Airport at the sunset


TSA says they will study the response to the airport shooting in Los Angeles and how to speed up the notification process. Good deal. So is everyone else in our industry and that’s a good thing.

The story is here in USAToday.

What I’m seeing in all the post analysis of this issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of how airport security works. Actually, that’s why I wrote the textbook in the first place, because I noticed that many people, public, private, airport, even TSA just didn’t understand how the system works.

At a commercial service airport the TSA (or an approved contractor) conducts the screening of passengers and many employees. TSA also has inspectors who ensure the airport operator and the airlines are complying with their security programs. Then you have Federal Air Marshals moving through the airports and sometimes engaging in security strikes on airport property to help mess up bad-guy surveillance, along with some other various and sundry TSA personnel such as bomb appraisal officers (now called TSS-Explosive. . . at least this week – they change titles a lot), and behavior detection officers looking for suspicious people.

The rest of the airport security system is on the airport’s shoulders right up to the door of the aircraft (where airline security programs take over).

Airport police officers (locally employed police, NOT TSA personnel) are responsible for enforcing laws and supporting the Airport Security Program (ASP), which includes having enough police in place to respond to the screening checkpoint and incidents of unlawful interference with an aircraft operator. Each airport has a minimum police response time to the checkpoint – that time varies depending on the size of the airport. Although the exact times are in a Security Directive which is Sensitive Security Information (SSI), it has been variously reported that the checkpoint response times are between 2-5 minutes. I know the actual times but again, that’s SSI and I’m not going to divulge that, so we’ll work with what’s been published so far.

A little history on response times: they were originally created, NOT with an active shooter in mind, but as a reasonable time for police to respond to a weapon discovered at the checkpoint (a weapon, not a shooter). When a weapon is found, that typically stops that particular screening line all lines (if they think its a bomb) which disrupts passenger flow. The airlines and airport operator wanted police to be there quickly to resolve the situation and get the line moving.

But now things have changed. The active shooter is a reality at U.S. airports. Actually, it’s been a reality since the Lod Airport active shooter attack in 1972, but only recently is it getting the attention it deserves. LAX is fully aware of the threat of active shooter and is among the top airport police departments in the nation. Frankly, if I’m ever at an airport that is attacked, I hope it’s one that has taken this threat as seriously as LAX.

In the LAX case, there are notification procedures to alert law enforcement of a problem at the checkpoint, but they are only as effective as the ability of someone to trigger an alarm or call police. Many schools, including my own, have installed panic buttons around campus, but they don’t do much good if you don’t get to it before you get shot. So what’s the solution?


Some of have said we should arm certain screeners? Why not just assign a real police officer to the area then? We already have police at the airport and if you want them to watch the checkpoint, then assign them there. Why contribute to growing a federal agency even more and adding more mission creep?

Shouldn’t we just push the button or call the police?

But what if you don’t have time?? Well, then run. Or hide or fight. I understand that TSO’s may not have had time to contact the authorities, so does that mean that we should station police at the checkpoint again? If we do, we should also station them in the baggage claim are (Lod – 1972) and the ticket counter areas (LAX – 2002, Rome and Vienna – 1985), or maybe the parking lots (Madrid – 2006). Wait, this is getting expensive and we don’t know in which of these areas the next attack will come from. We could have police just patrol all of these areas. Hmm, we already do that too.

Maybe we should solve this with technology? We can install sonic sensing equipment in each of these areas that triggers an alarm in a security operations center when it detects gun fire or explosion. Maybe we can put all these areas under CCTV surveillance (which most already are) and watch them constantly. Unfortunately, humans make terrible system monitors – we tend to get bored, we find shiny objects to play with and we doze off when our brains aren’t getting enough stimulus.  I do like the sonic sensor idea though.

We could train special teams of people to roam the public areas looking for suspicious people. Hmm, tried that too and GAO just slammed the program as being ineffective. Unfortunately, it’s hard to measure deterrence and roaming security and police personnel provide that. Can you tell me how many times a crook decided NOT to rob your house because you left a light on, or because of your burglar alarm system? Of course not – criminals should really call us and let us know when they decided not to rob or kill us due to a deterrent measure so that we can figure out what’s working and get some stats on this.

How about this? How about we follow the Israeli model a bit – which is scalable, affordable and doable. We train all airport employees to look or suspicious people rather than just a few teams. We reserve the teams for specialized detection such as the security questioning process that has been in use throughout the world rather than passive observation or having a TSO ask me what my name is. I’m still plowing through the GAO report but every cop and customs agent in the world can vouch that intuition works.

When you train everyone in the airport, you are training people who are already working in their natural environment. This makes it more effective because we know what’s ‘normal,’ in our workplace, just like we know what’s normal in our neighborhood. We also train people in basic self-defense so they can take care of themselves long enough for law enforcement to arrive. Unless you have the money for a private security guard, we all need to take certain responsibility for our own protection.

Then, we continue (as TSA Administrator Pistole has reiterated for the past year) to apply risk-based security models to reduce risk, but knowing that we can never completely eliminate risk.

I’m excited to see the lessons learned out of this. I hope that the lessons are about effective response rather than chasing the notion that all people can be protected all of the time. I hope any review of this incident, including Congressional reviews and regulatory reviews, contributes to protecting the personnel at the checkpoint, in the public areas and in the sterile areas, and increases security effectiveness, rather than just looking good.

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