If the Transportation Security Administration changed its screening protocols, it could improve airport security while simultaneously lifting pressure on overworked baggage screeners who allegedly violate security rules, the agency’s former administrator argues.
Kip Hawley, who led the TSA from 2005-2009, believes the airport security system established after 9/11 is in “critical need of an overhaul.” Baggage screeners are expected to look for small items that rarely or never represent genuine threats — a tedious job that Hawley says “dulls their edge.”
Instead, Hawley believes screeners should be retrained to evaluate passengers’ behavior, a technique that has made Israeli airport security the world’s best.
While a radical reworking of U.S. aviation security may sound odd coming from the man who once presided over that very system, security experts agree that a 9/11-style hijacking is now virtually impossible since cockpit doors were reinforced soon after the attacks. Subsequent terrorist plots, previously classified but revealed in Hawley’s new book, “Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security,” back up the idea that the main threats to airport security are now liquids and bomb components, not sharp objects.
In an interview, Hawley said his old agency’s current methods have alienated the public, building up resentment when passenger cooperation is essential to good security.
By shortening the list of prohibited items, security screeners would only have to search bags that set off alarms for possible explosives, thereby speeding up airline boarding and freeing officers to focus on the “really dangerous items,” Hawley said.
Efficiency could also be improved by creating a separate line for passengers who want to bring liquids on board and by eliminating checked baggage fees, which lead passengers to stuff their carry-ons full of objects that confuse and delay screeners, he said. Hawley also favors eliminating shoe removal requirements and invasive pat-downs, and approving most of the items on the prohibited list — including knives and even baseball bats.
And if changes were made to TSA protocols, which private security firms also must follow, Hawley said airports could process bags much faster, relieving pressure on screeners.
Last year, some 28 TSA screeners were dismissed for deliberate violations of security protocols at Honolulu International Airport. And closer to home, screeners with Covenant Aviation Security, the company contracted to protect San Francisco International Airport, now claim that security breaches have become a routine occurrence at the airport.
Two weeks ago, following a year of inquiries by The San Francisco Examiner, federal officials allegedly began investigating the airport’s baggage screening operation.
The SFO screeners claimed that their supervisors encouraged them to violate the TSA’s screening protocols to maintain efficiency ratings with an inadequate staff. Hawley says whether or not such accusations are true, the security system’s wider flaws are no excuse for bad behavior.
“If individuals who have important security jobs elect not to do their job for whatever reason — to improve their metrics or because they are lazy — it’s not a problem with the system,” Hawley said. “Those are people who need to be identified and prosecuted.”