Airport security: Is it safer post-9/11?


Security has evolved and greatly increased at U.S. airports since Sept. 11, 2oo1, but those in the industry said there are still major risk concerns.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks 17 years ago — the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil — the standard procedure only required passengers to travel through metal detectors. Today, passengers that pass through airport security checkpoints have to remove their shoes, belts and outer jackets, as well as take electronics larger than a cell phone out of their bags.

They also are limited in the amount of liquid that can be boarded and must travel through body imaging technology.

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“We’re not trying to hassle you,” said TSA explosives specialist Phil Bibbey. “This is to ensure public safety, and the safety of everybody aboard the aircraft.”

This year, the TSA added 3D X-ray technology at some airports for carry-on bag screening to protect flyers from evolving threats, said Mark Howell, TSA spokesman. In 2019, this technology is expected to be added at around 245 U.S. airports.

The 3-D technology operates like a cat scan, offering a 360 degree image compared to the flat X-ray used for carry-on baggage, Howell said.

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“The threat is constantly evolving,” Howell said. “They’re always trying to find ways to gain the system. We’re going to use the intelligence and our partners both here and abroad to stay ahead of the threat.”

Frequent travelers can avoid the in-depth screening process through pre-check, which allows flyers to keep electronics in bags, shoes on their feet and belts and jackets on. At the same time, TSA has a randomized approach where some will be pulled aside for additional screening.

“There’s a lot of layers of security now on top of what you see at the security check point, and I think that really bolsters the overall security atmosphere,” Howell said.

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There can’t be a predictable approach to security, Howell said. While its usually a result of an alarm from the technology, some flyers are randomly chosen for secondary screening like hand swabs for explosives or a pat-down.

“If you’re a terrorist, you basically watch what goes on at an airport and you look for patterns,” said Jay Ratliff, local aviation expert. “If you have individuals that they screen the same way every day then you can…find a way to bypass that security.”

But there are still major safety concerns for those in the industry, Ratliff said, with about 1 million airport workers from caterers to ramp workers touching a plane each month that don’t go through screening.

“The problem is that we still have an army of individuals who have access to the aircraft that are not screened before they go to work,” Ratliff said. “They don’t go through the screeners like everyone else does. Airports are using almost the same vernacular that they were using before with why we couldn’t screen checked bags: Can’t be done, create to much trouble, too much havoc.”

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A handful of airports such as Atlanta, which discovered a gun smuggling ring in 2014, screen every single worker before they start for the day. But most airports still aren’t doing it, Ratliff said.

“They’re sacrificing safety over costs and something going to happen and everyone’s going to scream why wasn’t something done,” Ratliff said.

A second issue that still needs addressed is the easy access to overnight aircraft, oftentimes with only a fence protecting the plane.

“We’re spending billions of billions of dollars, rightfully so, on security inside the airport,” Ratliff said. “But we are not spending enough on the outside which is where it really needs to happen.”

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