Hurricane Security and Airline Security Collide

Here's a story (quote is from the second page) where airline security is actually doing harm:

Long lines and chaos snarled evacuees when they tried to catch flights out from two of Houston's airports. After about 100 federal security screeners failed to report to work Thursday, scores of passengers missed flights and waited for hours at sparsely monitored X-ray machines and luggage conveyors. Transportation Security Administration officials were at a loss for an explanation and scrambled to send in a team of replacement workers from Cleveland.

This isn't an easy call, but sometimes the smartest thing to do in an emergency is to suspend security rules. Unfortunately, sometimes the bad guys count on that.

If I were in charge, I would have let people onto the airplanes. The trade-off makes sense to me.

Posted on September 23, 2005 at 9:10 PM • 43 Comments

Comments

ShuraSeptember 23, 2005 9:29 PM

I think that's a perfect example of an agenda, again. As you say, it would've made sense to let people onto the airplanes; however, whoever actually could've made that decision probably thought "if something happens, no matter how unlikely it may be, my head's gonna roll if it turns out I let people onto the planes without screening - but if I don't, then the worst that'll happen is that there'll be an annoying delay for hundreds of people, but that doesn't affect me personally".

An understandable decision, and I'm reasonably sure I would've acted the same way if I had been in charge, but still an unfortunate one for those who missed their flights and had to wait.

Jeff PettorinoSeptember 23, 2005 10:02 PM

Agreed, and I would add that it is really a shame that the blame-game is so prevelant in our society that people who are in the position to make these decisions are so concerned about being crucified for making a mistake that they hesitate when it turns out to be the greater harm than making a decision and acting for the immediate good.

Roy OwensSeptember 23, 2005 10:29 PM

The absent screeners could have been following the government order to evacuate. If so, I don't blame the screeners for submitting to authority.

If the people planning disaster responses failed to realized that ordering *EVERYONE* to evacuate might result in some of the people they'd want to remain behind getting the hell out of Dodge, then the planners are at fault.

The way things have been going with Katrina and now Rita, I don't expect DHS to get much better until they've got fifty or a hundred large-scale disasters under their belt. They do learn, but they do not learn fast. I'd rate them as 30% as smart as a chicken.

Good thing these were natural disasters. Obviously, if terrorists attacked on a large scale, DHS would only make things worse.

gopiSeptember 24, 2005 3:27 AM

This makes me think of the do-it-yourself security checkpoints I saw pictures of at, I believe, a hacker conference. They should have just turned on the x-ray machines that were off and let worried passengers self-inspect.

Michael AshSeptember 24, 2005 5:03 AM

They need to remember that the main purpose of security screening is deterrence, not prevention. It's highly unlikely that an evildoer will attempt to sneak a bomb on board during a hurricane evacuation. One, because he has no reason to suspect that security procedures could be suspended. Two, he'll probably be too busy trying to stay alive. Three, he won't have enough time to plan anything nefarious, since natural disasters rarely give significant advance warning. So I agree that suspending security rules would be reasonable in this case.

Saar DrimerSeptember 24, 2005 5:26 AM

The guy in charge is not thinking of security trade-offs, but the trade-off of his head being chopped off.
His decision is one of the simplest he had to take.
If he lets people on board w/o checks, and (however unplausible) something (a lighter is smuggled on board) happens, he's done.
If he doesn't, he's safe and would not be held accountable, because no on would claim it is his fault. Also, the airlines are accustomed to dealing with such delays.
Easy choice from his perspective, and I would be surprised if _in his shoes_ many would do otherwise...

gpmSeptember 24, 2005 6:39 AM

I am in Houston and involved with private security here. Remember when they "Nationalized" the screeners so that they would be "more professional". AWOL when "it" hits the fan is not professional.
On the other side of the coin, I am not aware of any private security firm having abandoned their posts due to Rita.

Roy OwensSeptember 24, 2005 6:52 AM

We the people discover Homeland Security's plans to protect us only after they are implemented and the failures come to light and are reported in the news. These plans need to be made public ahead of being implemented as a reality check. There are millions of people out there who would, for free, check the plans for inconsistencies, mistakes, unchecked assumptions, and so on.

These plans cannot be 'state secrets', so why are they kept under wraps until they are unleashed?

Mary RSeptember 24, 2005 7:00 AM

I remember reading in an article about Katrina that the airlines let their people in a hurricane affected city go home to deal with evacuating, and flew in people from other cities to work the counters, baggage, etc. They were then the last flight out. Clearly, security needs to be handled in the same manner.

But this is the sort of thing that shows the weakness in FEMA/DHS. Nobody appears to have thought about this issue. The airlines obviously did, however.

This is part of the problem of handling security under a law enforcement model. It might not occur to someone used to the police/military world that a $10/hour baggage handler might evacuate rather than come to work. We end up with the security law enforcement wants to give us, not the security we need.

