Disturbing data: Just how effective is airport security?

June 15, 2015

Sixty-seven out of seventy isn’t a bad score, unless it concerns the success rate in cracking airport security. That puts the data in a decidedly different light.

According to a report by the American Broadcasting Company, based on leaked data, that’s the number of times auditors dispatched by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were able to penetrate airport security: 67 times out of 70 tries. According to ABC, DHS was able to secret fake explosives and weapons through the system unnoticed some 96 percent of the time.

In the days that followed the ABC report we discovered gaps in the vetting of people who work at U.S. airports. According to a release from DHS’s Office of Inspector General, the OIG “identified 73 individuals with possible terrorism-related information that [were] not reported to TSA. TSA acknowledged that these individuals were cleared for access to secure airport areas despite representing a security threat.”

In prepared testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs DHS Inspector General John Roth said, “We believe there are vulnerabilities in TSA’s screening operations, caused by a combination of technology failures and human error.”

Even before Roth’s testimony, the Transportation Security Administration’s acting administrator, Melvin Carraway, was reassigned. He’d occupied one of the hottest of hot seats in Washington, DC. He’d been in the position just since January.

The leaked data, and resulting bureaucratic response, beg the question: just how concerned should airline passengers be?
“Every American should have reason to be concerned,” asserts Mike Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, a noted aviation consultancy. “TSA is a misfire. We need to shut it down and start a real security organization.”

Boyd believes any organization taking the place of TSA “should be accountable and they should be professional. These [airport screeners] in blue shirts are very, very nice people…the nicest people in the airport.” But, he goes on to maintain, “they’re not a security team. They’re there to look for pointy objects, not [spot] security failures.”

Then there’s this assessment: “We are not any safer than [before] 9/11.”

In the immediate wake of September 11, Kevin Mitchell says he did “one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done.” Mitchell is chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a U.S.-based consumer group. Some 15 years ago he called for a federal takeover of airport security. Now, he wants to give that job back to the airlines, with some stringent upgrades in standards. His reasoning? “The airlines are the entity with the most to lose, and therefore they should logically do it right this time.”

Mitchell says any such handover should be accompanied by high standards that an oversight body “would police the hell out of.”

He likens the resultant oversight to the model the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration now employs when it comes to aircraft maintenance. “The airlines do the maintenance, and they’re ultimately accountable.” Is it perfect? No. “But,” contends the BTC chief, it’s “far better a model than…TSA.” He maintains the Transportation Security Administration is “out of control. It does things for political reasons often instead of security reasons.”

So, is the sky really about to fall? Not at all, contends Jack Riley, vice president of the RAND Corporation’s national security division. RAND is a major international think tank.

Asked if he agrees with ABC News’ report, he answers, “Do I believe that we’re actually missing 67 out of 70…contraband [articles] coming through [security]? I think the answer to that is ‘no.’”

Riley says part of the security probing process, via which tests are carried out, “is artificial. The people conducting the test may know better than the average person about how to conceal something.” That, he asserts, “probably tends to over-inflate the failure rate.”

As for the portrait recent (and not so recent) revelations paint of TSA as a bumbling, lax organization populated by people who are neither well trained nor properly managed he counters, “That’s just patently not true.”

So, once again, how safe are we? Decently safe, believes Riley, even though he concedes there’s work still to do. The RAND security chief cites TSA’s layered approach to security as providing extra protection. “There are multiple other elements to defense the civil aviation system. It starts with locked cockpit doors that make it very difficult for a 9/11-style hijacking to occur again.”

Then there’s the legacy of United Flight 93 that frightful Tuesday morning a decade-and-a-half ago, when the 757’s passengers took matters into their own hands and tried to save the aircraft from hijackers. The notion now is “that if something like that occurs, everybody has a responsibility to put an end to the event,” says Riley.

There’s another level of protection: Federal Air Marshals. They travel incognito on many flights, especially international ones. Other even stealthier security exists too, layers passengers don’t notice, layers that remain intentionally invisible.

In Jack Riley’s estimation the revelations of the past couple of weeks are opportunities for TSA to transform itself. They “didn’t disagree with any of the [inspector general’s] findings. I think that’s a very important signal that they understand there were gaps.” That’s why he’s inclined to look at the present situation “as a learning moment rather than a moment of panic.”

Don’t look for this debate to end any time soon.