Restricted Airspace

Q: After the terrorist attacks in 2001, it was suggested that onboard software could be developed that would physically prevent airplanes from being guided into restricted airspace. Is this possible or practical?

This is one of those things, maybe, that keeps the writers at Popular Science busy. More power to them, but to me it’s on par with the idea of establishing colonies on Mars: it’d be within our engineering abilities, rife with potential dangers, extremely expensive and only vaguely useful.

In a way, this is an extension of something Airbus Industrie pioneered when it developed the A320, the first “fly-by-wire” commercial transport. That is, using software to keep human beings from crashing the airplane. The high-tech Airbus (now past it’s 12th birthday) will not allow pilots to maneuver beyond certain aerodynamic parameters. Apply some navigational extrapolation and voila, a plane that won’t fly into the White House or the Eiffel Tower either.

Beyond conceptual practicality, the real issue is usefulness, or lack thereof. Honestly it’s a lot of overkill. Here we are again fighting the last war, looking to outsmart what the terrorists already have done and are unlikely to try again. There are many things we could be doing to improve air safety, and this is not one of them.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.