There’s been a lot of news and reaction to last week’s attempted bombing of a US-bound Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been quick to implement a series of vague and ineffective security countermeasures. These include prohibiting passengers from having anything in their laps for the last 60 minutes of international flights to the US.
Having worked as a security expert for years and still doing so part-time, I’m of the opinion that these security measures – and the overall approach of the TSA – is flawed. As frequent fliers and travelers it’s important to reconfigure your views on airport security to look at the larger system in play, worry less about flying, and realize the impact it has on the economy of travel.
The Airport Is The Last, Not First Line Of Defense
It’s attractive to look at airport security and imagine all of the action-movie terrorist schemes that could cause a major catastrophe on an airplane. Except that airport security is the last line of defense. Coordinated terrorist plots take planning, communication, and the acquisition of weapons and other materials. These are where bad guys are foiled, not at the airport.
- Good investigation, monitoring, and police work are the most effective ways to prevent terror events. When these systems fail, airport security can do little to prevent an attack. Consider September 11th and this latest attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, both preventable but weren’t due to flaws with basic police work.
Catching The Crazy and The Stupid
Airport security is designed to catch the crazy and the stupid, as well as ladies who might overthrow an airplane with more than 3 ounces of perfume. While Abdulmutallab was able to sneak powdered explosives on board according to initial reports, the amount of explosives would be unlikely to take down an airliner.
- The single most important security countermeasure which helped prevent this latest attack (and shoe bomber Richard Reid) from being successful was the reaction of the crew and other passengers. They reacted quickly to subdue both attempted terror events preventing them from igniting the explosives.
Sophisticated attacks take a great deal of planning, communication, and don’t happen out of the blue. Airport security isn’t designed to thwart well-coordinated terrorist attack attempts, that’s the job of other agencies. Airport security only catches the dumb, stupid, and lone attacker.
It Has No End
Solid investigative work to prevent attacks in the planning stages is the where more security funding should be spent because the TSA brand of reacting to each specific threat has no end. After an attempted shoe bombing the TSA has people taking off shoes, and after the ‘liquid bombers‘ were caught (by investigators, not airport security), liquids more than an arbitrary 3 ounces were banned (unless it’s contact lens solution, then you can bring up to 24 ounces). Matches and lighters were also banned briefly, among other common travel items.
The problem is that these security measures are trying to prevent previous methods of attack, all of which were unsuccessful for three reasons.
- The reaction of the crew and other passengers.
- Investigation and monitoring during the planning stages (not the final stage) of the terror plot.
- Locked cockpit doors.
- (Additionally) It also hasn’t been shown that these attacks are feasible and that these security measures have been effective.
Someone can still go on a shooting rampage at an airport security checkpoint, try to open a door on an airplane, or come up with another way to damage an airplane in-flight. Ban shoes, terrorists will use liquids; ban those and they’ll use something else. Security can’t (easily) prevent or predict a lone attacker but good police work can catch coordinated attacks well before they can ever be executed.
Why You Should Care
Aside from the inconvenience of airport security and not being able to read or leave your seat upon descent all of these measures are costly and questionably effective. What if the next terror attack attempt happens in the second hour of flight, does that mean more time sitting and not doing anything in hour 2? Security should be both cost effective and practical. How about the day someone tries to blowup a laptop or book and those are banned from flights. Imagine the impact on business travel – and the airlines who are already struggling.
You can voice your concerns to your politicians, no matter where you are to your government and even interact with the TSA via their blog. Security should be effective and to do so airport security needs to stop watching movies and start getting down to the boring basics. Crippling the airline industry, being a detriment to business travel, and keeping people in fear only provides the terrorists with their ultimate goal – to terrorize the innocent.
[photos by: alist, steuben, Arenamontanus, mudkat]
Well said and thought of, Anil.
Hope you had a safe but enjoyable holiday season!
Thanks Jen, same to you!
Very good points and well put. I find it strange that they ban doing anything in the last hour of the flight. If they are so worried about our safety…then why just the last hour? The whole subject of TSA security is always touchy. The strangest part is that the airports all over the world are different. They never even took my bottle of water away when I flew out of Ho Chi Minh City airport on international flights.
It’s so arbitrary and the countermeasures seem like they’re being done with movie plots in mind. The requirements do also vary greatly around the world, most EU countries don’t require taking off shoes, and many Asian countries use a hand wand on most (male) passengers.
Good police work prevents security agencies from trying to stop terror attacks with measures like not getting up in the last hour of flight.
I’d like to see Congress confirm the nominee for TSA head for starters. And while I agree that plots should be stopped before the perp gets to the airport, there still needs to be a last line of defense. And as a passenger, if security wants me to take off my shoes, or dump my perfume, or sit with my hands in my lap, I’ll willingly do it. The most effective weapon they have for last line of defense is the “x-ray” machine that detects the body outline and any objects attached to the body. It is being stopped by people who fear privacy invasion as well as budget issues. We need to tell Congress that we accept that screening device!
When it comes to the security measures, I’m willing to do anything, so long as it’s really effective. I’m not convinced that taking off shoes or dumping liquids over 3 ounces really makes us safer. The FBI during audits has several times been able to pass IED components through airport security. I’d like to see more internal security audits that would provide both recommendations and cost/benefit analysis.
There are lots of very experienced, qualified, and intelligent security engineers (working for the US government) and experts out there. I’m not sure how much of their input makes it to the final decision.
An Australian govt minister was quoted as saying that they were going to stop seixing nail clippers and knitting needles so that they can focus more on securing the plane. Yet they have been clollecting these things for seven years. That is the frustrating part of travel and I think adds to the fear is this reactionary response which looks amateur and incompetent. Shoes, water bottles, balnkets on laps in the last hour of flying – what will the next loony response be?
It’s a never-ending process to try and protect against previous methods. It has absolutely no end and can only continue to get more and more ridiculous.