Surprisingly Rational TSA Plan To Drop Screening At Small Airports Has Almost Zero Chance Of Getting Off The Ground

from the zero-risk-of-this-ever-being-implemented dept

Finally, the TSA is considering making a smart move. After years of reacting to each attempted terrorist attack by creating another set of forbidden items based on the attack it failed to prevent, the TSA is thinking about moving away from defeatist arbitrage and towards making flying slightly more tolerable.

Internal documents from a TSA working group say the proposal to cut screening at small and some medium-sized airports serving aircraft with 60 seats or fewer could bring a “small (non-zero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity.”

The internal documents from June and July suggest the move could save $115 million annually, money that could be used to bolster security at larger airports.

The non-zero risk is that terrorists will target small airports and small planes. Is that risk worth taking? Yes. But, of course, that answer will turn to “No” as soon as an attack originates from one of these airports. Even with the overall risk of death-by-terrorist being extremely low, any attack at all will be used as proof the TSA’s small airport approach has failed.

But this doesn’t eliminate screening completely. With this proposal, those who have bypassed screening at smaller airports will receive the full TSA treatment when they arrive at a larger airport. So, it’s not like most passengers embarking from a small airport will bypass screening for their entire flight. If terrorists want to take down a plane, it will be a small one flying to another small airport.

Of course, a lot of the risk assumption is based on another assumption: that the TSA actually prevents terrorist attacks. There’s a lot of evidence indicating it doesn’t. Screeners miss explosives and other dangerous objects at an alarming rate. And for all the bragging the TSA does about taking harmless objects away from passengers, attempted terrorist attacks have always been thwarted in the air by passengers, rather than by TSA agents on the ground or air marshals on the targeted planes.

Some feel this will result in increased attacks.

CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said it was “stunning that this is even seriously being considered.”


“This is so dangerous,” a TSA field leader at a large airport said. The individual is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Two senior TSA officials, who asked not to be identified, expressed serious national security concerns over the proposal.

It’s not wrong to have concerns. The question is whether the concerns are worth scuttling the plan. The TSA itself has (inadvertently) admitted it doesn’t believe terrorists are targeting planes. There are other, cheaper, less preventable ways to kill and injure dozens of people. The current favored attack vector is the ground, which means everyone standing around waiting to get their bodies and possession pawed at by security are sitting ducks surrounded by garbage cans full of “explosive” liquids.

What makes this plan seem so bold is its willingness to step away from the “if even one attack is prevented, it’s worth it” thinking. So much of the stasis we see in government is based on this thinking. No one wants to change anything — even the stuff shown to be mostly useless — because no one wants to take the heat if an attack happens after changes are made.

It’s highly unlikely the TSA will ever implement this plan. I would imagine Congress would step in and take this discretion away from the agency if it ever appears the TSA is going to move forward on trimming back screening at low-risk airports. That legislative action may come sooner, rather than later, as it’s apparently tied to something Congress can directly control.

TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said the study reflects a recurring debate within the agency about its legal requirements.

“This is not a new issue,” he said via email. “The regulations which established TSA does not require screening below a certain level, so every year is ‘the year’ that TSA will reconsider screening.” Bilello did not respond to a request for the text of the regulations.

If commonsense needs to be eliminated from our air safety programs, Congress will be all over it. But there’s only one air safety plan with “non-zero risks:” eliminating air travel. The TSA’s years of minimal competence have not made traveling any safer, but forcing travelers to drive everywhere will certainly ramp up fatalities. The odds are super low anyone is going to die in a terrorist attack, but we continue to treat it as a problem worth throwing billions of dollars at every year.

The real downside to this proposal is the supposed savings: $115 million. It’s a drop in the natsec bucket and it will only be used by the TSA to fund other programs that don’t work either.

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Comments on “Surprisingly Rational TSA Plan To Drop Screening At Small Airports Has Almost Zero Chance Of Getting Off The Ground”

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Anonymous Coward says:

I’d be cool if they just entirely eliminated the TSA.