Peg KerrSeptember 24, 2005 7:30 AM

Here is an article:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9389157/

which mentions at the end that they were insisting on putting wheelchair patients being evacauated from hospitals through metal detectors.

Yesh, I'd agree. At this point, evacuation safety concerns need to outweigh the risk of a terrorist deciding to strap a bomb to himself and infiltrate a group of patients in a hospital.

MathFoxSeptember 24, 2005 8:26 AM

We see bad evacuation planning where services essential for the evacuation are shut down before the evacuation is complete. People performing essential services should be the last to leave the area; I include gas station employees there.
Anyway, they learned in Texas to evacuate the hospitals.

Chris WalshSeptember 24, 2005 9:11 AM

How realistic is it to expect semi-skilled people making low wages to hang around when everyone else is told their lives are in imminent danger?

If screening is so important, there should be a plan in place to replace the everyday screeners with forces who are trained for these special circumstances and are compensated accordingly.


RobSeptember 24, 2005 9:37 AM

I wonder if it even occurred to anyone to suspend the security screenings. By this point I think most people just think of the security checkpoints as the natural thing that must be done before people get on a plane.

daveSeptember 24, 2005 10:31 AM

There are many plans and things that these two storms let us take a look at. I doubt if we really study the problems enough and I agree with the above post. You can't expect to pay low wages and demand dedication AND they might not have been able to get to work. I guess you get what you pay for.

drjat42September 24, 2005 12:16 PM

It seems to me they could have just required ALL luggage to be checked. That way they wouldn't have needed X-Ray trained security personnel. Just about anyone could have run the metal detecors.

elwingSeptember 24, 2005 1:12 PM

At worst, they suspend screening at the affected airports, and the planes landing from those airports be "quarantined" at the destination where all passengers must go through security again.

Tethered RoseSeptember 24, 2005 1:26 PM

@Roy:

"The way things have been going with Katrina and now Rita, I don't expect DHS to get much better until they've got fifty or a hundred large-scale disasters under their belt. They do learn, but they do not learn fast. I'd rate them as 30% as smart as a chicken."

! That is really funny! And so true!!

How can we help?

jammitSeptember 24, 2005 3:08 PM

Roy Owens doth quoted "I'd rate them as 30% as smart as a chicken."
Hey, give the chickens some credit. The problem that everybody here pretty much agree's upon is that the security checks should have been abandoned (or at least given up on it after things started getting hairy). The sad thing here is that the guy responsible for the security checks wasn't there to make a decision. Sure, the airport screeners were there, but they can't make any decision on their own. Anything they do out of the ordinary (including the number of sheets of toilet paper they use) has to be filled out in triplicate, one copy sent to the homeland security by mail (but don't ask where the mailing address is because it's a national secret), one copy kept for personal records (which is normally lost and then later found by someone bad), and the third buried in peat moss for five weeks. The underlying problem is that the big guy makes a decision that can get the little guy fired whether the little guy followed orders against better judgement or succumbed to his better judgement and throws the damn rules out the window. We need to hold the chief accountable for his braves actions.

Bruce SchneierSeptember 24, 2005 4:07 PM

"At worst, they suspend screening at the affected airports, and the planes landing from those airports be "quarantined" at the destination where all passengers must go through security again."

Yeah; that would be my solution too. The problem is that the arriving airports don't have any system in place to deal with unscreened arrivals, so they'll have to be making it up as they go along too.

kd5bjoSeptember 24, 2005 4:33 PM

"Yeah; that would be my solution too. The problem is that the arriving airports don't have any system in place to deal with unscreened arrivals, so they'll have to be making it up as they go along too."

If the plane arrived at its destination safely, there is no need to screen the passengers who are disembarking, as long as they are escorted immediately to the "unsecured" part of the terminal. From there, they can either leave the airport or go through security like any other passenger that just arrived at the airport (via car/bus/whatever).

I am fairly certain that there used to be some small airlines that operated like this, flying people from community airports that were too small to have a security station.

TerlesonSeptember 24, 2005 4:59 PM

... "security" against 'what' ??

How many hijackings/attempted have the TSA screeners prevented in the past 4 years ?

ZERO !

It is a very "easy call".

Cancel the ineffective, unnecesary, and illegal airline security screenings.

If you're still paranoid -- arm the pilots on each plane.

It is an easy call.

bacSeptember 24, 2005 4:59 PM

Another possible terrorist attack plot is causing major grid lock on the highways that will be used to evacuate people. Even though it was not terrorist related but a bus did blow up on one of the highways. The incident did delay traffic. There were also vehicles running out of gas on the highways because the traffic was moving to slow. What kind of an incident would it take to cause enough of a delay on the highways to keep people in harms way?

