Tuesday, November 30, 2010


One more on airport screening

While passengers and crew alike have their naked images scrutinized and their genitals fondled, in Salon’s Ask the Pilot column Patrick Smith tells us that the people who clean and fuel the airplanes, and other ground crew with access to the secure parts of the airports, are not screened at all:

And by contradictory, here’s some blockbuster news: Although the X-ray and metal detector rigmarole is mandatory for pilots and flight attendants, many other airport workers, including those with regular access to aircraft — to cabins, cockpits, galleys and freight compartments — are exempt. That’s correct. Uniformed pilots cannot carry butter knives onto an airplane, yet apron workers and contract ground support staff — cargo loaders, baggage handlers, fuelers, cabin cleaners, caterers — can, as a matter of routine, bypass TSA inspection entirely.

These people are investigated when they’re hired, of course:

All workers with airside privileges are subject to fingerprinting, a 10-year criminal background investigation and crosschecking against terror watch lists. Additionally they are subject to random physical checks by TSA. But here’s what one apron worker at New York’s Kennedy airport recently told me:

All I need is my Port Authority ID, which I swipe through a turnstile. The ‘sterile area’ door is not watched over by any hired security or by TSA. I have worked at JFK for more than three years now and I have yet to be randomly searched. Really the only TSA presence we notice is when the blue-shirts come down to the cafeteria to get food.

We certainly know that people cleared with background checks and such can be corrupted, even those who go through rigorous processes and are well paid: consider Aldrich Ames, for example. We have to assume that anyone can fall victim to corruption, coercion, or blackmail... or can, say, be kidnapped and have his credentials stolen and used by someone else. If security screening has any value:

  1. Everyone who enters the secure area from outside must be screened.

    That includes ground crew, that includes flight crew (yes, pilots too), and that includes the screening staff themselves.

  2. People must be screened every time they cross the boundary.

    It’s not sufficient to check them when they come to work in the morning, and assume that’s good for the day. Someone can go through screening, pop out, and pick up a bomb or a gun. If they can go back in without screening, we’re allowing an enormous hole in the system.

You will say — pilots will say — that the pilots can crash the planes anyway, so what’s the point of checking them at all? Well, we don’t need to stop them from bringing in butter knives and fingernail clippers... but, then, we don’t need to stop regular passengers from doing that either. But there are other people in the cockpit who might stop an unarmed pilot from crashing the plane. And let’s not assume that the threat model involves just the crashing of a single plane: perhaps a pilot might be given bomb materials to bring into the airport so that others — who have been screened — can pick them up inside the secure perimeter and blow up many planes, or a large portion of the airport.

Screening does limit the threat, but only if we screen reasonably (stopping a dull butter knife but not a sharpened pencil, for example, is just silly), and only if we screen everyone.

Or else let’s admit that the screening isn’t the answer, and focus on other things. Does anyone really advocate tossing out the screening entirely?


Brent said...

We keep hearing about multiple layers of security, but as with software, there always seems to be a back door left open.

Sue VanHattum said...

Oh, don't tell them pencils are worse than butter knives! Pretty soon we won't be able to bring pens and pencils onboard.

I already hated flying. My family is in Michigan, and my son and I are in California. I feel a need to fly back twice a year. I wonder how bad it will have to get before I change that to once a year.