What’s wrong with airport security?

Updated airport security policies have been in the news lately. And I have experienced them first-hand: although I haven’t been flying over 100K miles like the good old days, I achieved elite airline status just based on my flights in the first six months of the year.

Before I get to the question of what’s wrong, let me make one thing clear: I think the system needs to be fixed rather than replaced. I do believe that airline security is better since the September 11 attacks. I don’t want to see the professionals of the TSA replaced with the low-bidder-contractors that were in place previously.

The basic problem with the changes in airport security is that we’re solving the wrong problem. Let’s look at the perpetrators of the high-profile incidents of the last decade:

  • September 11, 2001: Perpetrated by a group of young men who followed al-Qaeda, had pilot training, and used smuggled knives to overpower airline crews.
  • Shoe bomber: Perpetrated by a young man who followed al-Qaeda and smuggled explosives in his shoe on a flight from Paris to Miami.
  • Underwear bomber: Perpetrated by a young man who followed al-Qaeda and smuggled explosives in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
  • Printer cartridge bombs: Perpetrated by al-Qaeda to smuggle explosives inside printer toner cartridges shipped from Yemen to the USA.

Notice the obvious patterns:

  • All perpetrators were young men with a radical anti-American agenda
  • Since the September 11 attacks, all events involved explosives
  • Since the TSA was established, all events involved trips on US airlines from Europe, Africa or the Gulf states to the USA

So if you’re trying to stop an airline terrorist plot, it seems pretty obvious that you should focus on:

  • Radical young men with an anti-American agenda
  • Explosives
  • Flights on US airlines from Europe to the USA, particularly involving passengers or cargo originating in Africa or the Gulf states

This also implies that the visible changes that the TSA implemented in 2010 are solving the wrong problem. For example, the following people are virtually no threat to American security:

  • The family traveling from St. Louis to Disney World
  • The college sorority girl flying home for Christmas break
  • The 45-year old sales representative traveling from Silicon Valley to a trade show in Denver
  • The retired couple traveling from Boston to a Caribbean cruise

So why are we putting these people through the “full body scanner” and “enhanced pat-downs”? By doing this, we’re wasting valuable time and resources that should be used to target the real sources of terrorism. And so “the terrorists are winning” since one event – even a failed one – inflicts fear and wastes time and money. And while we focus on the past event, the terrorists are planning new tactics for the next one.

Since September 11, 2001, the major terror plots involved international flights that started outside the USA. In other words, since the TSA was created, it has been effective in maintaining safety on flights departing US airports. And it seems to me that TSA and CBP policies in place from 2002-2009 were effective without the need for offensive “full body scanners” or “enhanced pat-downs”.

What is needed instead are methods to improve security on international flights destined for the USA.

Meantime, what are we doing about other targets? Imagine the horror if terrorists struck at a bridge, a tunnel, a rush-hour subway, or a national monument. What if terrorists struck at crowds in a televised sports event? Or at an amusement park? Or holiday crowds? Are we really doing enough to protect against these threats? Or are we too busy trying to solve yesterday’s problem today – trying to protect domestic US flights against harmless grandmothers and toddlers?

P.S. I’m also annoyed by the speculation over the safety of the full-body scanners. Where are the studies to determine whether these systems are safe? This is elementary science: subject laboratory animals to the scanners, and observe whether they get cancer or other diseases. Then send the results to peer-reviewed journals for scrutiny. There is no excuse for not doing this research and making the results public. Until then, all we’re doing is speculating.

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