Back in January I reviewed a report from the Reason Foundation entitled “Airport Security: Time for a New Model” by Robert Poole, Jr. While the report had some decent ideas in it, I argued at the time that two of the report’s major ideas – privatizing the TSA workforce and moving away from 100% screening of checked baggage – were flawed and irresponsible.
The extent to which these two ideas are flawed and irresponsible has become more evident in the wake of the UK aviation plot. The argument in favor of privatized screening in the U.S. is weakened by the performance of the private British screening workforce, which fared more poorly at adjusting to the new aviation security rules than did the TSA.
And the argument in favor of eliminating 100% screening of checked baggage runs counter to everything that we know about this plot and about how terrorists think. If there is a loophole or vulnerability in the security system, then terrorists will attempt to exploit it, as they wanted to do with liquid explosives. By eliminating 100% screening of checked baggage, new vulnerabilities would be created. For example, if screening was done based on passenger risk scores, terrorists might work over time to develop low-risk profiles so that there bags would not be screened, and we could see a repeat of a Lockerbie-style attack.
“This situation (in London) shows a flaw and the inconsistency of U.S. aviation security policy of putting far more emphasis on checked baggage than on carry-ons,” Poole said in a telephone interview. “The current policy requires screening of all checked baggage but only spot-checks for explosives of carry-ons and virtually no checking for what people might have beneath their clothes.
“Thus, it focuses on the pre-9/11 world in which the threat is seen as the Pan Am/Lockerbie type — hide a bomb in somebody’s checked suitcase — rather than the post-9/11 reality of suicide bombers, willing to go down with the plane.”
It’s true that passenger screening needs to be improved, but not at the expense of checked baggage screening. It’s not an either/or proposition – instead all vulnerabilities need to be tackled in a consistent manner, one that acknowledges that dormant threats could reemerge if procedures are changed.
Because our resources are finite, there certainly needs to be a smart, risk-based approach to aviation security. I agree with Poole on that point. But his belief that reduced security for checked baggage is with this kind of risk-based approach is flat out wrong.