Major vulnerabilities persist in the decade since air travelers sacrificed convenience and privacy for the promise of heightened security after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the message from the government and security watchdogs is that there still is much to fear.
CHICAGO — Major vulnerabilities persist in the decade since air travelers sacrificed convenience and privacy for the promise of heightened security after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the message from the government and security watchdogs is that there still is much to fear.
A new video that is played for airline passengers waiting to go through security checkpoints at many airports addresses the unpopular post-Sept. 11 rule limiting carry-on liquids and gels to 3.4-ounce containers. The video hits a nerve — bad people are still trying to harm us — while appealing for the traveling public’s cooperation and patience in response to the continuing threat of terrorists bringing aboard explosives to blow up airliners.
But travelers’ tolerance and confidence that they are being adequately protected has thinned over what many of them consider silly and ineffective security measures designed to obscure glaring weaknesses in a well-funded system that has had 10 years to get it right. Passengers said they see children or elderly people being patted down by federal Transportation Security Administration screeners, and they become angry that the least risky individuals are being pulled out of line and searched.
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“It’s annoying. You can’t say it’s not,” said Tony Blood, 34, of Chicago, who was traveling on business from O’Hare International Airport to Toronto last week. “To me, the TSA reaction to a threat is always stronger than the event that led up to it.”
Some weak links
Passengers said they spend less time being scrutinized during the screening process than they do putting shoes and other clothing back on after submitting to full-body imaging scans, before hurrying to retrieve laptop computers and other personal items that went through X-ray conveyor belts. Travelers said they know firsthand that banned items often get through and the quality of screening varies from airport to airport, another weak link that sophisticated terrorists or criminals would know about too.
Continuing concerns about weaknesses in U.S. aviation security were spotlighted in a report released by the former heads of the 9/11 Commission last week. It said the TSA’s ability to detect explosives hidden on passengers boarding planes “lacks reliability,” the aviation-screening system “still falls short” and the new full-body scanners cannot detect explosives hidden in a body cavity.
Dissatisfaction with the security apparatus is evident among members of Congress too.
After 9/11, the consensus among lawmakers was that the U.S. would spend whatever was necessary to defend homeland security. Now, the TSA is fighting for funding, promising to perform its job smarter and to close security loopholes. At the same time, the agency defends controversial huge expenditures, such as on body scanners, that have prompted a flood of complaints about invasion of privacy and possible health risks.
“The reason all those body scanners are here at the airport is because of the ‘Underwear Bomber,’ ” Blood said, referring to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who on Christmas Day 2009 boarded a Detroit-bound flight in Amsterdam with plastic explosives sewn into his underwear. “That one event happened in Detroit, and the TSA said, ‘Oh crap, now we have to start checking people’s underwear, right?’ “
Ross Ratcliff had already cleared security at O’Hare last week when he encountered a second screening process at his gate before boarding a Virgin America flight to San Francisco. TSA screeners randomly selected passengers to have their bags manually searched.
Ratcliff thought the exercise was redundant and unnecessary, remarking that the screeners didn’t even appear to do a thorough search during the recheck.
“Screen the bags right the first time,” Ratcliff, 38, said. “This doesn’t give me a safe, warm and fuzzy feeling. This is delaying my departure, and it’s my tax money rolling right through all these government employees standing around here doing this.
“Taking my tweezers away from me is not going to win the war on terrorism.”
Others give the TSA more credit, especially for communicating with the public honestly about risks and about building support.
Still, they say, the security agency has failed on the most important objective — creating a robust system that evaluates individual passengers based on the level of risk they present. The system must be centered on real-time intelligence gathering, accurate databases and information sharing between nations, experts say.
“I don’t think we are there yet, and the TSA would probably agree,” said Stephen Van Beek, a transportation policy and strategy expert in the private sector who formerly served as an associate deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“I would strongly favor concentrating more on the intelligence side to identify people we don’t deem reliable than on additional expenditures like missile defenses for commercial airliners or body-cavity searches,” Van Beek said. “In the game between offense and defense, you are much better off finding who your enemies are than trying to outguess them at the airport about vulnerabilities within the security system.”
TSA Administrator John Pistole is “moving toward risk-based security,” said Jim Fotenos, the agency’s spokesman in Chicago.
A program that launched this year at O’Hare, called Known Crewmember, allows airline pilots to pass through security based on identity verification and no physical screening. The TSA is also working on a “trusted traveler” program that will afford reduced screening to passengers who volunteer to undergo background checks.
Travelers who have experienced airport security at home and abroad said they remain skeptical about their level of safety.
Steve Helpern, of Glencoe, Ill., recently had to cut short a trip to China because of a medical emergency back home, and he was alarmed to receive so little attention from security officials, despite fitting a pattern often used by criminals and other high-risk travelers.
Air China, a Star Alliance partner of Chicago-based United Airlines, required Helpern to pay cash for his ticket from Xian via Beijing to O’Hare.
“I raised all the red flags — buying a ticket at the last minute and paying cash with money I withdrew at the airport from an ATM machine,” Helpern said. “I was surprised that nobody profiled me. We have so much security that is supposed to make people feel better, but I am not convinced that it stops the bad guy from doing something.”
Right after the Sept. 11 attacks, most experts anticipated major challenges retooling aviation security, but they couldn’t predict how events would unfold.
“My greatest fear 10 years ago would not have been passenger inconvenience because of issues like the level of scrutiny,” Van Beek said. “It would have been that the growth in aviation would challenge the TSA’s ability to keep up with the screening process and that lines would be an hour or two. That hasn’t happened, which is good news for a bad reason” — namely, more people avoiding flying.