TSA Plans to Make Screening Process Take Longer, Helping Terrorists Attack Long Lines

Unfortunately airport security checkpoints don’t stop terrorists.

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)

What’s made us safer is reinforced cockpit doors (although that has tradeoffs, a rogue pilot locking everyone out of the cockpit can take a plane down themselves if they wish), and passengers who will no longer sit idly by assuming that if a situation is left to play out everyone will be safe. And that there are fewer people trying to take down aircraft, and give up their own lives in the process, than is popularly imagined.

We need security at airports because aviation is a target, albeit perhaps an overblown one relative to the response.

But government is bad at directly producing security. The FAA regulates safety for airlines but doesn’t actually fly the planes. Private screeners are more effective and efficient than TSA screeners while over 20,000 TSA employees have been accused of misconduct, more than half multiple times.

Via the Wall Street Journal‘s Scott McCartney the TSA has new plans to make us more of a target for terrorists.

Changes are coming to airport security checkpoints: TSA wants you to declutter your bags.

New procedures, such as requiring all food or all electronics larger than cellphones be placed in bins separately, are still being tested. Changes haven’t yet been finalized, but senior Transportation Security Administration officials agreed to discuss them publicly for the first time. Decisions will be made in a few weeks, with new rules implemented after the summer travel rush, once screeners are trained and announcements made.

…TSA says new procedures likely will be confined to standard screening lines and not PreCheck lanes, where trusted travelers get expedited screening and get to leave more items in bags.

This is going to mean slower security lines as people have to unpack more things through the checkpoint. And screening more bins takes longer for screeners to accomplish, too.

The lesson of the Brussels and Istanbul airport bombings is that you don’t want to force people to congregate outside security because that’s too tempting a target for terrorists. I wrote as far back as 2002 that long security lines are as good or better of a target for terrorists than planes.

[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.

We know the new procedures aren’t actually urgent and responsive to a real immediate threat either, or else TSA wouldn’t be waiting until after the summer travel season to implement them. In fact, these procedures are so urgent they’ve been under consideration “for about 18 months.”

Now, TSA claims this won’t slow down security. Here’s their explanation:

TSA figures lines won’t lengthen because the total time at the checkpoint will be the same. Tests have shown TSA can slow down the process of decluttering bags at the start of security, known as divesting, but gain the time back by speeding up X-ray reading and reducing manual bag checks.

If you don’t count time spent at the start of security as part of the screening process, then the total screening time can stay the same. Brilliant!

And this isn’t just getting people to pull things out of their bags and reorganize them while waiting in line (using time more efficiently) it’s getting them to pull things out of their bags when they “first start hoisting their bags on tables for the X-ray machine.” There’s no conceivable universe in which that saves time.

And either way that’s more time in total in the airport outside the checkpoint when Brussels and Istanbul teach us you want to move people from outside security airside as quickly as possible to keep them safe.

The TSA tested requiring people to take paper out of their bags in Kansas City. They killed that test once it was reported, because it’s stupid. They’re not telling us what the final rules are going to be, but they’re unlikely to make us safer.

At the end of the day though outrage over TSA incompetence is passé because influential frequent travelers bypass much of this via PreCheck. It’s the once a year traveler in the regular screening line that’s inconvenienced — and less safe — so their voice isn’t heard particularly loudly.

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. Tiresome.

    Any workable solutions? Assuming, of course, that we could ever determine the primary (only?) source of these terrorism threats?

  2. No matter what we do, there’s a downside. Too fast and you let the terrorists in by accident. Too slow and lines build up and are targets for terrorists. It’s a lose-lose scenario.

  3. No Lee — focus on actual security, as Israel does, rather than theater, and find me a downside there

  4. Gary, both at TPA and LAS this week the pre-check line was longer than the regular line, so I opted for the regular line. You said, “At the end of the day though outrage over TSA incompetence is passé because influential frequent travelers bypass much of this via PreCheck. ” But I now find myself in the regular line, since they give pre-check apparently to everyone who has a boarding pass, rather the people like me who actually paid for it. So irritating.

  5. Love your TSA Hate porn.

    Once-a-year traveler enjoys security theater, and he is a major audience segment for it too. He doesn’t mind spending an extra hour in the airport and feeling safe, it’s only once a year after all.

