The travel group AAA estimated that 4.6 million Americans planned to travel by air over the Thanksgiving holiday, and 8.3 million will be flying this week and next. While air travel is expected to be up from last year, it is still down from pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels -- and some recent Gallup Poll data may help explain why.
A Nov. 14-16, 2003, poll* (conducted well before the recent announcement that the terror-alert level has been raised from "yellow" to "orange") asked Americans how likely they think it is that various types of airplane-related terrorist attacks will take place in the next five years. Results show that despite newly established regulations for screening airline baggage and passengers, the addition of undercover air marshals on flights, and the establishment immediately after Sept. 11 of the Transportation Security Administration (now part of the Department of Homeland Security), majorities of Americans still believe that terrorist attacks on airplanes will happen in the next five years.
When asked if it is likely or unlikely that a terrorist will "blow up an airplane by placing explosives in the cargo area" within the next five years, nearly two-thirds (64%) of Americans said it is likely, while 33% said it's not likely. About the same percentage of Americans (65%) think it's likely that terrorists will "hijack an airplane by getting a knife, gun, or box cutter past airport security."
It seems that the American public thinks terrorists are more likely to succeed in blowing up a plane by smuggling something on board than by shooting at a plane from the ground. A slightly smaller majority of Americans (53%) feel it's likely that terrorists will "shoot down an airplane with a shoulder-fired missile" in the next five years. Forty-five percent feel this is an unlikely prospect.
These results suggest that the government's efforts to improve security in airports and on planes have not been enough to fully allay Americans' fears about terrorist attacks. Some data collected early in 2002 confirm these fears. In February 2002**, Gallup asked Americans if it would be "very difficult, somewhat difficult, somewhat easy, or very easy" for a terrorist to smuggle "a deadly weapon, such as a knife or a gun" onto an airplane. Only 14% of respondents said "very difficult." Forty-five percent thought it would be only "somewhat difficult" and nearly 4 in 10 (39%) thought it would be "somewhat" (24%) or "very" (15%) easy. Nearly as many (34%) thought it would be somewhat (22%) or very (12%) easy to smuggle explosives onto a plane, while 48% thought it would be somewhat difficult and 16% thought it would be very difficult.
It's been nearly 2 1/2 years since terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center towers, and another into the Pentagon. But even though the government has prevented any subsequent attacks to date, Americans seem to be far from confident that such an event will never happen again.
This lack of confidence is hardly surprising. In September, college student Nathaniel Heatwole allegedly smuggled box cutters, matches, and modeling clay onto a Southwest Airlines flight and stowed them in a lavatory, where they weren't discovered for a month. Clearly, airport security procedures need improvement. No system is foolproof, but it appears that in order to earn the full confidence of Americans, the TSA still has work to do.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 14-16, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
For results based on the 496 national adults in the Form A half-sample and 508 national adults in the Form B half-sample, the maximum margins of sampling error are ±5 percentage points.
**Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,001 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 8-10, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.