Once again we have had a situation which served to highlight air travel security issues that are being ignored. The most recent incident at Newark airport involved a still unidentified person entering a secure area of the airport without passing through security. The incident caused the entire terminal to be evacuated during the busy holiday season and every traveler had to exit and go back through security, creating a mob of thousands of people packed tightly together, not moving for hours.
There is very little security at airports, if any, prior to going through the body and hand luggage scans. If a bombed plane could kill hundreds of people, so could a bomb in a busy airport terminal where sometimes hundreds of people are waiting in line to check their bags or to go through security. If a bomb had gone off in the Newark airport, it could have killed far more people than would have been on most planes. And now terrorists know this. They’ve seen the photos and news footage of the stranded people packed like sardines in the terminal waiting for the secured area of the terminal to be cleared. All it would take would be a similar ruse, one man to rush up the exit hall and then chaos. A second person or persons could easily bring explosives into the front of the terminal because there would be no one there to stop them.
I always compare our security here in the U.S. with Israel, but it bears repeating. In Israel there are multiple lines of security, starting with a roadside check on the road to the terminal where officers stop and question people, asking them benign questions like: “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?” The answers aren’t important; it is how the people act when they are answering. The officers are looking for signs of distress or nervousness–in other words, behavioral profiling. Outside the terminal there are both armed guards and plain clothed security looking for signs of odd behavior. There is another layer of security at the door, where random travelers are taken aside and they and their luggage are run through a magnometer. Even the ticket agents are trained to ask certain questions and to be on the lookout for suspicious behaviors like someone who won’t look them in the eyes when they are speaking.
While waiting in line for tickets and baggage check-in, people are not allowed to queue up in large enough numbers to be a target. Bags are immediately scanned at check-in in a screening area surrounded by blast proof glass. If the screeners spot anything that looks suspicious they place the bag in a blast proof box and call the bomb squad who take the package away. The final step is the screening of hand luggage and the body scan, which is the first and only security check in U.S. airports. In Israel, travelers will have passed through a gauntlet of 5 layers of security before they ever reach this point.
Rather than tossing our shampoos, scanning our shoes, or newer reactive measures put in place to respond to very specific threat scenarios, we should be looking at the bigger picture and taking a much more comprehensive look at how we secure air travel. For example, we are now in the process of installing expensive new body scanners in our airports which will render us nude to security screeners because of the recent attempting bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight. Such scanners may have picked up the powder that the suspect had strapped to his thigh, but the fact that the suspect was traveling without luggage on a one-way ticket paid with cash should have been enough of an alert to have stopped him from boarding a plane without being thoroughly searched. What we really need—what will really make us all safer–would be better trained and more comprehensive human security, not expensive gadgets and more silly rules.