America needs to learn how to do large detailed planning. Hurricane planning should be done every year starting in January. Maps of the high ground in the local area should be handed to the people. People should know where they will be going and staying during and after the storm. The planners should figure out how to evacuate large numbers of people from a large area within a couple of days time. The problems are hard but we need to learn how to conquer them or learn to live with the consequences.

ErasmusSeptember 24, 2005 6:25 PM

Houston used to be a really friendly airport - post 9-11 it has been infested with the meanest, stoopidest, petty TSA workers I have seen of many other US airports. It surprises me not one jot that many got out when the going got tough.

I've been bridled by their incompetence and attitude on both arrivals and departures. Just one example of many of my experiences of their 'great' attitude - 4 long-haul flights dump 1,000's simultaneously into the arrivals hall. The few US passport holders get through fairly quickly, leaving maybe 10-15 officials available to process the rest of us. In the hour's wait I entertain myself noting emergency exits (all padlocked) and fire-fighting/suppression capabilities (no sprinklers, no visible extinguishers). Meanwhile pocket-sized tyrant jangles up and down the lines making sure that no-one puts a foot over their carefully-drawn yellow marks, shouting at folks to fill in their forms, telling then not to laugh (!) and checking they have entered the 5+4-digit zip code and exact postal address of their destination. Of course even the trippers who can understand Texian English rarely have an idea of what a properly formatted US address looks like and many get sent to the back of the line as a punishment. As I was renting an RV I quietly invented a local address that she was quite happy with. 8-)
I can't imagine anyone wanting to spend 24 hours locked down in a hurricane with such a supervisor.

BrettSeptember 24, 2005 8:51 PM

I live in Houston (Pasadena actually -SE of Houston). This should tell you something of the "intelligence" of the people running the show. On Wed. night we got a recorded message that we were going to be under a maniditory evacuation at 6:00 am. If we choose to leave before 6:00 am we could go any way we wanted, if we left after we had to go the way they choose. Being of a little above average intelligence I decided my way would be better than theirs. With a little planning I made it to our "safe place" (north houston by Intercontinental airport) in 1 1/2 hours. I never got on a freeway. Talking with others from the same area, it took them anywere from 8 to 24 hours to make the same trip on the "forced" route. The freeways.

If the screeners were listining to the same "news" casts as I was, no wonder they were gone.

The people in charge (mayor, police, DHS, etc) used no common sense at all. A city with at least 6 major ways to leave and several other not so major ways to get out, and gridlock for 12+ hours on each one. Now they trying to tell people when they can come back by where they live within the area. The reasoning is that there is not much gas and, electricty is out in some places, and stores need to be restocked. Now, if "everyone" is evacuated and isn't allowed to come back, who is going to restock the food, who is going to man the gas stations?? On my trip back home this morning (no I didn't listen to them) I saw very little damage and most places had power. I know a lot of people do not have power from what I got from the radio (given up on the tv news) about 600,000 in the area out of 5-7 million? don't have power. Maybe next time the "leaders" will have a better understanding of they are doing but this time all they did this time was get a whole city to ignore them the next time it happens.

I know, a little rambling and off the point.

Paul OSeptember 24, 2005 10:25 PM

Tell ya what: let's make security screening optional whenever there's a backlog on days that end in a "y". After all, the odds of any problem are less than a million to one. (Well, worse than that: hundreds of millions of passengers fly in the US every year without any problem.)

Which means, really, that we don't need security screening at all! Yaay! We'll all save all sorts of time.

After all, it's the screening that's the problem. !?!?!?

How stupid can we all claim to be, and still pretend to have intelligence?

The airport shut down hours after people cleared security: there was absolutely no problem with the screening. And airport officials made every effort to ensure that anyone who couldn't make it onto a flight had an option to escape the region, either on their own or with help from the airport authority.

If you want to eliminate security screening at airports, just say so. Don't bother quoting statistics; we all know that the stats show its complete ineffectiveness. Personally, I don't mind it.

B-ConSeptember 24, 2005 11:05 PM

"At worst, they suspend screening at the affected airports, and the planes landing from those airports be "quarantined" at the destination where all passengers must go through security again."

Um, am I missing something, or doesn't that kind of negate the advantage of screening people? People are screened to prevent them from getting weapons onto the plane, not to prevent them from moving weapons from point A to point B. If someone were going to hijack an airplane, it would probably be in the air, before it lands and before he has to leave it.

Tethered RoseSeptember 25, 2005 10:04 AM

@ Paul O
"If you want to eliminate security screening at airports, just say so."

I like security screening. I'm never doing anything wrong. I like waiting; as long as it's because someone is looking out for my safety. I don't like waiting when I notice it's because a bunch of idiots are in charge and not only do they not care about me, but what they're doing is actually causing more vulnerabilities to my safety.

Tethered RoseSeptember 25, 2005 10:15 AM

Seriously, folks,

If it's "Theive or be theived" just say so.

