Airport Security: The Great Balancing Act

After taking strides toward a more secure future by implementing risk-based security, industry pundits believe the TSA’s move to stop manning exit lanes will unbalance the security system yet again

The aviation industry agrees on at least one thing … a successful airport needs to balance how it secures passengers, employees, aircraft and cargo with protecting the steady revenue stream that funds it all. Too much security or too little airport revenue results in chaos. How to reach and maintain that point of equilibrium though is a subject of endless debate and the point where sparks begin to fly.

“The heart of airport security is that it’s always in competition for resources, money and manpower,” says Tom Anthony, director of Aviation Safety and Security at the University of Southern California (USC). “That means an airport and its regulators must always be looking at what security measures are reasonable considering the limits of those resources.”

Airport security versus economics is actually an older argument than most people realize, says Anthony who served as the FAA’s manager of civil aviation security for the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region prior to coming to USC. “Security is always in a constant state of evolution,” he says. “The early relationship between airport security and law enforcement, for instance, goes back to 1972 when three convicts hijacked Southern Airways Flight 49 from Birmingham, Ala., and threatened to crash it into a nuclear power plant. In those days, the screening checkpoints were only a few yards from the actual gate, so if someone had a gun, it was just a short run to the airplane.” Not only did that hijacking convince people to pull the checkpoints further back from the gate, but it also fostered the need to physically search people prior to takeoff, an effort that began in 1973. And so it began.

Because of the dynamics of airport security, Anthony says, “Every time a new FAA or ICAO security measure took hold, the bad guys would change their tactics and then we’d have to change ours.”

As a result, not all threats airports face are easily detected, as the November shooting at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) proved. But some of the potential threats the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) faces seem almost gnawingly stupid more than 12 years after 9/11. During the first week of November 2013, the TSA confiscated 29 handguns at screening checkpoints; 27 of which were loaded. Despite the bad publicity TSA employees sometimes receive, their job will continue until people stop offering excuses like, “I forgot that .357 was in my briefcase,” for trying to carry loaded guns through security.

There’s no question that the quality of screening for passengers, their luggage and cargo has increased exponentially since 9/11. Christopher Bidwell, the Airports Council International’s (ACI) North American vice president for security and facilitation says, “I think the number of guns confiscated each week is indicative of the TSA’s effectiveness.”

Still news reports show the good, the bad and the ugly in the TSA world. The move toward risk-based security quickly comes to mind among the good, stories about corruption and crime among TSA employees often shows up as the bad, and the ugly—at least these days—seems to be the TSA’s move to stop manning exit lanes, just a couple months after an alleged breach of an exit lane at LAX cost a TSA agent his life.


Risk-based Security

TSA Administrator John Pistole is on the right track with the agency’s recent focus on risk-based screening that allows TSA to use technology to make intelligence-driven decisions at security checkpoints, according to Anthony. While some might call this profiling—and in a way it is, profiling isn’t always a dirty word. Should we really spend the same amount of time and money screening U.S. Supreme Court justices, when they travel, as we do screening someone convicted of multiple weapons felonies?

Anthony says it’s time we acknowledge, “You can’t protect everyone from everything all the time. You must put your resources where they will provide the greatest protection.”

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