wrong in his video and subsequent public statements, he has called attention to an ongoing problem:

Nearly 10 years after Sept. 11, 2001, there are still serious gaps in air travel security, especially when it comes to ground crews: the people who clean aircraft, load luggage, pack cargo and otherwise service aircraft. SFO, with other major U.S. airports, says its airside ground crews have passed stringent, 10-year background checks. That isn't the case everywhere, particularly outside the U.S., where airport security is sometimes nonchalant.

So, returning to normality, when it comes to security, can also be a bad thing.

If we lose our sense of urgency when it comes to reform, we are right back to where we were in terms of risk. Liu's broad points are backed up by, among others, Patrick Smith, a pilot for a major U.S. carrier (he doesn't say which one), who has for some years written a blog called Ask the Pilot for His personal Web site is Among other trenchant observations about rules - strict ones for passengers and airline flight crews, looser ones for ground crews - Smith notes:

"Uniformed pilots cannot carry butter knives onto an airplane, yet apron workers and contract ground support staff - cargo loaders, baggage handlers, fuelers, cabin cleaners, caterers - can, as a matter of routine, bypass TSA inspection entirely.''

When the TSA came down hard on Christopher Liu for allegedly violating security protocols, Smith wrote "What the pilot really did, of course, is throw a ring of well-deserved embarassment around TSA's neck. And in typical fashion, the agency's response is not to review, revise or even acknowledge its foolish rules, but to harass and bully and threaten the person who drew attention to them.''

And that's just in the United States. Anyone who flies internationally, as I do, is struck right away by the inconsistent rules from nation to nation. There are hundreds of major international airports around the planet. The wildly varying rules between them are not all due to smart planning and the need to shrewdly shift tactics and keep would-be terrorists off-balance, as security officials claim. Some of the inconsistency - with all its awkwardness and anxiety for travelers - is due to the fact that national leaders and airport officials fail to communicate clearly with each other and have trouble agreeing on basics.

We have failed to solve this problem - to connect the dots, in a favorite phrase of our time - for many years. On his site, in an essay called "Terminal Madness,'' Patrick Smith sketches out accounts of no fewer than 29 successful attacks on air travel from 197o to 1999, pre-9/11. Most were carried out by Palestinian nationalists and Islamic radicals, but deranged individuals, Sikh extremists, drug cartels, Cuban exiles and others have gotten in on the act, too.

Security is an immense and evolving problem in a globalized world. It will take our best minds, drawing on their personal experience, to improve our record and protect innocents. However artless, Christopher Liu's passionate advocacy and willingness to speak up is a contribution.

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