There was really interesting piece recently posted on posing the question, are we safer than we were before 9/11 from terrorists attacks in our airports? The article examines a highly criticized practice relating to airport safety called “security theater.” The question relating to our post 911 safety and is always the question without an accurate answer. While no one can truly say if we are “safer,” there are just too many variables, we can assess certain areas of the aviation security system to determine if those areas are either more or less effective.

The article quotes several individuals who are of some prestige in the aviation security community. I believe both Dzakovich and Elson were featured in a recent movie about aviation security, “Please Remove Your Shoes.” They both have excellent points, particularly about failure rates pre 9/11 and the general lack of interest the industry had in fixing the problems.

I’m not sure I agree that we are worse off today. As I’ve said before, there is some value to so called Security Theater. When you leave your porch light on at night, you are participating in security theater and it’s been shown that it will reduce crime rates. Having your neighbor pick up the newspaper and mail, having internal lights on timers, and leaving a TV on inside the house to give the appearance of someone being home are all examples of security theater. Let me be clear, I’m NOT advocating an aviation security system built entirely of security theater methods. In fact, I think what Elson and Dzakovich are talking about when they say “security theater” are methods that we believe are working when they are not. But, there is some value to perceived security, just as there is value to actual security. I distinguished this in my textbook, Practical Aviation Security, when discussing Gavin DeBecker’s book Fear Less.

I can’t agree that the detection rates are worse than they were on 9/11, but then again, since the results of these studies are classified, I of course do not know for sure. The challenge is that different standards were used prior to 9/11, so it’s difficult to make comparisons. I’ve recently seen TSA Bomb Appraisal Officers (BDO’s) sitting down with a team of screeners to show them different make ups of different explosive devices, including the latest and greatest that they’ve seen from U.S. intelligence feeds. Sorry, WE never received those types of briefings pre 9/11.

The real problem remains – we are concentrating on how well we look for bad things rather than concentrating on looking for bad people. I am much more afraid of a bad person with legitimate items than I am of a good person with a knife or gun. While there is value to making sure knives and guns are kept off of airplanes, as there is more than the fair share of drunks, druggies and nut jobs traveling the unfriendly skies, I’m more worried about a trained operative in the right place and at the right time.

From what I’ve seen, the detection rates are about as good as they are going to get with existing technology. The problem is that most people make horrible system monitors and that’s what we’ve asked them to create. I know a lot of TSA screeners and many are smart people. Let’s actually train them in how to do security. Instead of identifying that the screening bins are pointed in the wrong direction, they will be able to spot those individuals who warrant suspicious inquiry, engage them in active discussion to further determine their threat level, and then direct them to higher levels of screening, where the line is shorter and the scrutiny more intense.

Until we start being smart about security, instead of relying on 1970s strategies, the system will continue to see these types of issues.


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