Security Analysis: Why Airport Screening Remains a Failure

The addition of almost one million more aviation industry workers and outside suppliers further complicates the safety and security problems that airport management, airlines and government agencies need to cope with. Whether the threat of terrorism or weather complications, airports become dangerously congested whenever a logistics problem is created anywhere in a system that needs to be exquisitely choreographed if aircraft and crews are to be where and when scheduled to move passengers and cargo across the nation and around the world.

Commercial aviation continues to experience an increase in air traffic and at the same time it attempts to cope with increased safety and security demands. Congestion in the air over major airports has pushed air safety to its limits causing delayed departures and arrivals and closer intervals between airliners in flight. Weather problems have caused an inability to position aircraft where they can quickly resume normal flight schedules after a storm. As a result, passengers have been held on board aircraft without adequate services sometimes for many hours before taking off or returning to gates where they are disgorged into already over-crowded airport facilities.

While trying to handle myriad logistical problems, the same security problems that have taxed the resources of government since 2001 for the most part remain an enigma. Satisfactorily screening passengers, baggage and cargo continues to fall short of expectations. The introduction of new technologies and better training methods for airport screeners have not yielded the hoped for better rates of success in preventing contraband from airplane cabins and cargo holds. Faced with seemingly a never-ending list of challenges, airport security has been forced to remain in the same reactive posture it was in on 9/11 almost without exception. Somehow firearms and other weapons still find their way aboard airplanes despite new protocols for screeners and increased supervision of the screening process.

For the past several years, shortages of personnel, equipment and money have been the leading reasons given for screening failures. Increases in all three categories haven’t ameliorated the problems however. It is not likely that there will ever be enough personnel to provide quick and reliable screening for the increasing volume of air travelers and others requiring it. Nor will even reasonable people likely agree upon the kind and amount of technology to safely do the job at screening stations regardless of how much money is provided. Just as we would have failed to prevent crime by trying to ensure that every citizen didn’t harbor some criminal intent, we should accept that we couldn’t predict who among us is likely to commit an act of terrorism in commercial aviation without changing our approach to the problem. Crime prevention is most effective when we can identify risks from those people most likely to try to breach security because they have the means, the motive and the opportunity to do so.

By overreacting to worldwide security alerts, we have been distracted from preventing real aviation terrorism threats. For example, the means and motive to assemble a liquid explosive on board an airliner by a passenger was ignored in an impossible effort to ban small quantities of liquids from two million pieces of passenger carryon each day. The result was a reduction in the overall screening program disproportionate to the threat. We might be far better off by employing a question or two asked by a skilled behavioral specialist to passengers chosen scientifically based on factors such as likely motivation and ability, and then professionally analyze their responses. Yet we under react when an aviation worker carries fourteen guns and eight pounds of marijuana inside the cabin of a passenger flight, an event that represents the much more serious problem of the vulnerability of airliners to mass destruction weapons by airport workers.

Our focus on point of access screening of passengers has failed to achieve good results because the screening is conducted too late in the process. Current screening methods that try to identify in advance passengers motivated to destroy an airliner in flight are hamstrung by political considerations. Profiling terrorists is not easy but it has had its successes. Subjecting candidates to intensive searches after they reach the screening station limits the available search options to public displays of both the targets and the methods, and results in a random selection with limited success rates. Our current screening methods do not lend themselves to effective profiling because they avoid “unacceptable”, even though empirically supportable, selection processes. Though the level of sophistication and training of the current screening population militates against trying to use them effectively to profile, the problem of upgrading airport screening is not insoluble.

Screening personnel in the years ahead should be selected and trained with different goals in mind; we should try to identify the potential bomber before we search for the bomb. The security process needs to start before the passenger reaches the current physical security station. As a result of new technology, false statements made even over a telephone line can be identified with a very high degree of accuracy. New technology now offers great promise for intercepting passengers with the motive and means to carryout an act of terrorism before they have an opportunity to do so. Voice analysis technologies also offer a way to avoid the accusations of ethnic and racial stereotyping that currently inhibit the use of profiling as a tool in airport screening attributable to personal subjective bias. In addition, the endless debate over what constitutes a weapon and how best to find it can hopefully give way to a search for terrorists and other criminals rather than for ice picks and razor blades the use of which as a tool of aviation terrorism in outdated.

With a change in how and why we screen will also come a change in who will do the screening. Screening passengers and workers for motives and means will require additional skills not readily available in the current screening force. As we wrestle with the problem of how to screen airport workers without disrupting the workflow, we need to consider a new approach that searches the mind as well as the body. With so much of our aviation service work being outsourced, screeners with an agile mental set will be required to deal with new faces constantly entering secure and sterile work areas and then subjecting them to screening to ensure that this largely unsupervised workforce does not present an unreasonable security risk. The employment of the knowledge, skills and experience of our large pool of returning veterans who have faced the same risks abroad that we now hope to avoid at home will provide leadership, discipline and effectiveness in successfully monitoring who and what enters commercial airliners form the ramp side.

A new approach to how we think about commercial aviation security is warranted by the many security breaches we still experience and the continued threat of terrorism that we face. Keeping terrorists from attacking airliners requires identifying real human threats as well as their weapons of mass destruction. We simply cannot search everybody and every thing, the numbers are too great and time too short. New protocols, technologies, human skills, and the flexibility to fit the resources to the problems offers much promise for future success in our efforts to prevent commercial aviation terrorism.

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