But if they will not, at the very least cut back on the craziness. It is absurd when they force new moms to open every bottle of milk on them so they can be swabbed for whatever they test with the milk.

Or my recent favourite – force us to go through security AFTER arriving at our destination in the US because we came from an international city.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Based on the history of this administration they will just ban inter-state travel by anyone without proper travel papers.

“You already need ID to drive a car. So it should be no problem for you to show that ID at the border of your state and have a valid reason to travel. Think of how many child abduction cases this could solve when the abductor never gets the chance to cross state lines, or all of the illegals that never get to the real Americans in the heartland of our country. ” Press Secretary says to the waiting crowd of journalists allowed entry to the palace.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Cost-benefit calculations

We mustn’t go all crazy and emotional about this stuff. That is -literally- how the terrorists win.

We have to do cost-benefit cacluations, and invest where we expect to save the most lives, and cause terrorists the most trouble (and innocents the least).

That means we can’t do everything, everywhere.

That said, I don’t think dropping all screenings at some airports is the best plan. Better would be to randomly screen everywhere (big airports and small), with most of the effort going to big airports with big airplanes.

Small airports could be screened on random days once in two weeks.

With random screening, terrorists still have to worry that their agents will get caught (thus leading to a roll-up of their organization).

Will B. says:

Re: Cost-benefit calculations

Random screening is a TERRIBLE idea. We’ve done this before, man; random screening ends up beimg RACIAL screening, every damn time.

Unless you’re proposing screening entire airports on random days? That has a tangle of issues all its own, including people having no idea how early they need to show up for their flight, increased complaints on screening days, and an even lower chance of catching anything at all.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Cost-benefit calculations

The ones at the airport are free (depending upon ones definition of free, which might be Constitution free in these cases), but the ones where the do the cavity and entrails searches at the hospital are different. There, they think that even though some government agency ordered the searches, the searchee is the one responsible for expenses. Sure seems like they should be charging the ordering entity.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Re: Re: Cost-benefit calculations

I meant random days (my next-to-last paragraph). But your point about timing is valid.

Maybe random passengers is better.

The issue about racial profiling and “hotties” is easily addressed – make it RANDOM, not “at the whim of the officers”.

A computer uses random numbers to pick passengers to be screened. Nobody gets “randomly” screened without a printed receipt showing the computer did the picking.

Will B. says:

Re: Re: Re: Cost-benefit calculations

“The issue about racial profiling and “hotties” is easily addressed – make it RANDOM, not “at the whim of the officers”.

A computer uses random numbers to pick passengers to be screened. Nobody gets “randomly” screened without a printed receipt showing the computer did the picking.”

Either this would be a common enough occurrance that it would piss people off and cause even more kickback than the current “just scan everyone” mindset, or it wouldn’t happen often enough to actually deter anything you are worried about. If you’re really unlucky, it’ll do BOTH. Crankly, none of this is necessary or helpful; attacks on planes are vanishingly rare and the airline industry has already instituted better plans (like making plane cockpits inaccessible during flight) that make another 9/11 close to impossible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Cost-benefit calculations

the airline industry has already instituted better plans (like making plane cockpits inaccessible during flight)

Even that is debatable. It was likely responsible for 150 deaths in the Germanwings crash, and there have been instances of accidental lockouts (Delta 1651) that didn’t result in injury. Plus, now pilots can’t let people watch them fly like they used to, which is unfortunate (the "pilot shortage" that shows up in the news is probably just money-related, but it’s possible this is a factor too).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Oh, come on.

No, I stand by my statement. Cockpit lockouts are a better idea than the TSA.

I stand by your comment too, and don’t know what it has to do with the previous message. Yes, cockpit lockouts are better than the TSA, but no cockpit lockouts and no TSA might be better than that.

