Airport Security: Some Humble Suggestions

Kevin Drum over Mother Jones has issued a challenge to those of us who object to the new Gate Rape procedures at American airports, where your choice may be reduced to 'virtual strip-search by machine,' 'sexual assault by TSA screener,' or as John Tyner experienced, threats of civil charges and a massive fine.

A few of the steps have already been accomplished, such as reinforcement of cockpit doors and a traveling public which now knows never, ever to cooperate with hijackers.  That's about 90% of the solution right there.  Here's the rest of it:

  • Eliminate procedures that do not enhance security.  Stop having travelers remove their shoes and all their outer garments, which just slows things down.  Eliminate the ban on carry-on water and toiletries of more than 3 oz, because determined terrorists can and will evade this anyway, or they'll just find another type of explosive.  Drop the inconsistently enforced ban on anything pointy or sharp, and return it to where it was, back when only blades longer than (I'm guessing here) 3 or 4 inches were banned.  Make the list of banned items clear, easy to understand, and consistent from week to week and airport to airport.  Absolute exemption for any medically necessary items, including medicines, insulin pumps, baby milk/formula, etc.  But the plain fact of the matter is a person armed with a knife or box-cutter, or even a more serious weapon, is not going to be able to hijack a plane, not anymore.
  • Eliminate long security lines.  A few hundred people standing in line at a security checkpoint is just asking for an attack, and one which I'm surprised hasn't happened yet.  If there are that many people waiting, then there's something really wrong, and ways need to be found to streamline the screening process.  Ditch redundant screening, such as having a second screening line at the boarding gates, and put those screeners and equipment in a large, wide open area with lots and lots of screening lines.  Make that as the condition for getting into the airport beyond the ticketing and check-in area, but once through that line — which should never be more than 20 people in one spot at a time– and let that be enough.
  • Reduce carry-on permissions to just one bag or item, plus a small purse or computer bag capable of fitting under the seat in front of the passenger.  The purpose of this is to make security screening go faster.  That said, ban all airline fees on checked bags (within reason — it's okay to have a 2 or 3 bag free limit) and make gate-checking easier, so that passengers aren't encouraged to bring everything into the cabin.  Exception, of course, for delicate items such as musical instruments, or pets within the legal size limit — but here it's okay for airlines to charge extra, or in the case of really big things, like cellos, require an extra seat ticket be bought.  Consider this measure disposable though if security screening becomes efficient enough to return to larger carry-on allowances, without causing the lines to get too long again.
  • Work with international partners to eliminate unnecessary redundant screening.  High-security airports can and ought to have reciprocal agreements with each other, such that, for example, if I go through security in San Francisco and transfer directly to another flight at Heathrow, I ought not have to go through security and full screening again.
  • Scan and X-ray everything that goes into the belly of the plane, especially 3rd party cargo.  This remains one of the biggest holes in airline security…and actually, it might not be unreasonable to disallow air transport cargo from passenger jets, unless the transporting company can pass extremely rigorous checks as to its package/parcel/crate scanning and certification processes.
  • Background checks on the level of qualifying for a government security clearance for ALL airport workers, down to the food caterers and janitors, but especially for screeners and anybody given authority to interfere with the free travel of innocent passengers.  Require periodic renewal of those checks, say every 2 years.  A one strike rule — you screw up once, get caught stealing, or harassing a passenger for no legitimate reason, you're out.  Make the penalties really severe, so that the temptation to violate the rules is greatly reduced.  If a baggage handler knows he'll get 10 years in the clink for lifting a camera, or a screener get felony charges for sexually molesting a kid under the guise of an 'enhanced pat-down', he or she will think twice about it.
  • Watch the watchers, and the travelers.  In addition to the screeners, there ought to be both uniformed and plain-clothes security personnel circulating throughout the airport, outside the terminal, and in the parking lots.  These already exist, but there ought to be more of them.  The plain-clothes ones in particular, but also the ticket agents and the security screeners should be trained to watch and listen for suspicious behavior.  But one point is these officers ought also to be watching the airport workers.  Plus the plainclothes ones ought not just be watching, but also interacting with passengers, asking questions, engaging in conversations, etc.
  • The screening equipment:  Metal detector.  Wand.  X-ray for luggage and items.  Explosives sniffer, both mechanical and canine (the latter of which can also, with its handler, circulate the airport).  Simple, reasonable pat-downs on a random basis and for any passenger raising the hackles of the security personnel.  Better if the explosives sniffer and metal detector could be combined into one device.  But unsuspected passengers should not be subjected to radiation or virtual strip-search scans as a condition for flying.
