Skip to content
MIT Better World

By Liz Karagianis

Barnett grew up in Brooklyn, and on Sundays when he was a boy, his family drove out to LaGuardia Airport, where he’d skip rocks on the water and watch the planes land. Then, when he was 11, two planes collided over New York City. One fell in Brooklyn. The other in Staten Island. “It was so scary to me. I’ve always had a fear of flying,” says Barnett, who now flies about twice a week. “Although I dread flying, I’m also fascinated by it.”

Barnett is the nation’s leading expert on air travel safety. A professor at the Sloan School of Management, he specializes in applied mathematical modeling on issues of policy importance.

He has worked for 13 airlines, five airports, the Transportation Security Administration, and the FAA. He is co-director of the National Center of Excellence in Aviation Operations Research. Last year, Barnett earned an award from the worldwide Flight Safety Foundation for his outstanding service.

Of all ironies, he says, he was in Seattle on September 11, 2001 giving a talk on aviation safety. “I just gave the talk I planned to give. It was called, Air Safety, End of the Golden Age? The talk actually did say that U.S. aviation security was ‘quite a mess,’ but of course, the question mark at the end might have struck people as unnecessary.”

Some Improvements

September 11 did bring improvements in air safety, Barnett says, but he is unconvinced that any of the changes will prevent terrorism completely.

He says that the screening force is more professional and better than before. They are now federal employees, who get more training, and who no longer earn minimum wage. And also, he says, bags are now checked for explosives.

“Having some explosive detection is better than none, but there are still threats,” he says, adding that cargo shipments are not typically screened for explosives. And there is also concern that someone could fire a heat-seeking missile at a plane landing in a nearby airport.

Barnett also says that the newest security system, CAPPS 11, a computer system developed last summer by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), may not be so effective in identifying terrorists.

CAPPS 1, the 6-year-old system that was updated after 9/11, chose passengers for extra security screening based on whether they bought a one-way ticket, traveled on short notice, or traveled abroad a lot. CAPPS 11 would evaluate personal information about a passenger booking a ticket, then assign him a color-coded security rating. Green would be considered not a risk; yellow would get additional screening; and red would be stopped.

The problem is that every time you book a flight, your name, address, birth date, and credit card number goes into the CAPPS 11 computer, which then checks various databases, including credit ratings and criminal records.

Critics say the system could threaten privacy and create ethnic profiling. Barnett says: “The TSA says we won’t look at your credit ratings, your health records, or your ethnicity. I’m not saying their reasons aren’t good, but you can’t throw out all kinds of information from the model and not lose predictive accuracy.”

Is It Safe?

The big question is, is it safe to fly?

Barnett says yes — and no. “The risk for accidents is extraordinarily remote,” he says, “but there certainly is a risk for terrorism. I don’t know how high that risk is, but it’s not likely to go down in the foreseeable future.

“Some Americans are cynical that the security is mostly a charade for their benefit and that real terrorists could succeed. I wouldn’t say it’s a charade, but I think it’s mixed.”

For example, he says, airplane security probably is strong enough to prevent a hijacking, but probably not a bombing. “It’s too weak to prevent terrorists from destroying an airplane, but it is strong enough so that if terrorists decide to attack, they might say, ‘Well, aviation is kind of a hassle. Why don’t we just move on?'”

Barnett says perhaps the question is: “Are we going to give up Florida? California? Paris? And if we decide we’re not, then we’ll just have to take our chances.

“There is a risk of terrorism,” he says. “And intuitively, the idea of being that far above the earth doesn’t strike me as inherently safe. But even though the risk is not zero, I still continue to fly.”