Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why Airport Security Fails

First off, believe it or not, I have a lot to discuss. So, be on the lookout for more entries in coming days. Now, onto the matter at hand...

I think this whole business about the state of airline security in the aftermath of a terrorist trying to blow up Delta/Northwest 253 on Christmas Day over Michigan... is stupid.

I don't understand why there's an uproar because it's simple: airport security sucks. I don't mean the TSA people who perform the job. From what I can tell, they're doing fine. The system they have to operate under is what sucks.

My surprise is that we haven't had this happen more often.

The issue is not a failure of intelligence (I highly recommend you read Malcolm Gladwell's 2003 piece on this topic here). The issue is related to the problem Gladwell points out though.

Essentially, we treat every person going through security like they could be a terrorist. But... we do it in a way that is designed to cause no undue delay for we, the travelers. Heaven help us if we are delayed at security! You might start thinking the TSA is interested in keeping flights safe if that happened.

Instead, think about it: if everyone walking through could be a terrorist, how would you screen the millions of people walking through the metal detectors every day? Would you stop every person every time the x-ray machine showed something puzzling?

If you said yes, let me ask you: how? Where are you going to do these searches? In the crowded areas right around security? Let's remember most airports had to quickly adjust screening areas in the week after 9/11. They didn't build new terminals. Security is happening in areas far too small to do any kind of large-scale, meaningful searching.

And how many people is this going to take? If you really don't want to stand in line for two hours, we're going to have to hire hundreds - if not thousands - of new TSA screeners. But that... I'll let you do the math on salaries. I know how you conservatives feel about spending government money... even though many of your compadres are railing on and on and on all day about how we need better security.

What I'm saying is, if you want to screen everyone thoroughly, then it has to be done thoroughly. Otherwise, TSA agents have to make on-the-spot judgment calls about who is a threat and who is not. I remember dating and trying to pick out in a crowd which girls were nice and which ones weren't. This was a topic I had a lot of schooling on. I did not, alas, have a 100% success rate.

It's my belief that TSA screening is extremely impractical and, honestly, does little to keep us safe. The first time I flew commercially was in about 1983. Back then, I still walked through a metal detector. I still had my bags x-rayed (A person at the Pittsburgh airport back then even let me go behind the screen as they fed through a test box that I could see had a gun inside! So cool!). How is that different from now, exactly?

And how about this: From 1980-2001, 34 major flights were hijacked. TWO were on USA-based airlines (and both of those were in the mid-1980s and neither occurred on or over US soil).

On one day in 2001, four American jets were hijacked. We haven't had any since. I am compelled to argue it wasn't airport security measures that have led to zero since then. I think, instead, it was mandating that cockpit doors lock from the inside instead of the outside. Think back and remember watching the flight attendant shut the cockpit door... and lock it. From the outside...

Since 9/11, though, the tightened security has helped build a better terrorist. When you couldn't check bombs in bags anymore, they put a bomb in a guy's shoe. Once everyone had to start having their shoes screened, they planned on having people assemble liquid-based bombs smuggled on in water bottles. Now that we cannot carry through liquids that do not fit in a quart-sized bag, they apparently have guys wearing explosive underwear. I can only assume that if we had to fly naked, they'd surgically insert a bomb into someone's body.

Our security would be effective if the terrorists weren't bat-shit insane. These are people who are willing to die. They have crashed planes into buildings, something no one rational ever thought of until about 9 a.m. on 9/11. Our little security measures? I have a feeling they're not so upset about the new rules. Especially if they're going to board planes in places like Nigeria, where - I know this is hard to believe - the US Government has no jurisdiction. I know. Crazy.

So, I propose we go back to the old way. Let people pack whatever the hell they want. Right now, we've got honest people trying to find ways to smuggle aboard items they simply don't want to check. Many succeed. So, open the floodgates. There is no statistical proof that I can locate showing that "increased security" has done anything other than spend a lot of money and piss a lot of people off. I'm still waiting for the big "TSA arrests five with weapons at O'Hare security checkpoint" headline.

And really, in 2005 nearly 43,000 Americans died in car crashes. None related to terrorism that I can find. In 2005, 1,454 people died in plane crashes worldwide! In 2008, again worldwide, total fatalities in air crashes were... 876 (in 147 incidents).

Maybe we should be asking about freeway security.

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