Terminal Insecurity

While on the subject of airports, as a semi-frequent traveler I have noticed that our airport security still leaves much to be desired. This is ironic when you consider how much money we are spending to protect our airports.

I am not talking just about the well-reported and gaping gap in screening aircraft cargo. I am talking about the gap securing our airport terminals. I hesitate to give terrorists ideas, but the costs to benefits ratio of striking the Great Satan America using airplanes no longer makes sense, not economically, not even to some whacked out deity. Airport terminals are much more vulnerable targets.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps airports secretly have dozens of operatives running around terminals looking for suspicious passengers. Perhaps terminals are rife with micro-sensors sniffing the air for the faintest whiff of explosives. I sure hope we are doing these things. The only obvious terminal security seems to be at Arrivals and Departures where, at least at Washington Dulles International Airport, there are plenty of security men watching your car and making sure that you don’t tarry too long dropping off or picking up passengers. I strongly suspect though that their motive has more to do with keeping traffic moving than with airport security.

Because if they are trying to improve security, how exactly does this help? I mean, let us suppose a terrorist has a van full of fertilizer and a hair trigger. Do you think he is going to pay any attention to a security guy at Departures asking him to hustle along? No, he is going to shout, “God is Great!” in Arabic and ignite that sucker, killing hundreds of people and taking down much of the terminal with it.

Moreover, shouldn’t we be screening passengers and their bags before they get into the terminal? Of course, people are hauling all sorts of luggage and backpacks into the terminal and queuing up in front of airline ticket counters. None of it has been screened. Also inside the terminal are hundreds of other passengers, none of whom is anxious to be martyred to facilitate the spread of Islam. Aside from the casualties that could easily be inflicted by a rouge terrorist inside a terminal, these structures themselves are critical pieces of infrastructure, in many cases costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Damaging a terminal arguably would inflict as much in the way of death and casualties as an Oklahoma City type bombing. It would shut down most commercial transportation at the airport for weeks or months. It would also disrupt a good portion of the airline economy.

Instead, we are trying to protect aircraft which are obviously expensive pieces of equipment but which typically have 100 to 150 people aboard. Assuming they can be hijacked, which is becoming much harder to do, then they could possibly fly into the Sears Tower or some other structure and repeat the events of 9/11. Most likely, the extent of their carnage would be the destruction of one jet and a few hundred deaths. All of this would be regrettable, of course, but it would hardly inflict much damage to our transportation system.

If we were serious about protecting airline passengers, you would not be allowed into the terminal at all unless you and your luggage had been pre-screened. I can only think of one viable way this would work. It would be to require passengers to check in at smaller screening stations scattered across metropolitan areas or at least several hundred yards from the terminal. After passing screening at a local screening station, the passengers and their luggage would be shuttled to the airport aboard an approved security bus. This would probably add half an hour to an outbound commute. On the other hand, there would be no need to check in at the airport. In effect, you would move most TSA personnel out of the airport and put them in local communities.

These screening stations would have to be numerous so that small numbers of people would be arriving at a station at any given time. You would probably have to go online and book an arrival time at a local screening station. I imagine you would have to electronically send the station your eTicket, credentials and the license plate of the car that would be dropping you off. These would need to be verified before you were let into the station.

Of course, air cargo needs better screening too, and Congress is reputedly working on that goal. It seems unthinkable that Americans will give up commuting by air. I once wondered if the price of oil went up to $150 a barrel whether we would even have an airline industry. With prices now around $110 a barrel the answer is clear: yes, and we will happily pay whatever additional money it costs for the convenience of traveling long distances quickly by air.

Given the criticality of our airports, it is time to do more than the half measures we are currently doing to protect passengers and airport property. At best, you can only breathe a sigh of relief now once you are past the security checkpoint. If you are like me, you feel very vulnerable while inside the terminal itself.

It does not have to be this way.

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