The curious irrationality of airport security.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
April 11 2002 3:42 PM

Checking Out the Checkpoints

The curious irrationality of airport security.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Not long ago, I took a flight on American Airlines from Seattle to Dallas, and as I passed through the security checkpoint, on the way to the gate, the metal detector beeped. I don't know why. I had put my change and keys in the plastic container. But it did. So I was frisked with a wand. A security person peered inside my bag. I had to take off my shoes so they could be examined. Then I went to the gate and was stopped again. The attendant motioned for me to step into a small area next to the jetway. My bags were, as they say in the security business, "dump-searched." Every compartment was unzipped and every toiletry examined. I took off my shoes a second time. Again I was frisked and prodded with a wand.


To someone following behind me at the airport that day, my experience might have seemed somewhat reassuring. I am, after all, a man in the optimum terrorist zone of 20 to 40. My hair is a little long. My ethnicity is uncertain: I'm definitely not a farm boy from Iowa. If you had to do a kind of crude racial/demographic profile of the passengers traveling that day from Seattle to Dallas—and it was, truth be told, a fairly staid bunch—you might have singled me out as most worthy of special treatment.

But should that have made the other passengers on my flight—or the rest of us—feel more secure? I'm not sure it should. Most of the measures imposed since Sept. 11 don't, upon consideration, make very much sense, and we're a long way from doing the kinds of things that might actually improve security in a demonstrable way. My experience that day is, in fact, a good illustration of what's still wrong with the U.S. airport security system.

Let's start with what happened to me at the metal detectors. In a recent FAA test of the effectiveness of airport screening systems, 40 percent of explosives, 30 percent of guns, and 70 percent of knives planted by government agents made it through such security checkpoints. Those numbers shouldn't come as a surprise: Picking out weapons in luggage—when, in 99.99 percent of cases there are no weapons in luggage—is quite a difficult task. The new federal law governing airport security personnel mandates that they receive 40 hours of training. But the people who scanned my bags seemed to me to suffer, above all else, from boredom, and it remains unclear how 40 hours of training can overcome the structural tedium inherent in checking endlessly for something that is almost never there. If screeners are not sufficiently motivated now, just over six months after Sept. 11, how on earth can we expect them to be motivated two or three years down the road?

Were I actually carrying a weapon, in other words, the odds are pretty good that it wouldn't have been flagged at the checkpoint. In fact, it occurred to me as my bag was checked just how easy it would be for me to smuggle a weapon on board. I had, in my bag, a pair of dress shoes, each of which was supported by a shoe tree, composed of two blocks of wood linked by a long, cylindrical metal bar that, had I been so inclined, I almost certainly could have adapted into a knife. No one, in the dozens of occasions that I have flown in the last six months, has ever asked me to remove my shoe trees—or even wondered why a slovenly, seemingly unpretentious man like me would be traveling with them.

Then there was the second search at the gate. In theory that sounds like a good idea: Supplement the X-ray with a dump search. But why was that hand search also conducted at the gate? Suppose I had a gun that could only be found with a dump search. If I saw that I was in danger of being exposed, I could easily take out my gun and run aboard. After all, the only things standing between me and the plane at that point were an unarmed security officer and a flight attendant. The logical place for a hand search is at the security checkpoint, where there are X-ray machines, explosives sniffers, and armed National Guardsmen all close at hand. The other thing that was odd was that I couldn't see my bag being searched. I was off to the side, with the frisker between me and my belongings. Surely one of the reasons to search a person's bags is on the off chance that, unbeknownst to him, a terrorist has slipped a bomb into his luggage. If someone dropped a thermos full of plastique into my suitcase, it might not ring a bell with the security person, but it certainly would with me. Why freeze me out of the process?

Why, in fact, was I even being searched in the first place? When I landed in Dallas and got on my connecting flight to Miami, I was pulled out at the gate a second time, and so I asked the flight attendant taking the tickets what about me was meriting this special attention. She told me that the plane was still 15 minutes from departure, and I was one of the last passengers to board. Under those circumstances—when there is time and opportunity for a search—the stragglers often get targeted. Presumably this is what is meant by a random search, and the airlines have all been ordered to step up this kind of occasional scrutiny.

But how do random searches contribute to safety? The person who was searched ahead of me at the gate in Seattle was woman in her 70s, with bifocals and a slight stoop. What, exactly, were the odds that she would stand up, steady herself on the back of the seat in front of her, and politely order us, in a sweet old-lady voice, to stay calm? Would we even be able to hear her if she did? At the security checkpoint, I also noticed a pilot being frisked with a wand. Why? If a pilot wants to crash a plane into a building, after all, he scarcely needs the help of a weapon. When you are looking for a needle in a haystack, your odds of finding that needle are not measurably improved by conducting random searches of clumps of straw. The most absurd extension of this principle is the new legislation's requirement that, by the end of the year, all bags be screened for explosives. Quite apart from the expense of buying all those machines at $1 million each and the fact that explosives detection has a massive false positive rate, what exactly is to be gained by adding an enormous logistical nightmare to perhaps the most logistically challenged industry in the country?

What all this demonstrates is the folly of a system focused primarily on the detection of weapons. The hardest task facing any would-be terrorist is not getting his weapon on the plane. That's just a game of hide-and-seek, and the seeker's odds in that situation are never particularly good. The real problem for the terrorist is getting himself onto the plane. People about to commit violent acts make mistakes. They get nervous. They have to construct elaborate cover stories for themselves and fall back on training that may have been conducted months or even years before in a country far away.

Airlines do make some effort to profile potential terrorists. In the security world, hijackers are grouped into three categories—crazies, crusaders, and criminals—and we have useful profiles of the kinds of people who fall into those categories. Right now, for example, the airlines already have in place a computerized profiling system that assesses your security risk when you buy your ticket, based on things like whether you used a credit card, how recently you bought your ticket, and what your travel patterns in recent months have been. (This is not, strictly speaking, analogous to racial profiling: It's more like the kind of analysis your credit card company does on your purchasing patterns in order to detect suspicious use of your credit card.) That information is currently used to determine which checked bags will be specially screened for explosives.



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