  6. This is so lame. More Kibuki. Just profile and let the chips fall. As far as I’m concerned, if someone has Global Entry they’ve been vetted and go through without security check at all. Make qualifying even more stringent if they have to, but stop with the nonsense.

  7. Unfortunately its not just airports any more. Madison Square Garden just emailed me about a concert this week that due to Manchester they will make security more through. They missed the point that the attack there was OUTSIDE security, and that by forcing more to wait in fewer lines, they are just making a larger attack vector. The problem we have is that security is a product, it makes money, and if you DON’T do it people blame you…we need to look at what Scandinavian Countries do when they are attacked…double down on being themselves, and NOT putting metal detectors everywhere.

  8. When my husband flew two weeks ago, he was required to remove his pens from his backpack. Then he was told he had too many pens in his bag and they made him give them two of his pens. EXCUSE ME ? How in the world does that make us safer??? Absolutely ridiculous – a waste of time and money.

  9. It is peculiar how bad anti-terror “security” is. But it’s not just us. I’ve been travelling around Germany this month and, unless you’re visiting the Reichstag, there seems to be virtually no security at all — even at airports (until you get to the slower-than-it-should-be security check). And the terror risk in Germany has to be 10x that of the USA.

    None of this is new. I still remember arriving at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 the day after a bomb went off in the public Olympic park and the security “solution” was to make all the spectators wait on endless lines outside the venues — with no security — so you could be checked at the gate.

    The good news is that the statistical risk is still very, very low. So I guess we can afford security theater. The Israelis have effective security because they can’t afford to have theater. Until more people get blown up — and hopefully they won’t — it’s never going to change.

  10. In the name of national security, let the masses check their bags for free. It would clear up so much of the fricition of flying now, and we’d all have a better experience.

  11. I’m gonna need six bins if they start doing this, if all the gear in my 18-pound computer backpack needs to be separately viewable. I’ve grown accustomed to having them run the bag a second time through, on the side instead of on the back, and the occasional “who’s bag is this” and hand-check swab-down (taking about 10 samples). But if I have to start extricating everything, I’m gonna be that guy you don’t want to get behind in line. You’ll be there 20 minutes extra.

  12. The TSA is the prime reason I will never fly commercial airlines again, having a pacemaker and not being able pass through the metal detector forces me to submit to the TSA sexual assault (so-called pat down).

  13. Data point:

    Went through security at PDX yesterday (on our once-a-year trip). Arrived same as normal (90 min to flight). Normally we get through security with 20-30 min to boarding. Yesterday, we made it to the gate 10 min into the boarding process due to the new TSA procedures. I was taken a bit off guard, too, as shoes separate on conveyor and each electronic separate was their request. Part of wait was having to wait for bins, I’ll admit.

  14. The angle that doesn’t get talked about enough is the unintended consequence of people dying on the highways because they prefer to drive rather than put up with the hassles. We can determine with good accuracy how many deaths there will be per X miles driven. What is harder to quantify is how many of these people choose to drive rather than fly primarily because of TSA. It is a real number though, and those people are just as dead as if a terrorist killed them. But they die in groups of one or a few at a time and they don’t get our attention. It should be a requirement that every measure taken by the TSA that will make the experience for the traveling public worse be analyzed in terms of how much it will contribute to people taking to the highways rather than the air, and thus increase that death toll. The TSA doesn’t kill directly, but it certainly does kill indirectly.

  15. Best security solution:
    1) Everyone must arrive at airport naked.
    2) All bags must be checked, no carry on except small cellphone and headphones.
    3) Airlines provide clean towels for seats and premium free entertainment options
    Problems solved.

  16. @DaveS — Interesting thought. It is certainly possible that the TSA is killing far more lives than its saving due to the percentage of the population that decides to drive instead of fly. Not sure how you’d get that number computed, though.

    Of course, for anyone savvy enough to read this thread, there’s an easy solution. Pre-check. It’s not always perfect — and, God knows, it seems like you’re still subjected to more “extra screening” that should possibly be necessary — but it’s more than adequate. I can’t remember the last time it took me more than 15 minutes to get through any security line in the USA.

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