essays and articles by david g allen

Common Sense Could Have Saved Our Nation More Than Money


When your business depends on defying gravity, it is appropriate to concern yourself with the cost of doing so. And that’s why Robert Crandall, the former CEO of American Airlines, became the sage of the modern air travel industry.

Crandall was dining in mid-flight when he noticed that his dinner salad had three olives. He went back to the office and calculated that his airline could save $40,000 per year in fuel costs just by eliminating one of those olives. And why not? It costs just as much to fly olives as it does cargo and passengers never booked flights based on salad garnishes.

Unfortunately, the airlines succumbed to this degree of frugality and missed seeing the big picture. In-flight hijackings of passenger planes have been going on since at least 1931. And there have been repeated cases of Arab terrorists hijacking planes in the jet age. That four aircraft were hijacked by Arab terrorists on 9/11 shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Both common sense and the General Accounting Office had recommended fortifying cockpit doors for many years. But the industry and its regulators consistently rebuffed the idea. First of all, there was the cost of flying heavier doors. And the issue of safety came second. In the event of a crash, cockpit doors had to be pliable lest the flight crew be trapped in the wreckage.

Prior to 9/11, the airlines, the regulators, and law enforcement agencies all believed that prior hijackings would be the model for future ones. In other words, they thought that hijackers would force the plane down and bargain a ransom for the hostages. Flight crews were trained to go along with these ploys with their primary mission being to land safely. No one thought that hijackers would kill the pilots and attempt to fly the plane.

Now we know different. But did we have to learn the hard way?

In the aftermath of that terrible day, protecting pilots became a no-brainer, even among the bureaucrats. The desk pilots at the Federal Aviation Administration submitted a plan for replacing existing cockpit doors with bulletproof doors that would also prevent entry to the flight deck. The old doors weighed 25#. The new ones would weigh in at 50#. FAA estimated it would cost the industry some $11 million per year to fly the extra weight. Adding in the installation cost, FAA derived a life-cycle cost of well under $100 million.

Had we relied on common sense instead of the experts who work inside the beltway, the industry could have spent $100 million ten years ago and averted a disaster that has already cost over $100 billion. Now that the new cockpit doors have been installed, the airlines have been reimbursed to the tune of $100 million by the US taxpayer. The $100 million got spent anyway—just unwisely and untimely.

When the Rogers Commission investigated the Challenger shuttle explosion, commission members almost bought into NASA’s doubletalk and cover up. But then, the unexpected happened. The late Dr. Richard Feynman, a Nobel physicist, put a piece of the booster’s O-ring in his ice water glass. A few minutes later, he pulled it out and snapped it in half, thus demonstrating the effect of cold weather at launch. NASA reluctantly said, "Mea culpa!" and then went about changing launch procedures.

Sadly, there is no Dr. Feynman sitting on the 9/11 Commission. The commission consists of partisan snipers and its two co-chairmen are placaters. In this election year, the 9/11 Commission has distinguished itself as a failure even before it has written its report.

At a time when we desperately need a sober analysis of our national security procedures, we sold ourselves out to an impotent commission rather than demand truthful answers to the tough questions. Our vanity, like that of the Greek’s Icarus, let us believe that we could defy gravity forever. Yes, it’s hard to admit that we were so foolish for so long. But we need to get over our hurt feelings now. We know that there will be more attacks and we also know that they will coincide with the November election.

We are at war. But I am unconvinced that the American people understand this.


David G. Allen, Clarksburg, WV

"Common Sense" appeared in the May 7, 2004 issue of the WV State Journal.




Copyright 1990-2005  David G. Allen