  • Standardize security waivers.  If a person has a pacemaker or is in a wheelchair or has some other medical condition making standard screening problematic, institute a process — one that can include passing a background check — to enable getting a special ID card.  That said, a person with a medical device or prosthetic should never EVER be required to remove the device, get out of their wheelchair, or whatever, as a condition for clearing screening.
  • A formal process for getting off enhanced-screening and/or No Fly lists.  Anybody who ends up on these lists should be given the means and opportunity to get off them.  Again, I'm thinking a special ID card granted so that once off the list, a person need not worry about getting stopped anyway (unless some aspect of the given person raises questions…such as whether the ID card seems legit, or the behavior is seriously hinky, etc.).
  • Random enhanced screening.  By this though, I don't mean strip-searches, but rather sensible and possibly escalating measures.  It can start with a simple hand-wanding and a few questions about one's travel plans.  Next, a hand search of bags and a light pat-down, with tougher questions — where coming from, where going, where staying once there, and possibly pepper this with a few random queries like "when's your birthday?" — because with faked documents, this is something a bad guy might not have taken the time to remember.  Absolutely no "junk touching" unless there is clear probable cause for suspicion.
  • On the plane:  Have the flight attendants circulate the cabin more during the flight, and give them even more thorough training on how to identify suspicious behavior.  Along with this, more air marshals.
  • Don't be stupid with these rules.  Okay = asking a parent to allow a stroller to be searched, and to view a baby without all its blankets and swaddling.  Stupid = feeling up a baby.  Also, a pat-down appropriate to an adult is not and never will be appropriate to a six or three year old.  Screening the pilots and flight attendants = criminally stupid.  Moreover, no instituting new rules prompted by and based upon prior sabotage attempts which did not work or were not carried out.  The shoes, the new pat-downs, and the 3 oz rule are all because of failed attempts, one of which never made it past the theoretical notion stage.
  • Stop the Security Theater.  While we're at it, drop the stupid color-coded air travel alert system, which has never been anything other than Orange or Red since 9/11/01.  Actually, if the security level is to be escalated, DON'T tell the passengers.  This kind of info is only of use to security personnel, and it's incredibly lame to be alerting potential terrorists of increased measures.  Any 'increased measure' that's been in place for five years or more is no longer 'increased' but pretty much permanent.  Any newly added measure ought to be reviewed every few months, to ensure it makes sense to keep it, or if it ought to be changed or eliminated.
  • Recognize when a proposed security measure goes too far, does not enhance security at all, or does so in a tiny incremental fashion far outweighing the inconvenience, cost, and loss of personal dignity and freedoms.  These 'enhanced' pat-downs and the untested RapeScan machines are examples of both or all of these.  Asking a few questions is far more likely to uncover a suspicious person than is feeling up the crotches of hundreds of innocent travelers.  We also have TSA screeners working in close proximity to a radiation-producing machine for upwards of 8 hours a day — this is insane.
  • Recognize the potential for abuse, such as screeners giving in to sadistic or sexual urges.  Or baggage screeners being given access to people's expensive belongings, but with inadequate means in place to prevent thefts.  Everyone is human, and we are flawed.  Handing extreme powers to a person earning $11.50/hr, with nearly the authority of a police officer or a prison guard, but little or no checks, is just asking for trouble.
  • Legislation to impose reasonable limits on TSA authority and procedures.  Absent probable cause, contact with one's genitals — especially those of a child or infant — should not be a condition for flying.  And since the TSA (and DHS behind it) have shown a singular incapacity of recognizing when their procedures go too far, we need laws to delineate what is and isn't reasonable.  Drinkable liquids in clear plastic bottles ought to be allowed, as well as normal retail-sized containers of toiletries and personal sundries.  Shoes should be allowed to stay on, unless the screeners notice something unusual to prompt x-raying them.  And nobody is going to bring down a plane with a pocket knife or multi-tool — time to get rid of that rule as well. 
  • Accept that 100% security is impossible.  Not just 'difficult' or 'expensive' or 'inconvenient' — but it's flat out impossible.  No matter the steps taken, there are always way around security measures.  Body orifices.  Corrupted or blackmailed airport employees.  Faked documents.  New compounds and substances which do not register on scanning equipment.  The multitude of perfectly ordinary items which can be turned into dangerous weapons — for instance, a lithium battery, such as that in a laptop computer or cell hone, can be turned into an incindiary device with a piece of aluminum foil or a short length of wire or conducting metal; knives disguised as belt-buckles or housekeys; a glass liquor bottle snagged from the in-flight meal cart; a sealed can put into the galley microwave oven; a jar of ordinary powdered non-dairy coffee creamer, a length of nylon fishing line… the list goes on and on.  "I feel safer" is never an excuse to add measures which do nothing but actually decrease safety (such as when security lines are made longer) or create massive inconvenience and increased costs for a dubiously tiny increase in actual security.

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