More than a decade after terrorists used planes to attack the United States, the Transportation Security Administration slowly has carved out a series of exceptions to its strict airport-screening rules, allowing some passengers to avoid at least some of the inconveniences and intrusions that rank-and-file passengers withstand.
Military personnel and anyone 12 and younger get to keep their shoes or boots on as they go through the scanners, while those 75 and older get to keep shoes and light jackets on. Then there’s the Trusted Traveler program, in which some regular fliers earn expedited screening at some airports.
But for the rest of us, the shoes-off, coats-in-bins walk-through remains, as the TSA tries to strike a balance between risk and perception, and defends itself against pointed barbs every time a passenger’s complaints of poor treatment make the news.
This week, TSA and Defense Department officials testified to Congress that they will continue searching for ways to help military troops speed through the lines after President Obama in January authorized the TSA to do so.
Bill Smullen, director of national security studies at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said reforms in TSA’s airport-screening policies are needed, though he cautioned the agency to be careful.
“A uniform and haircut do not a soldier make,” Mr. Smullen said. “Yes, you may have an ID card and that may help validate (whether a person is in the military) to a degree, but [it’s not] foolproof. So I would be very cautious making too lenient a policy.”
But Mr. Smullen, a retired Army colonel, said current screening policies are too convoluted, too complex and too imprecise. And he and other national security experts say examining ways to exempt low-risk segments of the population, such as those in the military, seniors and children, is a good first step.
The threat of terrorism “is always going to be there, but we’re punishing I think too many for things that are unlikely to happen from within” the United States, he said. “We ought to be far more concerned from a threat that is going to come from outside.”
“Most of us aren’t a threat to anyone except ourselves, probably,” he said.
Noah Shachtman, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution, a liberal-leaning Washington policy institute, applauded the loosening of airport security for some groups, saying it’s “just smart.”The agency’s move toward a more risk-based security system allows security officials more time concentrate on higher-risk categories of people, he said.
“The idea of searching through grandma’s underwear and fondling some 6-year-old kid is ludicrous,” Mr. Shachtman said. “Politically, you want to do this in steps. You want to start with the most obvious non-threats and move on from there … . We just can’t keep this (current system) up forever.”
Israel’s airport-security system, considered by many the most strict and effective in the world, uses such a risk-based approach.
TSA says it makes allowances for children and seniors based on “intelligence and history.”
“The same intelligence and history have shown us that allowing travelers in the age range of 75 and older to leave their shoes and light outerwear on, and children to leave their shoes on, poses less risk to aviation security,” TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said.
TSA adds that children and seniors will continue to undergo some level of screening.
Chris McLaughlin, TSA’s assistant administrator for security operations, told the House Homeland Security transportation security subcommittee on Wednesday that screening polices are “evolving.” He added that the new law requiring his agency to come up with a plan to whisk military personnel through airport security checkpoints was unnecessary because “we were compliant with the law before it was enacted.”
While no successful major terrorist attacks have occurred in U.S. airports, airplanes or airspace since 2001, some high-profile attempts, including the would-be “shoe-bomber” and the would-be “underwear bomber,” slipped through on-ground checks before being uncovered in the air - a point critics of “one-size-fits-all” security policies say highlights the need for reforms.
Inflexible security rules are also hurt the economy by discouraging air travel, said Lon Anderson, a spokesman with the travelers advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic.
“Our CEO has already suggested that it’s time for our current air-security system to migrate more toward a threat-based system, rather than assuming that everybody that enters the airport every day in American is an equal threat,” he said.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.