How Airport Security Will Change After Revelations the TSA Doesn’t Actually Stop Bombs or Weapons

I linked yesterday to the story that in undercover tests the TSA failed to detect weapons and explosives 95% of the time.

I’ve had some time to think about this result, and what it means… and most importantly what the government’s reaction may be.

Already the TSA’s acting director has been reassigned because someone must take responsibility and goodness knows it won’t be the people who designed our current approach to security. Somehow the person placed into the caretaker role, without yet having a mandate for change, is responsible and changing the person in that seat will make a difference.

TSA Agents in Charlotte Watch News of the TSA’s Failure to Detect Weapons and Bombs, Instead of Searching for Weapons and Bombs (HT: Tocqueville)

One positive is that the report should put to rest the (fallacious post hoc ergo propter hoc) claim that despite flaws the lack of a successful terrorist attack against US aircraft since 9/11 must be chalked up as a win for TSA. Clearly the TSA isn’t likely stopping terrorists (and indeed, they’ve never caught one). Instead, the airplane thing has been done. It’s hard. And there aren’t that many people on US soil with technical know-how out to get us.

The change in mindset – for passengers to push back against a hijacking rather than acting docile and letting it play out, combined with reinforced cockpit doors and a rule not to let anyone in instead of giving in to demands on the assumption that will save lives – makes using aircraft as missiles again highly improbable.

Of course, anything seen as ‘soft on security’ will have its proponents blamed should anything unfortunate occur, regardless of the cause, which makes increased government presence, spending, and restrictive rules very difficult to push back against.

My fear is that the bureaucratic response of do something will be the natural path here. If the TSA isn’t working, it needs to crack down. We’ll need to redouble our efforts to win the War on Water. We need to be more skeptical of relaxed screening through the PreCheck program. Every rule must be 100% enforced, 100% of the time. Instead of looking for bombs, then, they’ll be taking away scissors. This will make the TSA less effective rather than more effective, because their attentions will be diverted from real threats. But they will look like they are doing something. And of course they’ll make the case for more funding, as though we should always reward failure with more resources.

Fortunately, for now, the initial response from the all-too-Germanically-named Department of Homeland Security is:

  • “Directing Transportation Security Administration to revise procedures so that they address vulnerabilities mentioned in report;” Their procedure really didn’t focus on weapons and bombs? Clearly the problem is the manual!

  • “That TSA share the results of testing with airport officials across the country;” The first step is to admit you have a problem…

  • “Training for all transportation security officers at every airport;” Because it’s the frontline agents’ fault, and because all we need is for the rent-a-cops to learn better what they’re supposed to be doing!

  • “Directing testing and retesting of equipment used at airports;” It’s amazing, but the equipment isn’t actually regularly calibrated. Which means we can say it’s the machines’ fault. Anything to keep our phony baloney jobs!

  • “Asking inspector general and the TSA to conduct “random covert testing” of security practices;” We’re going to keep repeating these same tests until we score better!

  • “Appointing a team of TSA and DHS leaders to make sure changes are implemented” Someone needs to be in charge. Then they can take the blame. And goodness knows it’s not going to be the actual head of any agency.

A few bad apples who in no way undermine the hard work that thousands of men and women at the TSA do to keep us safe, day in and day out.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Gary, I have to admit that I used to scoff at the cynicism you and others displayed toward TSA procedures, but the TSA failure to find almost any potential explosives/weapons in these test runs has me seeing your point. But what should replace the TSA’s failed approach?

  2. @Steve-Strict scrutiny of computer-selected random passengers as well as carefully profiled (yes, profiled) potential risk passengers. Everyone else walks straight to the boarding gate after a quick boarding pass scan.

  3. I’m not sure why everyone is so concerned….5 percent effectiveness is 5x more effective than most government programs.

  4. I’m not sure where the surprise in the media is coming from. This has always been Kabuki, designed to create the illusion of security without actually providing any.

    I’d love to see us return to a common sense approach with bag x-rays and metal detectors (as was the case before 9/11), paired with a profiling system and the ability to ramp up to full Israeli style security when threat levels dictate.

    But we won’t see this. We’ll see bureaucrats making a show of increased efficacy because there’s political theater to be made. Oh, and don’t think for one minute that a change of leadership in DC will change this. Both parties make political hay out of “keeping us safe from terrorists”.

  5. Yes, but what is their rate of effectiveness in confiscating that dangerous dihydrogenmonoxide that people keep trying to sneak on to airplanes?!?

  6. The speed of the boss is the speed of the gang and what his name ain’t too swift. The VA and the TSA seem to be in a race to the bottom.

  7. “I’m not sure where the surprise in the media is coming from.”

    @mallthus – It isn’t surprise, it’s “newsertainment.” They play it up because *people* will be surprised (see @steve above) and it will draw them in as viewers.

    @Gary – This actually seems more cynical than usual, Gary. I feel like you’re more upset than usual about this.

  8. “The change in mindset – for passengers to push back against a hijacking rather than acting docile and letting it play out”
    ^ This. No American plane can be hijacked. At least not by a “Middle Eastern male terrorist”. Because the passengers are aware, if they gain control of the plane, it is a death sentence. They/we will fight to the death.

  9. Billions of taxpayer dollars and they’re only 5% effective at actually doing their jobs. I’m sure we’ll hear that they need a 95% budget increase to do their jobs adequately. Is there ANYTHING the government actually succeeds at besides failure?

  10. But they are so good at stopping drinking water and toothpaste. Doesn’t that count?

  11. If we returned to x-rays and metal detectors and save the Billions of TSA dollars and put them towards infrastructure in the USA, then many more lives will be improved along with the economy.
    Even if 1 plane was taken down per year with 300 victims, which would be terrible and unlikely but…how would it compare with:
    12,253 people murdered in the US in 2013
    32,719 people that died in car crashes in 2013
    41,149 that dies of suicide in 2013
    130,557 deaths by accidents in general(unintentional injuries) in 2013
    56,979 dies from the flu and/or Pneumonia in 2013
    The TSA’s budget was 7.9 billion in 2013. What if half of that was spent on improving infrastructure, health, jobs and safety? Don’t you think many more lives would be saved, less people would be feel harassed and travel would be so much better? The TSA’s fake security powers keep us in constant fear that there is the “ever present danger”

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