We Could Fix Airport Security—But Should We?

 /  May 20, 2018, 9:13 p.m.


In 2015, the Department of Homeland Security released a damning report stating that TSA security checkpoints in dozens of major US airports failed to spot explosives, weapons, and other contraband in sixty-seven out of seventy trials. That worked out to a failure rating of just under 96 percent. The director of the TSA was removed from his post and then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson promised “to immediately revise [TSA’s] standard operating procedures for screening to address the specific vulnerabilities identified by the [. . .] testing.”

While those were certainly encouraging words, the agency’s actions didn’t inspire as much confidence. In a 2017 test, DHS officials found that TSA agents still failed to detect dangerous and illegal contraband 70 percent of the time. While this was certainly an improvement from the previous year, it is still a fairly worrying result, especially for an agency tasked with protecting the lives of millions of traveling US citizens. Moreover, given that security both slows travelers down at airports and adds a significant cost to each airline ticket, it’s probably safe to say that the airport security system is broken.

One reason for this might be the lack of centralization among the international community when it comes to airport security procedures. No one government can regulate the entire world’s safety measures, which vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Standardizing them is the job of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN sub-committee that includes all United Nation member states except Lichtenstein and Dominica. The ICAO is supposed to make sure that air travel is safe, efficient and well-regulated across the globe. However, when it comes to the issue of airport security, the body’s standards are rather inconclusive.

The only definite thing the ICAO says is that countries need to have some measures in place to prevent would-be terrorists from carrying bombs onto planes; it doesn’t really specify what these measures should be. This has caused each country to pursue its own procedural standard for security screenings at airports, based on its own privacy laws and existing security threats.

In the United States this process has become so tedious and commonplace that people who travel semi-frequently could do it in their sleep. You present your ID and boarding pass to a document checker, only some of whom care enough to actually look at your face. You then proceed to the security zone, where you send all of your personal belongings, including your shoes, through an x-ray before hopping through a metal detector or millimeter wave scanner. Additional security measures may include a latex-gloved pat-down or a bag search, but that’s about it. Most Western countries follow a similar procedure, and most exhibit a broadly similar rate of failure.

One benefit of the ICAO’s lax security regulations, however, is that individual countries can be allowed to experiment until they get it right. One country that seems to have done so, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Israel.

If anyone reading this has ever traveled out of Israel via Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, then you’ll already know what I’m talking about. However, in the very likely event that you haven’t, here is what you can expect at the end of your holiday.

The security at Ben Gurion starts before you even enter the airport complex itself. About a mile out from the terminal, travelers must pass through a security checkpoint where their documents are presented and their vehicles are searched. From the moment travelers arrive at the airport, they are already being watched by plainclothes security officials placed strategically throughout the check-in area. These agents are highly trained to recognize behavioral indicators of anxiety, nervousness or otherwise generally suspicious behavior.  

Before passengers are allowed to check into their flight, they must go through an incredibly rigorous interview process. The first stage of the interview consists of fairly straightforward questions about why they visited Israel or whether or not they packed their own bag. The second part builds off the answers given during the first. If you stated that you were in Israel for research, the officer might ask you how long you’ve been doing this research and what it consists of. They’ll likely also ask questions about other countries stamped in your passport. “Why were you in Thailand? How long did you stay in Barbados?” Then, as a final measure, the interviewer will ask oddly specific, seemingly useless questions. “What school did you first attend?” “When did you last move houses?” “What kind of car do you drive?”  

Throughout this process, the interviewer is scanning the passenger’s face for signs of lying, stress or difficulty remembering certain facts. The goal is to identify holes in a passenger’s cover story, assuming they have one, or at the very least to see which travelers are abnormally anxious or distracted. After the interview process, the traveler’s passport is stamped with a barcode, beginning with numbers 1 through 6. A “1” indicates the lowest level security threat, while a “6” constitutes the highest.  

From there, the passenger is allowed to proceed to the security checkpoint, which looks and operates exactly like any one that you might find in America, Europe or Asia. The X-Rays, metal detectors and pat downs are all exactly the same, although higher-risk individuals may be given a bag search or pulled aside for additional questioning.

Even after travelers board the plane, they are still underneath Israel’s immense security blanket, as there are at least two designated air marshals on every single flight from El Al—Israel's national airline. The air marshals are placed as close as possible to high-risk individuals and can communicate to the pilot via pager if they see any suspicious activity. The pilot can then take defensive maneuvers, like bringing the plane into a steep dive in order to throw the attacker of balance and allow the air marshals to subdue him.

When it comes to the effectiveness of the Israeli security process, the results speak for themselves. No plane leaving Ben Gurion has ever been hijacked, despite multiple attempts, and there hasn’t been an attack on the airport itself since 1972. These results are truly impressive when you consider that Israel is surrounded by hostile governments that routinely harbor terrorist cells and other organizations wishing for the country’s destruction. Keeping the country open to international travel in the midst of such a turbulent geopolitical landscape is perhaps one of the most important and difficult tasks the Israeli government faces. However, thanks to the effectiveness of its airport security strategy, it has managed to do just that.

