Risk Mitigation: Show Me the Money

Jan. 11, 2017

Following the recent shooting incident at Fort Lauderdale airport, there has been a quite predictable gaggle of “experts” weighing in on how to prevent such airport events in the future. I’ll try to address some of those ideas in the limited space available here, but part of the answer is that many of those “experts” don’t fully understand what they’re talking about.

First, let’s look at the incident itself: the shooter followed all regulations in shipping his weapon in a locked hard case, opening it only in a public area accessible to any random stranger/shooter that might walk in from the street. However, that case was apparently his only luggage, and he travelled on a one-way ticket; those two elements alone might suggest a lapse in communicating intelligence information, but there’s no established protocol for timely ad hoc contact from ticket-agent-to-intelligence network.

Consider that airport terminals are no different in their open public access than shopping malls, bus depots, train and Metro stations, supermarkets or a college campus. Out of 160 US shooter incidents between 2006-2013, the vast majority occurred in education or commercial settings, not transportation of any kind. Think Tampa, Boston and San Bernardino. In the entire history of aviation, only a few dozen attacks of any kind have been aimed specifically at airports worldwide. Indeed, the last one similar to FLL was at Ben Gurion in 1972 – 44 years ago.

The Israeli model is touted for its unique security approach, but suffice it to say that their solution for 2 main airports in a nation with a total population of 8.1 million is ill-suited for 460 airports in the U.S.; LAX, ATL and ORD screen that many people in a busy month; 708 million total for TSA in 2015.

So what are the airport security “experts” saying? Some want screening moved to the front door, which is idiotic on it’s face – that simply moves the queues to the curb, openly vulnerable to the drive-by shooter and the vehicle-borne bomb… not to mention reconfiguring virtually every existing terminal. Most professionals agree that it’s primarily a law enforcement issue, no matter the venue. But don’t blame TSA – they are not law enforcement; their mission is to screen passengers and baggage, as well as oversight of the airport’s regulatory compliance. Police protection and response to any event is provided by the local police jurisdiction, paid by airport revenue…

Which brings me to my primary titular theme: everybody wants more armed guards, more patrols, more plain clothes rovers, more screening in more places… none of which address the event under discussion. A few years ago, a study was done to determine the cost of all that potential extra manpower – note: not their effectiveness, just what it might cost to have them on duty, waiting for something that rarely happens. It began with the assumption of an FTE armed guard at a conservative starting cost of $40k and a multiplier of 5.3, which includes 3 shifts, weekends, sick/vacation leave, recurrent training, weapons certification, and other overhead. How many per shift are needed at LAX, JFK, EWR, LGA, ORD, ATL, DFW, HOU, SEA, SFO, DEN, MIA, IAD, PHX, MKC - especially those with multiple terminals… we’ll randomly choose 10, which totes up to about $6.4 million per airport; $95.4M just for those 15 airports…perhaps less for each smaller airport, for no demonstrable security benefit.

The Chinese General Sun Tzu (c. 600 BC) said it best in The Art of War: “He who seeks to protect everything, protects nothing.”

Click here for an interesting list of terrorist attacks over the years… where the U.S. as a target is hard to find.