There are any number of things I’d planned to write about. Security was not one of them. But the stories about passenger reactions to the new TSA procedures, including patdowns and use of Advanced Imaging Technology are too numerous and important to ignore.
As the leader of an organization that prides itself on putting the passenger first; it must be said that passenger views need to be taken seriously. There are concerns; so they must be addressed one way or another. Much better public education is one of those ways. An accelerated effort to develop new technologies to address the threat in ways that don’t generate such concerns must be another.
A new AIT scanner in use.
But this must also be said: the screening procedures that have been used up until now have been effective at largely eliminating guns, knives and other weapons — in fact that happened long ago. But more recently, the technology in use has been effective only in detecting metal hip and knee implants, jewelry left in place by mistake and stray coins in ones’ back pocket. None of those things poses any threat.
The real and credible threat that does exist comes in the form of explosives that metal detectors are powerless to detect. They can be well-hidden. What was being used prior was not effective enough.
Something had to change.
We can argue over whether the current mix of procedures is best. Personally, I believe nothing beats great intelligence (as was shown when someone, and I hope he or she is still alive, was able to provide the tracking numbers for those printer cartridge bombs). As a wise friend of mine has said, if we wait to catch the bad guys until they’ve gotten to the airport, we’ve waited too long.
This is increasingly important now as the terrorists, especially AQAP, have begun to recruit operatives to act alone and who had little or no previous connection with anything remotely related to terrorist activity (the underwear bomber was just another rich, lazy, underachieving college student four months before he set his “junk” on fire). And, now we know they are using items that can be shipped as cargo, no human beings even necessary. Give them “credit.” They are changing the paradigm, and doing so rapidly.
I agree with those who say we should be looking for bad people rather than bad things. I agree with people who say we can do things differently and better. Except our current laws (and in some cases customs and traditions) dictate otherwise. One of the things the law dictates is finding explosives at the checkpoint.
Those of us in the aviation industry are committed to working together to improve and reform our laws and procedures and some of us are actively working together to do that. We have a traveling public that demands respect, but also demands flawless security. Every time there is an incident, the press, public and politicians demand steps to keep it from ever happening again. The metal detector and old procedures were demonstrably not effective against the very real threat we face.
Something had to be done.
As the proud owner of a metal hip for exactly one year, I have been subjected to enhanced screening every time I have flown this past year – probably about 50 times. Most have involved a patdown and a wanding. I have used the AIT machine twice and greatly prefer it to either the old patdown or the new one. I have received the new patdown twice. Each time the TSA officer told me exactly what he was going to do. It was all done with professionalism (I would guess, that TSA officers, as a group, are strongly in favor of any technology or other alternative that would keep them from having to do the patdowns). To me, the new patdowns, while clearly more thorough than the old, are not significantly more intrusive than the old ones. But as the recipient of dozens of patdowns over the past year, I’ve become somewhat immune to it all and I understand that many people who are being patted down now had never before received any kind of patdown. And as I said earlier, we must pay attention to our passengers, improve public education, and move more quickly to better technology, improved intelligence and security law reform that makes sense.
I wish TSA had undertaken a more robust education campaign, but I applaud Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s commitment to take passenger comments seriously, and I applaud TSA Administrator John Pistole and his team for trying to address the threat we face (we don’t get to pick the threat; it picks us). I know airports around the country are committed to ensuring the safety and security of all their passengers.
In the short term I hope we can make whatever modifications might be called for and move beyond the immediate controversy. In the longer term, I hope we can develop new and better technologies and procedures to define a future of safe, secure, passenger friendly air travel; while addressing the very real threats we do face — and which are never going to be fully conquered. This is a game that will go on forever.