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Today's Fake Terror Threat: "FAA Loses Track of 119,000 Aircraft"

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How do you take a really boring story about a bureaucratic procedural revision and turn it into a hot national news story? Spray on a coating of terrorism. While you're at it, add a dash of drug-war hysteria.

Okay, to get the boring part out of the way: The Federal Aviation Administration has been wanting to update the way it registers airplanes for years. Ever since forever, plane owners only had to register their aircraft once, when they bought it, and they had to pay a nominal fee. Now the FAA wants owners to renew every couple years, like car owners do. Naturally plane owners are going to have to shell out more money. This is the way of the world. Bureaucracies like to generate more paperwork and grab more revenue.

This is not something very many people should care about, even pilots like me. The only ones who are going to get shellacked are people like Brian Boland, a balloon maker who lives in rural Vermont. He makes a lot of balloons for his own amusement; he's got over a hundred of them, packed into bags in his loft. Every time he built a new one, he'd send the government a few bucks, and they'd issue him a registration certificate. Now, under the new rules, he'll be on the hook for thousands of dollars just to register a bunch of balloons he hardly ever flies. He's not a rich man; he's going to have to cancel all those registrations. The days when he could pull out any balloon he wanted and take it for a ride are over.

A small loss in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but what does humanity get in return, apart from increased government revenue? The latest spin is that the new registrations are going to protect us from the darkest forces on the planet. Here's the lede from today's AP story:

The Federal Aviation Administration is missing key information on who owns one-third of the 357,000 private and commercial aircraft in the U.S. -- a gap the agency fears could be exploited by terrorists and drug traffickers.

The story goes on to explain that the lack of updated information means that the government doesn't know where some planes' owners live, or even whether they've been scrapped. And as evidence that this is something to worry about, the story offers this: "Already there have been cases of drug traffickers using phony U.S. registration numbers."

Sorry, but this is nonsensical. First of all, a new registration system isn't going to prevent drug traffickers from using phony registration numbers -- in the case cited, the owner's registration was up to date, so the new system would have done nothing to change the outcome.

Secondly, the fact that they had to bring in drug traffickers to justify the measure is a powerful indication that there had been no way to plausibly tie the issue to an actual terror threat.

For me, the most annoying part of the whole story comes in the final paragraph, after the story quotes David Warner, general counsel for the National Aircraft Finance Association, as saying that the FAA's fears of terrorists and drug dealers are overblown. The story ends with this:

"The threat of people wanting to do us harm is very real, but the focus on re-registration or stale registration data on aircraft is not where the risk is likely to be," Warner said.

Why? Why must every story that deals with an overreaction to a hypothetical threat have to include at least one hand wringing admonition that "of course, the threat is real"? It's been nearly a decade after the last successful domestic terrorist attack against US civilians. In that time, the risk of an American airline passenger being hijacked or otherwise suffering nefarious harm in the air has been unprecedentedly low.

Americans, the threat of people wanting to do you harm is not real. Stop allowing political posturing founded on your misplaced fears. And most of all, stop accepting the rhetorical position that all reasonable people accept that the premise of the War on Terror. Journalists, I'm looking at you.

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