Security Lines are Longer Than Ever. But the Most Sensible Fix is the One Nobody Will Talk About.
May 26, 2016
AIRPORT SECURITY lines are out the door, and the effects are an enormous drag on our sanity and our economy: angry travelers, missed flights, millions of hours of wasted time, and millions of wasted dollars.
Conventional wisdom holds that the best way to address the problem is to shuttle in more TSA guards and personnel. Indeed this would speed things up slightly, but it’s a superficial fix that fails to address the root problem: that our entire checkpoint strategy is misguided. Budgeting for more staff only buttresses a system that is wasteful and irrational to start with. If anything, TSA doesn’t need more personnel at the checkpoint, it needs fewer.
As I’ve argued for years, there are two fundamental flaws in our approach. First is the idea that every single person who flies, from infant children to elderly folks in wheelchairs, is seen as a potential terrorist of equal threat. Second, and and even more maddening, is the immense amount of time we spend rifling through people’s bags in the hunt for harmless liquids, pointy objects, and other perceived “weapons.” In a system that processes more than two million passengers every day of the week, neither of these tactics is effective or sustainable. Our approach is so flawed, and so bogged down in ridiculous, wasteful nonsense, that it can hardly move under its own weight. Yet all we hear about is how to ad yet more layers of fat to the system.
Underlying all of this is a huge and painful irony that few people ever acknowledge: that pretty much none of the checkpoint rules put in place after the attacks of 9/11 would have prevented those attacks in the first place. The success of the attacks had almost nothing to do with airport security. What weapons the men used was irrelevant. Had boxcutters been banned, they would have used something else. Heck, pencils would have done the job, probably. The only weapon that mattered was the simplest, lowest-tech weapon of all: the element of surprise. What the men exploited was our understanding, at the time, of what a hijacking was and how it was expected to unfold. The “security failure” of 9/11 wasn’t letting boxcutters onto planes. It was a failure of passenger and crew awareness, of cockpit entry protocols, and a total breakdown of communication at the levels of our FBI and CIA, both of which had been tracking the hijackers.
TSA’s PreCheck program has been a step in the right direction, but there’s a long way to go. Here are seven ideas to rationalize airport security, making it more efficient, more cost-effective, and ultimately safer for all of us:
— Eliminate most of the liquids restrictions and the shoe removal rules. Security experts have long argued the uselessness of the liquids prohibitions, and the shoe thing, which is not a policy across Europe and most of Asia, is almost as ineffective.
— Eliminate the “bag check” protocol that calls for the entire security line to come to a stop every time an item in somebody’s luggage requires a second look. Of the millions of such items detected in the past fifteen years, not one has hurt anybody. We don’t have time for this. Pull the bag aside for inspection separately, and let the line keep moving.
— Let’s get past our silly infatuation with pointy objects and other non-weapons. Confiscating hobby tools and toys takes time and money, yet does nothing to make us safer. The focus should be on explosives. Or, perhaps more importantly, on people who might use explosives, which brings us to the next recommendation…
— Take a percentage of screeners now working at airport checkpoints and re-train them to work away from public view, inspecting luggage and cargo, reviewing passenger data, etc. As I’ve noted many times in the past, the real job of protecting planes from terrorists doesn’t belong to concourse screeners. It happens backstage, so to speak, with TSA, FBI, and intelligence entities working together to break up plots and capture suspects before they get to the airport. Once a terrorist reaches the terminal, chances are that he or she has figured out a way to skirt whatever safeguards we have in place.
— Would it be crazy to advocate that certain travelers, at TSA spotters’ discretion, be exempt from screening altogether? Personnel could be trained to choose certain passengers deemed lowest-threat — these travelers would, as a starting point, be PreCheck qualified — pull them out of line and allow them to pass. Just a thought.
— Deploy more TSA staff overseas — in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America — where they can assist local security in the protection of US-bound aircraft. It is much more probable that a bomb or other attack would originate from overseas, yet our focus has been domestically. Again, this seems to be part of our September 11th hangover: we’ve got high-tech equipment and body scanners at regional airports in Ohio, but not in many cities around the world from where an attack is far likelier to emanate. Does anybody remember the comedy of errors that allowed the so-called “Underwear Bomber” to make his way onto a Detroit-bound flight out of Amsterdam? Here was a Nigerian citizen who’d spent time in Yemen, traveling on a one-way ticket, and whose own father had tried to warn American authorities about him. And here we are confiscating plastic squirt-guns and rubber swords from four year-old kids at regional airports in Utah. The trick is getting foreign government to allow American security personnel to operate at their airports, but certainly some level of this is possible. Already in many countries US carriers hire third-party contractors to assist with passenger and luggage screening.
— Improve our hardware. I made a connection at the airport in Dubai recently, and security screening took no more than about 25 seconds. One reason for this was the design and layout of the checkpoint. The luggage belts were big, and wide. The bins were big, and wide. The x-ray machines were big, and wide. The collection-side conveyors and tables were big, and wide. There was room to maneuver, room to organize your stuff, and bags went more quickly through the scanners — all of which helps everything run faster and more smoothly. Our checkpoints are a claustrophobic, cumbersome, jury-rigged jumble of card tables, trash receptacles overflowing with water bottles, and so on.
The trouble isn’t that we have “too much security” per se. It’s that we have too much security in the wrong places. The solution isn’t pouring more and more money into a defective strategy. It’s changing that strategy.