Air Security’s Latest “F”

More than four years after 9/11 it's time to fix TSA, improve airport security

The latest bin Laden tape was a grim reminder that terrorists are still probing for our weaknesses. So last month’s 9/11 Commission report giving airline passenger-screening an “F” is a kick to the gut.

Why do our airports remain vulnerable? It’s not lack of resources: The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) earned that “F” despite spending nearly its entire $5.5 billion budget last year on passenger and baggage screening.

Nor is screening the only problem area. Access to planes and the tarmac, either through the airport fence or by thousands of on-airport workers, remains a weak point. We still don’t check most carry-on luggage for explosives. And the security measures we’ve added – baggage-inspection machines, more checkpoints – make for more crowds, a likely suicide-bombing target.

Reason Foundation’s year-long assessment of airport security concluded that these holes, and others, are due to three fundamental problems with TSA.

First, TSA assumes all passengers are equally likely to be a threat. So all checked bags get the same costly screening; we all stand in the same endless lines, take off our shoes, etc.

Second, TSA is grossly over-centralized and unable to handle the wide diversity of circumstances at 450 different airports. Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, calls it a “Soviet-style, command-and-control approach” that “has been unable to match the changing requirements.”

Third, as both the provider of airport screening and its regulator, TSA has a built-in conflict of interest that allows it to grade and monitor its own performance. Here’s the kind of thing that leads to: Shortly after it’s creation, TSA paid a company to recruit new screeners; the taxpayers wound up spending $143,432 in recruitment costs for each screener – each screener – in the terrorism hotbed of Topeka, Kan. A bungling bureaucracy shouldn’t police itself.

We can, and must, do better.

TSA should be reconceived as a rule-setter and enforcer, and get out of the business of providing security services. Individual airports (which already carry out other security functions, such as perimeter protection) should be given control of security, with strict TSA oversight and auditing. And our policies on airport security should become thoroughly risk-based, with more resources devoted to high-risk passengers and situations and less devoted to low-risk ones.

Israeli airports and 19 of the 20 busiest airports in Europe all use this risk-based airport-security model. Their governments don’t provide screening services, but instead set and enforce strict standards that airports and their contractors must meet and adhere to – with severe penalties for failures.

A risk-based system would focus more resources on potential terrorists – where they should be focused. A computer program had flagged more than half the 9/11 terrorists as risks – but they weren’t then exposed to tough enough questioning or security.

We need to concentrate time and resources on the highest threats – and toddlers and terrorists are not equal threats.

The forthcoming Registered Traveler program (scheduled for the summer), under which frequent flyers can opt to go through a background check and security clearance to gain access to fast-lane processing with a biometric I.D. card, is an important first step. This is one way to reduce the haystack, to better find the needles.

Sure, a terrorist could try to roll the dice and infiltrate the Registered Traveler system. But ask yourself this — are terrorists more likely to volunteer themselves for in-depth background checks and fingerprinting to get a Registered Traveler card (where they’ll still have to go through security at the airport) or simply take their chances in the regular lanes, knowing that most carry-on bags and passengers don’t even get screened for explosives?

Our reaction to 9/11 created an air-security policy that doesn’t examine relative risks, costs or benefits. And that system is failing miserably. It shouldn’t take another attack to make us fix its fundamental flaws.

Robert Poole is director of transportation studies at Reason Foundation and author of the new study “Airport Security: Time for a New Model.” He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000-01 and advised the White House Domestic Policy Council and several members of Congress on airport security following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.