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Can Airports Be Safer?

I was intrigued by a recent headline on CNN that made an interesting albeit not exactly bold claim: Airport security needs a 9/11 style upgrade. Following the Ft. Lauderdale attack last week, not to mention the Brussels and Ataturk airport attacks last year, people are understandably wondering what, if anything, can be done to make airports safer.

However, the CNN piece, while offering viable ways to improve safety and cut down on potential loss of life in an attack, demonstrates how difficult a task this is. “Let’s start with what shouldn’t be done,” author Jeffrey C. Price writes. “Let’s not move the screening checkpoints, which only relocates the crowd and thus the location of the next attack, and if you move the checkpoints too close to the curb, you put those waiting at the queue line in the blast radius of a much larger vehicle bomb.”

He also says TSA should not have additional screeners wandering public areas, but that the agency should collaborate with the airport industry “to develop the best tactics and strategies to protect the public areas, rather than just telling airports what they should do.”

Lastly, he points out that changing rules on allowing firearms in checked baggage is pointless, since anyone can walk into a public area with a gun.

It’s hard to argue with any of these points. In particular, screening people as they enter the airport is impractical (imagine lines snaking along outside) and, as he notes, does nothing to diminish the potential for an attack. Security checkpoints create a bottleneck wherever you they are, and the pre-screening area will always be a target no matter where it is.

Which leaves … what, exactly? Price notes that the US military uses “technologies to detect explosives and weapons on those approaching a checkpoint,” so perhaps enabling similar technology could be useful. But that’s a major undertaking both in cost and scale. “Most immediately,” Price says, “we need more active, visible, armed and body armored police personnel patrolling public areas.

“We need to also add plainclothes police personnel and security personnel to conduct covert surveillance of crowds in the public areas, install gunshot locators in the terminal building, conduct more drills and training on response to such incidents, ensure panic alarms are available and in working order and confirm all evacuation routes and doors are clearly marked. Airport personnel should also be trained in how to assist individuals during such an incident by hiding them in closets, shops, utility hallways and other places.”

Here’s the thing: These are all good ideas, but they come at a cost. Part of that is monetary—the TSA alone is a $7.5 billion per year program—and part of it is that ever-present, always shifting balance between safety and our ability to travel freely.

Since 2001 we’ve watched airport security evolve from a function that was probably too loose to an operation that tests the limits of privacy rights and, despite good intentions, restricts the free flow of travel at our nation’s airports. For lack of a better word, militarizing our airports with armored and plainclothes may be the best and only way to deter the sort of attacks we’ve seen in recent months. But is that sort of deterrence—and make no mistake, the word here is deterrence, not prevention—worth it? Is that a step that can ever be rolled back? And if a would-be attacker is sufficiently deterred from targeting an airport, what about the local train station? The mall along the highway? Perhaps an airport, with its compressed crowds of distracted, jet-lagged travelers, is precisely the place to go all-in on security. But as a society we need to draw the line somewhere.

Readers, what do you think should be done to make airports safer?

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