We’re Learning Exactly the Wrong Lessons From the Brussels and Istanbul Attacks

Air travel remains safe, both in the US and in Europe, despite recent high profile incidents in Brussels and Istanbul. Nonetheless we do need to be vigilant and adapt to changing threats.

Flying is still safer than driving even factoring in what’s so shocking to watch. While there remain risks, we’re fortunate not to have had a successful plot in the US since 9/11. Europe is closer and easier.

I was on Fox Business earlier today talking to Cheryl Casone about security over the holiday weekend in the aftermath of airport attacks.

Both Brussels and Istanbul have security programs that meet US standards. Both incidents underscore that it’s not just about protecting planes, but that gatherings of people outside of security are at risk too. That means long security lines make us vulnerable, not safe. We need to process people quickly through the checkpoint, not make them queue.

In a February 2002 magazine article I wrote,

..[T]ake the long security screening lines that have become the bane of air travelers everywhere. An ambitious terrorist could easily detonate a bomb in the crowd, killing hundreds and scaring Americans away from air travel–possibly for good. Moving the lines further out of the airports simply recreates the problem elsewhere. And as security measures become more stringent, our freedom to travel is further encumbered, though we aren’t any safer than before.

In Istanbul screening occurs near terminal entrances. And that created a target.

Airports Council International-Europe has pointed out that following the Brussels attacks, additional security measures were put in place at “landside” areas at airports across Europe. …the Istanbul “attack took place at an airport that has systematic landside security checks on all passengers and visitors as they enter the terminal buildings. Many of the fatalities occurred while people were queueing to access the terminal building—an unfortunate reminder that this kind of additional security measures tends to move the target rather than actually securing it.”

We need to get serious about security, but that doesn’t mean more security it means smart security. Three years ago the TSA wanted to stop looking for pocket knives and golf clubs. Those aren’t a huge threat anymore given reinforced cockpit doors and passengers who won’t sit docile in the event of an attack.

That would have been a smart move so the TSA could really focus on the biggest threats. They can’t do everything. They shouldn’t be looking for marijuana or scissors. But it didn’t make for good sound bites, and they were pressured to keep spreading themselves thin. They should have laser like focus on the biggest dangers, and not have distractions of even noticing let alone calling over law enforcement over things that don’t put air travel at risk.

Consider not just the TSA’s reported 95% failure rate detecting contraband through checkpoints. Ten years ago it was a 91% failure rate. That’s why they need focus.

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)

We should redeploy 2800 Behavior Detection Officers to checkpoints to speed people through screening. And we should split up safety regulation from actual screening. The TSA does both now. The FAA is probably our most successful safety regulator in the country, but they don’t fly the planes.

Instead, there’s talk of the TSA adding security checkpoints outside of terminals, such as “in parking garages, terminal entrances, and other areas near the airport.” This pushes out the security perimeter, it doesn’t get people through the perimeter more quickly.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. I like the way you pushed back at her trying to make her ‘right wing-we should all be vigilantes’ point. You focused on improving the TSA process and getting people into the airports faster, reducing the soft target argument. Great Job.

  2. Fox news brings you on as security expert?

    There goes my humility. I am expert about everything too. Call me on your show birches.

  3. I think the point ur trying to make is, and I agree, security screening should be staffed adequately with efficient procedures to move people quickly through the screening – reducing the target
    Great post!
    . ✈️

  4. @Nathan I don’t get your comment about “right wing” points. Planes need both a right wing and a left wing to fly. 🙂

    As for being vigilantes, if everyone had had that attitude on 9-11, the loss of life could have been limited to a few “vigilantes” and all of the terrorists, instead of @3,000 innocent victims. Which is the reason, morbid as it may sound, that I smile every time I read a story about a wanna be highjacker on a plane in China who claims to be wearing a bomb, who is immediately beaten to death by the other passengers. Sadly, we’ve come a long ways from the Founding Fathers slogan: “Don’t Tread On Me”. 😉

  5. The focus on the small (easy) stuff in carry-on is ridiculous. On a longer trip I do want to carry a pack containing small scissors, nail clippers and tweezers~ all no-no’s, and guaranteed confiscation.
    So where I could have travelled HLO, I am forced to check-in a bag, with the temptation and capacity to actually pack more than I really need! Crazy! :/

  6. “We need to get serious about security, but that doesn’t mean more security it means smart security.”

    Agreed! Denpasar Bali airport is on its toes when it comes to security.

    Departing there recently the police were doing random car searches on the way in to the airport complex. On arrival at the terminal all bags get scanned – the scanners are really big & at a low level so it’s easy to load even large & heavy suitcases. You don’t take anything out of your bags so the queue moves very quickly! After checkin you have your usual more-detailed security check.

  7. It is naive to think we can protect soft targets like airports with more security. Will you do the same for stadiums, concert halls, malls, etc once the airports are protected. The fight needs to be where the enemy is born. Curb free speech. Spread the word of hate and death we will imprision you if we can, death from above if we cannot.

  8. The Istanbul Ataturk Airport attack gave a great damage to the tourism business in Turkey. I would not want it to happen any airport in the world. I hope the authorities learnt their lesson.

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