Of course, you may wonder why Israel has been the only country to implement such a system. After all, it’s not like Western countries are unaware of the techniques used in Tel Aviv. The problem is that not all countries are necessarily on board with Israel’s brand of protection, and for a few very convincing reasons.

The first is a principled one and by far the most controversial. Earlier, I mentioned that travelers are given a rating 1–6 based on their level of security risk. Now, while it’s true that a large part of this assessment comes from their answers to interview questions, most of the determination is made using a system of profiling. According to the Ben Gurion’s security officials, a subject is likely to be higher-risk if they are young, male, traveling alone, or most especially, if they are Arab. Israel knowingly and unapologetically uses racial profiling in its risk assessment process at airports. This is why, if you are Arab, you are almost certain to receive a 5 or 6 on your barcode, whereas Israeli citizens are most likely to receive a 1.

Israel’s use of profiling has led to widespread outrage and condemnation from the international community. According to Adalah, a Palestinian legal rights group, Israel’s policy of racial profiling routinely violates “the privacy and dignity” of Arab passengers in a manner that should never be allowed under international law. In addition, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel brought a proposed ban to racial profiling in a case against the high court, but it was thrown out by the court and deemed “frivolous.”  

The Israeli government argues that the profiling is more than justified, citing its effectiveness and its necessity given Israel’s unique situation. According to Ariel Merari, an Israeli terrorism expert, “It’s foolishness not to use profiles when you know that most terrorists come from certain ethnic groups and age groups.” In effect, what he’s stating is that throughout Israel’s contentious and violent history, a large majority of terrorist attacks committed against the state were by young Muslim men, so it would be an oversight not to screen for individuals matching that description at airports. Of course, there’s the argument that it’s Israel’s oppressive treatment of Arabs that fuels resentment in the first place.

Right now, the battle is over what is the best method to protect the millions of non-violent, law-abiding citizens who rely on international travel for their livelihood. Based on all the facts and figures, it would seem as though Israel has found the way forward. Even putting their practice of racial profiling aside, their focus on the “human element” of terrorism might be reform that the rest of the world needs to make their airport security dependable institutions for once.

However, there is one slight problem with that assessment. If you believe that prevention is the primary purpose of airport security, then the TSA has actually done its job perfectly. After all, there hasn’t been a single plane hijacking on a flight leaving from a US airport since 9/11.  That’s because there haven’t been any attempted since that day. This is where the term “security theater” often comes into play. It’s the idea that the TSA’s main purpose is actually give the illusion of safety, rather than actually providing it. Some believe that the mere appearance of heightened security screenings and more checkpoints is enough to deter potential terrorists from carrying out an attack.

While this interpretation of airport security might sound dubious, it certainly has advantages over the Israeli alternative. Even setting racial profiling aside, Israel’s security procedures still carry some serious negative consequences. One is the sheer amount of time added to the average journey at Ben Gurion. Whereas most airports ask passengers to arrive two hours before domestic flights, Ben Gurion raises that number to three and a half. There’s also the question of additional cost. Expert interrogators, plain-clothes soldiers, and air marshals all cost money, and the government is not going to foot that bill by itself.

All of this makes traveling by plane much less convenient and desirable, which ends up having severe ripple effects. Some of these effects might even be considered deadly.

Despite recurring news stories about engine explosions and disappearing planes, air travel is empirically by far the safest way to travel the world. A study from economists at Cornell University showed that increases in airport security after 9/11 caused approximately six percent of potential plane travelers to take road trips instead. The paper goes on to assert that this increase of people on the road led to 326 more fatal car accidents per month than during the pre-9/11 era. That equates to about eighteen fully-loaded Boeing 737s crashing every year.  

There’s also the economic impact to consider: according to another paper by the same authors, increases in security screenings led to a $1.1 billion loss for the airline industry. This of course causes workers to be laid off, factories to shut, and production from firms like Airbus and Boeing to slow down dramatically.

These problems would only worsen if an Israeli-inspired security system were put in place in the United States’ major airports. Many travelers in the United States often express the desire for greater airport security, but few ever really stop to question whether or not it’s really worth it. It all goes back to the concept of thinking on the margin.

If someone came to you with a sound plan to completely eliminate crime in the United States, you’d probably take them up on their offer. However, if that person then told you that the cost of such a program would be equivalent to the entire GDP of the United States, you might have second thoughts. Sure, eliminating crime is a worthwhile goal, and it should be in everyone’s interest to expunge it completely, but if removing that last little bit cost trillions upon trillions of dollars, one has to ask: is it really worth it?

That’s where we are with airport security at the moment. For Israel, extraordinary security measures are very worth it. It can get away with expensive, inconvenient, unethical but effective security, because it needs it. But for the United States, the answer is less straightforward. Maybe one day a terrorist will sneak through the TSA’s net and wreak havoc aboard another US plane and we’ll wish we had improved our security. Or maybe none of that will happen, and we’ll wonder why we wasted so much time and money preparing for it. According to a recent report, the TSA spends $667 million to save one human life. Perhaps, what we should be asking, then, is if there are other lives that need saving. 

The image featured in this article is from the US Dept. of Homeland Security and is in the public domain. The original can be found here.

Ajay Chopra