5 changes a former TSA administrator wants to make airport security easier, better

The Takeaway

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, traveling through airport security has become an “unending nightmare,” according to former Transportation Security Administration administrator Kip Hawley.

In a recent essay for The Wall Street Journal, Hawley said the current airport security system in broken and he offers suggestions to fix it.

“The system we have today serves only to make traveling unpleasant and doesn’t necessarily make us any safer,” he said.

The TSA was created after the 9/11 attacks and with it came an exhaustive list of restricted items and checks that need to be done before passengers can get on a plane. Hawley argues the TSA’s mission is not to keep every single passenger out of harm’s way but to prevent a major threat to the transportation system. He believes the restrictions at security check points are excessive.

Hawley is the author of “Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security.” He argues TSA officials are focusing their efforts on the wrong kind of threats.

According to Hawley, many everyday items are needlessly banned from airplanes.

He cites box cutters, pocketknives, scissors, and liquids as some examples. Hawley said these items are no longer a threat on flights because they no longer have the power to bring a plane down.

“The actual possibility of taking an airplane over with, I think, any blade, is not possible anymore,” Hawley said. “While it was effective in 2001 and 2002, perhaps … (today) there is no possibility that somebody’s going to hijack a plane with a blade at this point.”

Like these other items, lighters were also once banned on airplanes. However, after an assessment by the United States Congress, they have been cleared.

“It was based on the risk analysis that said that they have electronic detonators that work all the time and that a lighter is of no use really to them. And we were finding that one in three bags had lighters. The interesting thing is it took an act of Congress  — literally, an act of Congress, to get the lighters off the prohibited items list,” Hawley said. “We still have those security measures stuck in there like a brick in the wall and we need to start taking out the ones that are bypassed. It clutters up the checkpoint and makes people crazy.”

Hawley said the real imperative is not to stop a person from getting cut on a plane or even assaulted; the job is to stop a plane from being taken over and used as a weapon in a terrorist act.

“It’s the catastrophic event that you want to prevent. That’s the risk management. To what lengths are we willing to go to stop somebody getting cut on a plane versus we can make this whole thing go a lot smoother if we just focus on bombs, toxins, guns — things that can kill a lot of people or kill an aircraft,” Hawley said.

He suggested five changes to the current system that would help TSA officials focus on the right kinds of threats.

First, Hawley advocates for only banning items that have the potential to kill or injure a great number of people.

“That is going to take away a lot of the work and allow (officers) to focus on explosives,” he said.

Second, Hawley said the TSA should allow all liquids on flights.

“The technology exists to detect threat liquids. The only reason, in my view, that it’s not out there is because some have said, ‘Well, there are too many false positives, and it will slow the lines down.’ My point is, why don’t you create 2 or 3 lanes for people who don’t mind standing a little bit longer?”

Third, Hawley suggests giving TSA officers more freedom to be inventive, while also holding them accountable.

“Let these officers use their brains and not try to recite a standard operating procedure,” Hawley said.

He told the Wall Street Journal, that no other security agency has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers. That should be leveraged to encourage creativity — a skill that’s not rewarded today.

Fourth, airlines should eliminate baggage fees to make the security process go much faster and smoother, Hawley argued.

“Right now, the incentive is for people to bring everything they’ve got through the checkpoint. That just makes the lines slower and gives the officer a much more difficult time,” he said. “The lines are going to go smoother, it’s less costly, and they’ll have better security by finding more dangerous items.”

Fifth, and finally, Hawley suggests randomizing security procedures to make it more confusing for terrorists.

“Predictability is deadly,” Hawley said. “You can’t take one category of people and say, ‘They’re exempt. We’ll focus on everybody else,’ because al-Qaeda has an unlimited supply of people that can fit whatever category you select.”

Overall, Hawley contends that the current system needs to embrace risk in order to be more effective in preventing terrorist attacks.

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