No, the TSA Isn’t Eliminating Security at Small Airports. Why Do You Ask?

CNN is reporting on TSA documents for a proposal eliminating “passenger screening at more than 150 small and medium-sized airports across the US.”

  • This would apply to small airports that are only serviced by props and regional jets with fewer than 60 seats.

  • So if a terrorist were to take over a Jetstream 32 departing one of these airports it wouldn’t be as much of a propoganda win as a Boeing 757. In other words, these aren’t big security targets in the first place.

  • Passengers would be screened on arrival if connecting at a larger airport. Passengers just getting off the plane would never have to go through screening. But it might mean slightly longer connections to handle screening on arrival.

The documents acknowledge a “small (non-zero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity.” One Mile at a Time says “I’m in disbelief that this proposal is even being discussed.”

However (1) there are actually pretty good arguments for this, and (2) it isn’t being seriously discussed — as in considered for implementation — this is never going to happen.

TSA notes that larger airports have better, more extensive, and more expensive screening technology. Passengers clear security at small airports go through less rigorous screening in some cases. So shifting screening to larger airports would better protect larger planes that make for better targets departing from those airports. Remember, 9/11 terrorist leader Mohamed Atta boarded a Colgan Air flight in Portland, Maine to connect to American Airlines flight 11.

What’s more there are limited resources available for security. Resources deployed to small airports is money not spent defending bigger targets. The argument here isn’t “let’s not do security” it’s “let’s not spread security too thin.”

Every time the TSA takes on additional missions, and has to screen for more things without taking anything off their plate it’s a distraction. Every time a new pet project gets added, or more venues are added to their portfolio, it means less security for their main mission.

Five years ago the TSA wanted to stop screening for some potentially dangerous items that wouldn’t likely be used in any sort of future terrorist plot. But political outrage trumped sensible security and the plan to allow small knives, bats, and golf clubs through the checkpoint was dropped. TSA wanted to focus on real risks, not on everything.

Pistole had unveiled the proposal to loosen the rules for carry-ons in March, saying the knives and other items can’t enable terrorists to cause a plane to crash. He said intercepting them takes time that would be better used searching for explosives and other more serious threats. TSA screeners confiscate over 2,000 of the small folding knives a day from passengers.

I’m often highly critical of the TSA, I think for good reason, but there are serious people giving serious thought to how to best deploy resources to the agency’s core mission. So naturally their efforts were leaked.

The TSA is not statutorily required to perform screening at all commercial airports, so they revisit the question regularly with analysis. There are two reasons why this is not a policy that’s going anyway.

  1. This wasn’t even a formal recommendation for policy change
  2. As soon as the analysis was leaked it was dead, just look at the outrage it generates. Bureaucracies are inherently conservative and loathe the appearance of blame or risk. Anything that happened at an airport where they stopped screening would look very bad for them, it’s at least important to avoid blame for security lapses as it is to avoid security lapses.

It’s natural for the TSA to discuss this. Ideas like this (regardless of the merits of this specific idea) are absolutely worth discussing if there’s any hope of making the TSA more effective, or more generally of best utilizing scarce security resources for greatest gain. Unfortunately that cannot happen without critics demagoguing the issue.

This specific idea probably isn’t practical. Passengers from small airports would arrive at larger airports and need to be funneled outside security, but airports really aren’t set up for this. It’s like arriving off of an international flight, but needing to go through only security, not immigration. Airports would either need major construction projects, or each arriving gate used for small planes would have to become a security checkpoint. On net this could cost more not less.

So why was this leaked? We don’t know without knowing who gave the information to CNN. But it puts TSA in a stronger position to squeeze more money from the federal budget saying to Congress “give us more money or we have to cut security, just look at the public outrage if you force us to do that.”

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. TSA kills more lives than it saves. The risk of TSA agents causing a fatal car accident on their commute to their airport is greater than zero. The number of terrorists caught by TSA agents is exactly zero.

  2. I generally agree with your conclusion, but I’m sorry, this is a completely laughable statement: “So if a terrorist were to take over a plane departing one of these airports it wouldn’t be much of a media event. In other words, these aren’t big security targets in the first place.”

    This would absolutely be a huge media story, doubly so if the narrative is “this happened because the TSA stopped conducting security.” And infinitely bigger if said terrorist crashed the plane into something.

  3. Why wouldn’t a terrorist taking down a plane with 50 people on board not be “much of a media event”?

  4. While TSA has never caught any terrorists, it could be argued that the presence of TSA at airports has been sufficient enough to deter terrorists as there haven’t been any terrorist hijackings since 9/11

  5. TSA could easily require small airports to use contractors to handle screening with a simple metal detector of the type used at sporting events. Does not take much skill to operate. The baggage screening is more challenging but x-ray is not currently required for charter service so the risk is already there. The bigger problem is providing a road map for terrorists – they will certainly flock to small airports if that’s where the gaps are.

  6. @NG – I’ve rephrased for clarity. Taking down a Jetstream 32 isn’t as big a propoganda win as a Boeing 757, which is why terrorists focus on bigger fish. But the media story BECAUSE OF THE CHANGE IN TSA POLICY is exactly my point and sort of begs the question here, it’s criticism of TSA which is why the idea is a non-starter rather than security strategy as such.

  7. “Rick says:
    August 2, 2018 at 11:06 am
    While TSA has never caught any terrorists, it could be argued that the presence of TSA at airports has been sufficient enough to deter terrorists as there haven’t been any terrorist hijackings since 9/11”

    Lisa, I would like to buy your rock…

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