A few weeks ago, I planned a trip to Berlin for mid-March. I initially thought to tack on a couple of extra days to conduct some business in Brussels, but decided against it. Had I not changed my mind, I probably would have been checking into my return flight when the airport bomb went off. And the awful realization of what could have happened to me concentrated my thinking as a frequent traveler on changes to airport security since 9/11. In trying to secure planes, we have made airports more of a target, and in doing so have not made travel safer.
That’s because the security aimed at keeping terrorists off planes concentrates large numbers of people in security lines. As we learned in Brussels, those lines are tempting targets for terrorists seeking to inflict a lot of casualties. This isn’t the first time airports have come under attack. In 2007, terrorists deliberately crashed a jeep loaded with propane into the main entrance of Glasgow International Airport in Scotland, but it burst into flames rather than explode. If your aim is to kill large numbers of people, a suicide attack on an international departures hall is an easy way to do it.
As is well known, boarding a flight is a lengthy business these days. Not only are security lines long, lines to check baggage are often long as well. The thing is, not every passenger poses equal risk. In fact, the vast majority of passengers pose no risk at all. Yet, as we saw in Brussels, they are placed at extra risk thanks to a one-size fits all security mindset. In fact, there is strong evidence that extra wait times deter people from flying at all and cause them to choose to drive instead. Driving is much more dangerous than flying, terrorist atrocities notwithstanding. Nearly 1,600 people died the year after 9/11 because they chose to drive instead of flying.
We might just regard this as a trade-off of risks if we had firm knowledge that the security procedures stopped terrorist attacks. Yet, Americans were outraged last year when an internal investigation revealed that the Transportation Security Administration failed 95 percent of tests designed to see whether it would stop weapons, explosives, or other contraband getting through. Proposals to move the screening area to the terminal entrance merely move the potential target, doing nothing to increase security.
The TSA’s reaction to its lapses was predictable: tighten security by creating longer lines, beginning the cycle all over again. The agency would also like to see more use of whole body scanners, which evidence suggests are ineffective, create longer lines as people opt out, and cost taxpayers a fortune. We learned recently that one of its grand schemes to shorten lines involved spending $1.4 million on an iPad app that randomizes which security line people should go to – an app so simple I could probably build it.
What America and the world need is a genuine risk-based security approach that focuses on finding dangerous people rather than dangerous objects. Most travelers would go through security quickly. This would include business travelers who have pre-registered with a scheme like TSA PreCheck (one of the good things TSA has done), families with children or elderly relatives who are also very unlikely to pose a threat, tourist groups, and other sets of people who have clear mutual trust with low-risk individuals.
People outside these categories would have to suffer through a more rigorous procedure like we have now (or perhaps more so), but as their numbers would be lessened, even those lines would go faster.
The result of cutting lines in this way would be happier travelers, less cost to the public, and a less tempting target to the world’s terrorists. As a frequent flyer, all three of those things are important to me and I hope to see them implemented.