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What’s Wrong with Airport Security (and What to Do About It)

Notwithstanding the politics surrounding Janet Napolitano’s botched statement and recanted statement, there’s no question that the airline security system failed in an extremely broad fashion on Christmas Day.

And it wasn’t only Christmas Day. Just a few days after that, a terminal in Newark airport was cleared completely for six hours on January 3 — one of the biggest travel days of the holiday season — after a (still) unidentified man slipped into the terminal through the exit-way when a guard stepped away from his post.

As more facts surface about the various breaches, we’re finding out that the elaborate and extraordinarily chaotic and inconvenient security system we have all endured since 9/11 is more porous and less reliable than the entrance system at my kid’s daycare.

Here is list of the blunders involved in just the past couple of weeks:

  • The monstrous list of names (reportedly over a half million strong) of purported terrorists catches 4-year-olds, but not an actual Al Qaeda-trained terrorist whose own father reported him to U.S. officials just a few weeks previously.
  • The airport screening system that dings passengers with big belt buckles doesn’t catch a guy who takes off his belt but has explosives in his shorts.
  • The Detroit flight terrorist was identified after the plane was in the air, but no notice was sent to the pilots of the aircraft. That this guy had a chance to spend a long time in a bathroom setting up is astounding.
  • The practice of interviewing potential threats after they arrive on U.S. soil, instead of before they get on a plane headed for U.S. airspace, proved completely inadequate.
  • There was a lot of sloppy work among “security” guards, who seemed to be doing as much hanging out as protecting their posts. Of course, the technology backing up those guards was a flop as well: the security camera at Newark was not working, and investigators had to use Continental’s cameras to figure out what happened.
  • The TSA offers consistently inept responses in the hours after a scare such as this, during which they inevitably introduce measures that will inconvenience everyone in the system except for the people bent on destruction. (Example: the instant rule that there would be no pillows and blankets allowed in the final hour of a flight — which just gives terrorists a very clear deadline before which they need to go into action. Yeesh.) And let’s not forget that the aforementioned TSA directive was almost immediately leaked to the press.
  • I remain amazed by the insularity of the talking heads at Homeland Security, who must take charter planes everywhere they go; how else could they say this system was working?
  • Meanwhile, the wartime looters are already poised to make a financial killing on what seems to me an otherwise sensible solution to the individual screening process: full-body scanners. These machines are obscenely expensive, and taxpayers will be paying top dollar.
  • The TSA and Homeland Security are massive, essentially wasteful enterprises — $300,000 spent on a gym, $500,000 on artwork and silk plants — and yet we see short-staffing at airports during peak travel times.

The TSA explains away all the inconsistencies and outright failures in the system with the bald-faced dodge that they want the process to be unpredictable. I get that, but do they really want it to be so unpredictable that knives and guns pass through security?

Unfortunately, no one really believe all this stagecraft will keep us safe; already news outlets have posted theories about how a group of terrorists, each with three ounces of liquid explosives, could collect them all once through airport security and create a very effective bomb.

The White House’s briefing on the circumstances and events that allowed the attack to occur shows a system rife with systemic and human breakdowns alike. But the briefing also offers a daunting picture of the challenges faced by the intelligence community when targeting a single individual bent on an act of terror. The document also makes the point that countless other potential attacks have been averted; many of these we’ll never know about, as it is in everyone’s best interest that the how and why of the intelligence agencies that stopped it not be disclosed.

We Get It — So What Do We Do About It?

The average politician might be surprised at how well the average traveler really understands the situation. If you have gone through airport security more than a handful of times, you have seen it all — good and bad, efficient and inefficient, competent and incompetent, safety-conscious and ego-driven, sensible and absurd. You know that extra screenings of grannies, celebrities and families actually do happen, and that raving, argumentative people often cruise down the gangway almost unchallenged. Is there any way to fix this flawed and inefficient system? Following are my recommendations for government agencies, airlines and travelers alike.

TSA: Bring on the Scanners

The TSA bought 150 full-body scanners in September (for around $166,000 each), but has deployed none. In total, the TSA is sitting on over 300 scanners, and it’s time these are installed in airports, particularly the most congested and vulnerable ones.

Way back in 2008, a TripAdvisor survey found that two-thirds of travelers were in favor of full-body scanners. Privacy advocates resist the machines, and you can understand the reluctance of folks with physical conditions that might cause brief embarrassment, as well as concerns about scanning children. However, a few simple logistical and legislative steps should make these mostly moot. Already the person viewing the scanning is in another room, so he or she can’t associate someone by face with the body scan on the screen. Logistical solutions like this work well. Then make it a federal criminal offense to release or comment on a scanned image, and the disincentive to do something stupid like sending an image to a Web site is in place.

The fact is that you can see more flesh on cable television, in magazines, at the beach and certainly on the Internet than you will ever see on a full-body scanner. Let’s get over our fear of brief electronic nudity so we can reduce our fears of terrorism.

TSA: Focus on the Real Threat — Bombs

Particularly now that cockpits are locked and secure, the terminal-front posturing over sharp objects and metal stuff in your pockets is all too pre-9/11, and ignores the real threat, which is bombs. As I understand it, behind closed doors the TSA is quite good at detecting possible bombs in checked bags. Why not bring the same technology to the terminal entrance?

Airlines: Eliminate Fees on the First Checked Bag (At Least)

Travelers will put more stuff in checked bags, and so have less stuff going through airport security, if the fees on all checked bags are eliminated.

After the Christmas event, several airlines rolled back checked bag fees, but only for inbound international flights, and in many cases only from specific airports. For example, United temporarily waived fees from Amsterdam, Canada, London and Brussels. American waived fees for inbound flights from Canada, but only for bags “originally intended for carry-on.” (Incidentally, targeting flights by country seems both counterproductive and historically ineffective; remember that shoe bomber Richard Reid was a British citizen on a flight from Paris.)

All these maneuvers and exceptions just make it clear that baggage fee policies are part of the problem. The airways belong to the people, and we’re paying for all the security as well — so if the airlines won’t do this themselves, government should simply mandate the elimination of the first checked bag fee.

Travelers: Change Our Packing Habits

If the airlines will relent with the baggage fees, we travelers should commit to changing our packing habits. Admittedly baggage handling isn’t really improving, so checking anything of real value still isn’t exactly an attractive option, but as above, anyone who travels on even a semi-regular basis knows that many travelers are carrying an awful lot of stuff onboard planes.

When packing for the airport, let’s skip the multiple carry-on dodge, and the massive carry-on dodge, and all those tactics that just make it more miserable and less safe for other travelers.

Finally, let’s get it together in the security lines. Anyone who is capable of booking their own flights, getting to the airport, checking in at a self-serve kiosk, obtaining a passport, etc., is certainly capable of understanding the simple instructions on the TSA site. Why not even make it a requirement at the time of booking to say we have read these? I’d rather have the hassle of a click online than a pileup in the airport.

Everyone: Take a Bad Situation and Make It Better

Follow the spirit of these travelers who were stuck in Newark.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in January 2010.

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