COMMENTARY: TSA’s Latest Round of Musical Chairs.
By: Charles G. Slepian, Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center
August 7, 2017
This past March, Department of Homeland Security announced that airports in eight Middle Eastern and African countries would be barred from allowing commercial flights to the United States unless all electronic devices larger than a cell phone were barred from the passenger cabin. The concern was centered mainly on laptop computers, which have become an essential tool for business passengers accustomed to being able to work on long flights to the U.S. There was concern that terrorists may have developed a bomb and possibly detonated it in 2016 aboard a Somalia flight right after take off from Somalia’s Mogadishu Airport. The terrorist was believed to be carrying the bomb in a laptop computer; reports of the incident remain unclear.
The recent decision to ban air traffic from 9 airports in 8 heavily Muslim countries that were not meeting the TSA regulation requiring the checking of Laptop computers with baggage, and continued to allow passengers to carry laptops in aircraft cabins, came as a blow to business passengers who are accustomed working on their computers in-flight. In addition, flights banned included all of the non-stops to the United States from the 9 banned Middle Eastern airports purportedly to allow a more through passenger vetting process. At same time, the United States had temporarily stopped issuing visas to America that slowed the processing of Muslims, even those with Green Cards trying to return home to the U.S. Many believed that the overall focus on controlling access to the United States had little to do with security concerns and more to do with politics in the United States dealing with many complex legal and political issues focusing on our immigration policies.
TSA has the unfortunate reputation of crying wolf to set the stage before introducing new or re-packaged security protocols. This one involving eight nations, nine airports, and a possible unrelated bombing of a Somalia commercial airliner has once again given rise to doubt over the issue of whether we are truly suffering a threat from laptop bombs; and if so do we have a rational program in our airports to protect travelers from a threat of this kind to commercial aviation. If so, is the proposed action taken by TSA affecting electronic devices in airliner cabins a reasonable way to deal with the risk. Entangling legitimate aviation security concerns with the many difficult immigration question concerning travelers to and from the Middle East who require a different kind of screening should not be allowed to impact on vital aviation security concerns.
TSA has now introduced a new protocol that requires all commercial airports in the United State to have passengers place all carry on electronic devices larger than a cell phone in a separate bin for examination, once again looking for laptop and similar explosives. Under the new protocols, laptops will be permitted in cabins on commercial flights but will undergo a more intensive screening at screening stations; TSA pre-check passengers will remain unaffected by these changes. This might be a good time for travelers not part of the pre-check program to join and become exempt from TSA’s latest changes.
The recent confused series of events orchestrated by TSA is yet another example of TSA’s version of leadership musical chairs in which, when the music stops the chairs are usually filled by the same leaders that never seem to vacate them. At the very least, we hope that TSA will observe its statutory boundaries and avoid ventures into State Department issues as they have here, at the moment the Department of State is struggling to manage their own problems.