Thousands of missed flights. Mile-long waiting lines at airports. Then just when Americans are ready to scream over passenger screening delays, another aircraft goes down in the Middle East, hammering home the difficulty of balancing airline accessibility with security.
The media are doing their usual job of reporting on the passenger congestion at our airports — while attributing the situation to not enough Transportation Security Administration screeners, or that too many TSA screeners are quitting and not being replaced fast enough. In other words, it’s an “screener problem.” Or, as the TSA responds, it’s now a “passenger problem”: There are just too many of us for the TSA to deal with— hence the confusion and long lines.
While this may have something to do with the immediate situation, the root cause of this chaos goes back many years — to the post-September 11 policy decisions about how we should approach basic airline passenger security and safety. This was because the September 11 killers got on board four domestic airplanes with the crude weapons they needed to hijack the planes and turn them into weapons of mass destruction — killing more than 3,000 of us on that fateful day.
The TSA was then faced with two basic policy approaches — and still is, despite choosing one over the other, which mostly explains the long lines today.
This is not rocket science: The TSA could have gone with the Israeli-European approach, which is focused on knowing more about who is flying on their airplanes, but the agency rejected it. Instead, officials decided to focus primarily on intensive physical security for all passengers, including invasive body searches, resulting in long lines and short tempers.
When this decision was made in the wake of September 11, it was believed that Americans would simply not tolerate the requirement for even rudimentary background checks for domestic passengers. Accordingly, the best we could do was to come up with “no-fly lists,” which have been notoriously unreliable.
So, Mr. and Mrs. America, do you really want more rapid and efficient check-ins at our airports? If the groundswell answer to this is “yes,” then we will need to change our basic policy for airline safety to the Israeli-European model and require more background information about our passengers. This won’t mean the end of screeners and physical security, but it should reduce airport passenger congestion and enhance overall safety for air travel in the United States.
There’s another aspect to this that most Americans don’t get — including our Congress: Owing to our physical security approach to airline safety, the Europeans refuse to share their more detailed passenger information with us. This essentially because we have nothing useful to share with them — except information from our occasionally goofy “no-fly list.”
On the other hand, the Europeans would be glad to share what they know about their domestic passengers (which is a heck of a lot more than we know about our own passengers) if we would first, create a system such as theirs to protect the privacy of domestic passenger personal data, and second, exchange equivalent data about our own international passengers with them. But we are reluctant to do this.
In fact, because of our focus on physical security, we are in the distinct minority in the world when it comes to how best to approach airline passenger safety and the threat from terrorism. Ironically perhaps, the Europeans might also need to study what we’ve learned about breaches in physical security, which might have been a factor in the recent EgyptAir crash. It has been reported that the doomed airplane had made several stops in the Middle East in the 24 hours before the crash, suggesting a strong possibility of terrorism.
Bottom line: This latest clog at our airports is simply another very basic post-September 11 “reality check” for us Americans in the privacy-security dynamic, which most other countries know is critical to dealing with the threat of sophisticated terrorism in the air. The Israeli-European approach to air travel and passenger safety may work better than our primary focus on labor- and time-intensive physical security. We and the Europeans need an effective balance of both approaches to enhance our air safety.
We need to have confidence that our commercial aircraft passengers have no links to terrorism, and we need to know this about the passengers before they get to the airport. This is a better policy approach than to assume every passenger may have an explosive device or weapon hidden somewhere on their person or in their carry-on luggage. Because the ultimate objective is safety, all commercial aviation in the world should adopt an appropriate mix of shared passenger information and focused physical security to address the increased terror threat to air travel.
• Daniel Gallington served in senior national security and intelligence policy positions. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois College of Law and is a member of the external advisory board of the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute.