Monday, February 07, 2005

A Gaping Hole in Airport Security?

Writing today in Slate, Andy Bowers points out what he considers, "A Dangerous Loophole in Airport Security" - internet checkin, in which the passenger is able to print out his or her own boarding pass. Bowers offers a scenario whereby someone on the Federal No-Fly List could board a plane using an internet boarding pass in someone else's name.

Unfortunately, Bower's article reveals a lack of knowledge of the purpose of the No-Fly list, the dynamics surrounding the interactions of the authorities responsible for airport security, and the attitude of much of the flying public.

First, the No-Fly List is designed to complicate life for terrorists and terrorist-suspects. No one could seriously believe that, say, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is going to call up American Airlines and book a super-saver ticket in his own name. But the No-Fly List does force terrorists to look for ways to work around it; things that increase the chances of being caught and use up resources that might otherwise go into the next attack.

Second, Bowers does not correctly explain the responsibilities of the Transportation Security Administration and the airlines:
Right before you go through security, a security guard checks your boarding pass against your government-issued ID, making sure the names match.

All the TSA needs to do is to have at least one document check station that simultaneously compares all three elements: the boarding pass, a government-issued ID, and the No-Fly List in the airline's computer.
Wrong. First, that is not a "security guard", but a "ticket checker". Ticket checkers are employed by the airport, which is supported by the landing fees and rent paid by the airlines. They are not TSA employees, nor are they directly subject to TSA oversight. And while TSA maintains the No-Fly List, TSA personnel do not administer it, the airlines do.

The dynamics of airport security are nowhere near as cut and dried as Bowers portrays them. Each airport represents a balancing act and a power struggle between local airport management, the "stakeholders" (airlines), the TSA, and the FAA. Local management is naturally inclined to lean toward the airlines - they pay the bills; also, at many airports, TSA management "federalized" the airports in an arrogant and heavy-handed manner, causing lingering resentment against them from the airlines and local airport management.
Could an extra ID check slow us down a little? Yes, it probably would. Tough luck. We've already endured two wars and countless other disruptions in the name of safety. A few extra minutes at the airport isn't going to kill anyone.
In an era of continued recovery from 9/11 and shrinking profit margins the airlines are understandably reluctant to inconvenience or upset passengers. That means a constant tug-of-war between the airlines and the TSA. And Americans, especially frequent flyers, are already forgetting the horrors of 9/11. In the wake of last year's terrorist downings of two Russian airliners, many American women have behaved like spoiled children in complaining about added security checks designed to prevent the exact scenario that caused the Russian tragedy.

Full Disclosure: The Dread Pundit Bluto is a former member of the TSA's Mobile Screener Force (MSF). The MSF was responsible for training new TSA screeners and supervising the federalization of US airports. The author participated in the "rollouts" of several airports across the country. The views expressed here are those of The Dread Pundit Bluto. They are not "official" and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Transportation Security Administration or any other Federal organization.