The High Cost of (In)Security- When Will Sanity Come to The TSA?

By | December 28, 2009
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As my name(the Infrequent Flier) suggests, I don’t often have a chance to get up in the air. As a result, my trips form a time-lapse portrait of the flying experience as it has changed.  Each time I fly, I am amazed at the new rules, regulations and procedures that have been put in place.  It has become common to refer to this group of measures as “Security Theater”- a group of actions for show which have no real impact on security.

While the actions may not have an impact on security, they have a real impact on people. What is the economic value of the extra hours people must now wait at the airport? What is the impact on the perpetually struggling airline industry of actions that progressively have made every other form of transportation more appealing than air travel? What is the impact on people of a system, that treats citizens engaging in their daily activities as criminals, unable to use the bathroom or warm themselves with a blanket?

Nate Silver points out that the odds of a terrorist act on a plane over the last decade are 1 in 16.5 million departures.  One might respond that this astoundingly good record is a ringing endorsement of the security measures that have been taken, and certainly some of the measures taken have been quite effective.  But they have been effective in much the same way that a bulldozer is an effective means of entering a house; a key would be more effective and far less expensive.

As Bruce Schneier, have pointed out, strengthening cockpit doors and having passengers willing to confront and subdue would-be-attackers are two positive reactions to the attacks of September 11, 2001, which ensure that a similar plan would be ineffective. The reaction to the other two most significant attempts, Richard Reid(the Shoe Bomber), and last week’s attacker,Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab(the Underwear Bomber?) have been superficial and ineffective.

Both Reid and Abdulmutallab attempted to use a powerful explosive called PETN. According to reporting by the WSJ, PETN traces can be easily detected in hair. Rather than, add screening devices to detect traces of PETN, the response to Reid was to pass all shoes through xray scanners. In response Abdulmutallab hid his explosive in his underwear, we are told. I don’t believe anyone has yet suggested that underwear be removed and inspected by TSA agents, but this underscores the very absurdity of the shoe scan. The TSA needs to step back, speculate as to what terrorists might do as well as what they have attempted to do, and, design a comprehensive set of procedures that will protect not only the safety of passengers, but their freedom, dignity and comfort as well.

It is impossible to claim that hastily constructed procedures by an agency short-staffed by a Christmas holiday represent the optimal solution to the security problem. Past evidence, however is that the hasty measures introduced after Reid’s attempt, as well as the liquid ban linger for a long time, and the agency has been unwilling or unable to develop a holistic, rational approach to security.

Life is a series of calculated risks. No one disputes that a 55 mph speed limit is safer than a 65 mph limit, but as a a nation, we have determined that the cost of reducing risk is not commensurate to the risk reduction. When will the TSA begin to approach security in a similarly rational way?

I know that the TSA is staffed, by hard-working, intelligent people, committed to ensuring our safety, and I thank them for that. I just want to make sure the right measures are in place, not the first ones that come to mind.

As it happens, I will be flying several times in the next few months, but not for several weeks. I am hopeful that the rules for domestic flights will be clarified by then.  It is unclear to my how I am supposed to prepare for a flight, and in particular how children should be prepared for a flight. Should the be warned that for much of the flight they will be unable to use the restroom, play with a toy, read a book, be warmed by a blanket, or have a drink? Will airlines waive their ridiculous per-bag fees in response to increased restrictions on carry-on luggage? A 15 hour drive with a car full of kids is looking more and more appealing.

America’s great strength is in its open society. When do we get America back?