Warnings From the EgyptAir Tragedy

An unnerving incident.

Photographer: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Plane crashes always stir up some deep human anxieties. But Thursday's downing of EgyptAir Flight 804 -- which crashed en route from Paris to Cairo, killing 66 people, among them three children -- may be more unnerving than most.

The plane was relatively new, and it had no known maintenance issues. It was flying at cruising altitude in mild Mediterranean weather. Both pilots were experienced, and neither indicated anything amiss. In the end, the plane made two sharp turns before a quick, awful descent. 

All of which points to the grim possibility of a terrorist attack, and more specifically a bomb on board. It's always prudent to wait for the facts, and this case is no exception. But as the investigation gets under way, three larger points are worth bearing in mind.

One is that airport personnel increasingly represent a weak point in the global security cordon. Airport staff likely helped an Islamic State affiliate bring down a flight over Egypt in October. Two workers at Mogadishu's airport helped get a laptop bomb aboard a plane in February. Intelligence officials have worried for years about radicalization among staff at Charles de Gaulle Airport, where Flight 804 originated. Addressing these worries will require better background checks, more intensive monitoring and an awful lot of vigilance. It won't be easy.

Second, too many airports still lack sophisticated security technology and properly trained staff. Terrorists are getting better at making explosives. Yet it's extraordinarily difficult to smuggle them onto planes when airports use advanced bomb-detecting equipment and a layered approach to security. Rich-world governments should offer more help to countries that are making an effort in this regard, and make clear that there will be consequences for those that aren't. 

A final point -- no less crucial for being counterintuitive -- is to remember to keep calm. For all the dire headlines, last year was the safest on record for air travel. Much of the point of airborne terrorism is to stoke irrational fear in the flying public, and provoke governments into costly overreaction.

Refusing to acquiesce in this dark cycle is, in the end, the best repudiation to terrorists. And putting better defenses in place is the best way to ensure their terrible schemes don't pay off.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.