The "golden age" of aircraft hijacking was in the 1970s, and a bit into the 80s. And then it became rare for a decade before the TSA existed, and before the doors were armored. The form of attack used on Sept. 11/2001 was obsolete within an hour: the people of flight 93 put a stop to it.

hij (profile) says:

Pork Producers of America

I used to fly out of a tiny local airport taking puddle jumpers to the next available large airport. We even had the occasional option of sitting next to the pilot in the copilot’s seat. It also meant having to wait to get into the building until the local TSA agents arrived at the building and warmed up the equipment. For a tiny little town those extra jobs were important. It would be difficult for congress critters in rural districts to let those jobs move off to the big city.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: But..but...but...

On my neighborhood social media pages, it is a ton of that, mixed with a smattering of “It is no big deal, I always arrive three hours early and get time to read my book in line! Only criminals fear the TSA” and a bunch of “Why not just do profiling?” (A.K.A., Stop searching me, the nice white American, only search the brown folks).

Anonymous Coward says:

I wish someone would produce a Federal Government edition of the dictionary defining all the alternate meaning for the words they use. People hear “national security” and actually believe the government guniunely means protecting the people, which is often furthest from the truth. “National security”, at the Federal level primarily means protecting the Federal beauracracy, and almost always results in the trampling of a large number of people’s right.

Primo Geek (profile) says:

There are other issue besides terrorism

I agree that terrorism risk is extremely overblown. However, what makes this proposal asinine is the other risks that could escalate on the small airport to big airport runs if screening were eliminated. Domestic violence muder/suicide, people intent on taking others with them, and even old-style hijacking. Without screening, people intent on violence could take dangerous weapons and explosives that would make reliance on passenger intervention useless. Do you not think that elimination of screening would be a siren call to all the random crazys of the world? These acts would definitely increase. Maybe only a few a year (so more than the current rate of terrorism incidents) but dismissing them as worth the risk because planes have less than 60 passengers would not work out well. Personally, sitting behind someone who is muttering about armageddon while knowing they weren’t screened would not make for a pleasant flight.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: There are other issue besides terrorism

I don’t think they meant “eliminate all security procedures” but rather the “take off your shoes and go through this useless machine over here” type. Which makes total sense. I’ve been to the US among other countries and the only place you feel showing more hostility towards you other than US airports is the UK. And you don’t see planes raining down on buildings everywhere in the world.

Will B. says:

Re: There are other issue besides terrorism

Which just wheels back around to the “searching every car at state borders” argument: we have a right to be secure in our persons, and a right not to be subjected to unwarranted search and seizure. That right does not end in an airport terminal, and certainly doesn’t allow the government to create an organization to search millions of Americans every day to catch the incredibly rare hijacker; the only excuse they had for the TSA was 9/11, and simply making the cockpit inaccessible to passengers during flight took care of that.

Anonymous Coward says:

On the "hard/expensive to implement" side, think of how American airports were impacted by the advent of TSA screening: No suitable physical spaces existed, and they had to be carved out of hallways, escalator landings and storerooms – a process that still isn’t finished nearly 20 years later. In this new scheme, some domestic travelers would need to arrive at "non-sterile" (unscreened) gates, routed toward checkpoints, while the sterile among us would connect unfettered. I can’t imagine how they’d do it.

Beta (profile) says:

Asch Conformity Screening

_”With this proposal, those who have bypassed screening at smaller airports will receive the full TSA treatment when they arrive at a larger airport.”_

Oh, that makes… Wait, what?

*”So, it’s not like most passengers embarking from a small airport will bypass screening for their entire flight.”*

They will do exactly that, unless the TSA agents are going board the plane in mid-air, to demand everyone’s ID. *(It doesn’t matter who we are. What matters is our plan.)*

*”If terrorists want to take down a plane, it will be a small one flying to another small airport.”*

Or — and I’m just brainstorming here — they could board a small plane bound for a large airport, and then take it down. You know, crash it or blow it up or something. Without actually landing. So, maybe plough it straight into the departure lounge or city hall or a hospital or something, and then the TSA agents who are waiting to screen the passengers won’t actually…

I’m really not sure how much I should spell this out. Am I the only one who fails to see any sense in post-flight screening?

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