Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Airline Security: An Abundance of Incompetence

As much as we complain about airline passenger screening, U.S. airline security has only recently gotten serious.

Just a decade ago we were letting absolutely anybody into the departure gate areas of U.S. airports – passengers, their fond-goodbye well-wishers, random airplane gawkers, homeless people looking for a warm floor – so long as they successfully passed through a security checkpoint staffed by people who were often less vigilant than Wal-Mart “greeters.”

Set off the metal detector?

Must be the steel shank in your boots. Go ahead and get on the airplane anyway. Let’s keep the line moving.

Today you can forget about wearing steel-shanked boots or any footwear at all through airport security. If “the system worked as it was supposed to” your name has already been checked against several passenger watch lists ... probably within seconds of purchasing your ticket. You’re not bringing Aunt Dot through the terminal to see you off, and you’re not getting past anybody with that four-ounce bottle of dandruff shampoo.

Smart airline security, like smart security of any kind, will always entail the best vigilance against known threats and intelligent monitoring of new threat forms. The developed world has gotten the message, and the system and tools are in place.

But what are we doing with them?

When Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab attempted to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit in December, reaction in the U.S. was sadly familiar: posturing blowhards pinning the blame on the U.S. president (as if President Bush was going to stand up and swat hijacked airliners out of the sky in preference to finishing his visit with school children on September 11 ... as if President Obama was going to drop his golf clubs in Hawaii to go help inspect underwear at airport security checkpoints) and the introduction of a new administrative euphemism in the air travel world:

An Abundance of Caution.

“An Abundance of Caution” is a the new buzz phrase that means, “Sorry this looks ridiculous, but it’s important that we look like we’re doing security work, even if it isn’t the security work we’re supposed to be doing.”

It’s a phrase to describe scattered knee-jerk new airline security measures that look to be the work of a collective brain trust channeling inept school administrators from 1980s teen angst films.

Bueller? Bueller?

Achmed? Achmed?

In the case of the Northwest flight and more recently in the evacuation and re-scan of a terminal full of passengers at Newark International Airport, we had the tools in-place to eliminate the risks, but failed to use them.

While installing body scanners at all airports might be the ideal way to detect clothing-borne explosives, acting on information ... say information like a formal report, logged in a government security database, which states a passenger you’re screening has ties to al-Qaeda ... might be useful in the absence of the tech gee-wizardry. You might want to pull the guy aside for a closer look-see, and you might want to do it free from post-office-level rules-of-engagement.

Should we really be maintaining a list of potential terrorists who don’t warrant extra scrutiny at an airport security checkpoint?

At Newark, one TSA employee reportedly failed to monitor the “sterile” arriving passenger egress zone in Terminal C for several minutes, allowing one man to walk completely past screening and into the gate area.

All those impressive badges and machines on the screening side of security checkpoints look pretty silly when someone can waltz right through the gaping nobody’s-minding-the-store side of the setup and disappear into the crowd.

In aviation safety there are rarely “new” accidents – most result from failures to adhere to established safety practices. Aviation security is different only because the threat is actively and always engaged in trying to overcome the system.

The first question to ask after a system breach in any discipline is whether or not the breach occurred because of a breakdown in the system or because a novel intrusion has beaten the system. If the former, the decision tree says find out what broke and fix it ... not create new and distracting processes.

Our recent record in U.S. air security has not been good, with two high-profile cases of the Transportation Security Administration failing its job, and in response, inane ramped-up Abundance-of-Caution security intercepts – where six-year-olds are having their Play Doh confiscated and we scramble F-16s when a nutjob rambles about crashing on Gilligan's Island (most tragically without the classic choice of Ginger or Mary Ann – only Mrs. Howell) on the passenger comment card.

It goes without saying ... but we like to say it here anyway ... that U.S. airline safety would be better served by dropping these brain-dead “Abundance of Caution” stunts in favor of an abundance of competence in performing existing passenger screening processes, and an abundance of common sense in responding to all potential security threats.



  1. You're wrong, he mentioned Mary Ann.

  2. Big differences in TSA by airport. Some pros, some no different than the Walmart greeter example.