In the wake of the Christmas Day attempt at blowing up a Northwest Airlines flight heading from Amsterdam to Detroit, security officials have stepped up screening and other activities in an effort to increase safety and security. Well, that’s ostensibly the reason. One could be forgiven, though, for mistaking the increased activity as mere busyness for the sake of looking busy, rather than as rational steps that actually increase security.
Thankfully, in the days immediately following the tightening of security measures, several of the dumber ones (requiring passengers to remain seated for the last hour of the flight, not allowing any carry-on items including blankets or pillows to be in their laps, and turning off the inflight entertainment systems so as to disable the flight tracking feature which shows where the plane is on a map) were quickly rescinded or pilots were given authority to relax the measures at their discretion.
It seems to me that if we are serious about increasing our security while flying, there are several things we need to do. There are also things we need to stop doing as they are wasteful and do nothing to increase security.
We need to implement more thorough inspection of people and bags. This should include the purchase and use of more full-body imaging devices, which can detect nonmetallic as well as metallic items hidden beneath clothing. There are ways to work around privacy concerns but this is one of the most effective ways to find potentially dangerous devices that can all too easily be concealed during current screening procedures.
The flip side of this is that we need to get smarter about whom we screen. We spend too much energy putting grandma and grandpa through secondary screenings when they don’t seem to be a likely security threat. Past affronts like making a mother drink her breastmilk from a bottle she was carrying on in order to prove it wasn’t harmful make a mockery of our security procedures and the freedoms we give up in order to be more secure. Essentially, events like these and the thousands of indignities we suffer at airport security checkpoints across the nation are a sure sign the terrorists have won.
We need to start screening cargo. While checked baggage now goes through security screening, almost all of the cargo shipped on planes (as well as all of it sent by container ship) does not undergo any inspection, relying instead on the government’s “trusted shipper” program. Without a doubt, this is a serious gap in our security and could easily be something for a terrorist to exploit.
We need to get our intelligence services working together. Time and again we learn (Monday morning quarterbacking, of course) that we had heaps of information about people who attempted or succeeded in hijacking or bringing down aircraft. The relevant agencies need a better process for taking the information they have and acting on it. The Nigerian man involved in the Christmas Day bombing attempt should never have been allowed to board the flight based on information we already had.
We need more accountability at the Transportation Security Administration about the effectiveness of security measures put into place. Reports obtained by news sources have indicated that TSA screeners miss intentionally concealed weapons on passengers and in baggage at about the same rate screeners did prior to September 11, 2001. This means that the massive investment and inconvenience we suffer is largely ineffective in increasing security. The results of those tests need to be public and if improvements aren’t made, people need to lose their job. While I can understand the security reasons for not disclosing which airports have the worst screeners, the composite scores should be available for all of us to see.
People in many countries around the world have to put up with intrusive and time-consuming security measures. (In some countries that is because we invaded them and made the situation worse!) That’s the price we pay for increased security. At the same time, the price we pay should be commiserate with the security we are provided. Right now, I don’t see that we’re getting a good return on that investment.