If it's "Every Man for himself" then just say so.

If it's "Deceive or be deceived", "Manipulate or be manipulated" just get it on out there.

It can't just be a "dog eat dog world" out there. There are CATS out here, too. And we're getting tired of it.

Tethered RoseSeptember 25, 2005 10:35 AM

@ Brett

I think you make several good points worth reiterating:

"With a little planning I made it to our "safe place" (north houston by Intercontinental airport) in 1 1/2 hours. I never got on a freeway. Talking with others from the same area, it took them anywere from 8 to 24 hours to make the same trip on the "forced" route. The freeways."

Generally speaking (minus health related topics), when you're being "forced" to do something 9.5 out of 10 times it's a Bad Idea.

"If the screeners were listining to the same "news" casts as I was, no wonder they were gone."

The "news" cannot (and never could) be trusted.

"The people in charge (mayor, police, DHS, etc)"

Who else?

"On my trip back home this morning (no I didn't listen to them) I saw very little damage and most places had power."

Exactly. Again I request "Who else?"

"Maybe next time the "leaders" will have a better understanding of they are doing but this time all they did this time was get a whole city to ignore them the next time it happens."

The new leaders will. Once the old ones give up, give in, or just die of old age (hopefully before they infect others with their "selfish greed", "wreckless cluelessness", and "clueful wrecklessness").

And I'm not just talking about Politicians. I think we all know what we're really talking about, here.

(I think my social anxiety meds are kicking in now.. it's been 4 days).

RyanSeptember 25, 2005 11:28 AM

Why is everyone so afraid that they can't help people in trouble? It's time for America (and others) to remember what we are founded on.. freedom.. including from our government.

".. those who give up thier freedom in exchange for security shall have and deserver neither".. B.Franklin

Tethered RoseSeptember 25, 2005 11:48 AM

@Ryan,

I know every word that Ben Franklin has ever spoken, written, or intended.

Thank you once again for the third reminder of that specific quote of his.

We all know what we are founded on. But we cannot trust our Government or Big Business or our Churches (which of course is just a dynamic blend of Government and Big Business and should go without saying but cannot).

They will hurt us for speaking out and trying to help all of us who are in trouble.

They don't have to hurt us with guns or atomic bombs or knives or arrows or poisons or by removing freedoms and causing inequalities, etc.

They all do more pshycological warfare damage than anything I've ever before witnessed, seen, or heard of in my entire existance.

Those of us who can, do and try to help. I myself am quite limited in the areas in which I can help, so I stand on my little soap box in my safe place I call home and take medication for my social and general anxiety disorders, and wait for my periods of depression to lapse.

another_bruceSeptember 25, 2005 12:08 PM

@ tethered rose
know every word ben franklin spoke, wrote or intended, do you? are you aware of his classic tribute to older women?

Tethered RoseSeptember 25, 2005 3:38 PM

@ another_bruce

"are you aware of his classic tribute to older women?"

well... Thank You. But.... unfortuneately, not everybody else is. :(

Also, when you look half your age, it confuses people.

LArry the UrbaniteSeptember 25, 2005 6:53 PM

Y'all have missed two important issues here. In no particular order

1) The TSA IS allowed to use "alternate" screening procedures in certain situations. 100 people no-showing qualifies. In the interests of nat'l security (such as it is these days), I'll not go in to details but it would have speeded things up. Let's just say the sreening would not always be quite as in depth, so you might would miss the fully pre planned Atta's of the world, but you'd still catch the other 95%+ of the loonies (Richard Rieds) out there. (On the other hand, the Atta's of the world wouldn't plan on doing it during a hurricane and thus they wouldn't be there anyway, so it's all good). Why they didn't go to these alternate methods is probably due to poor planning on the (local) TSA's part (due to underfunding by the usurpistration. You know, the one's that say they are "protecting America". If they were really interested in protecting America, they'd fund the TSA the way it needs to be, not what conservative fiscal policy demands it to be. But I digress...)

2) If people can afford a plane ticket out of Dodge, they're in pretty good shape and a little wait won't kill them. Perhaps we should be more concerned about the less fortunates? Hmmm?

RobinSeptember 25, 2005 10:08 PM

@Michael Ash:
I'm not necessarily saying they were right to continue screening here, but...

> It's highly unlikely that an evildoer will attempt to sneak a bomb on board during a hurricane evacuation.

The question isn't whether or not it's unlikely, but whether the overall cost/benefit is positive. Something like:
P(bombing attempted per year) x (cost of bombing) > cost of screening per year
So if the cost of a bombing is much greater than the cost of screening (which it is), it can still be sensible to screen even if the probability of a bombing is very small. I've seen some example numbers which show that screening would be a good idea even if bombings only occurred twice per century. Of course, that doesn't mean screening is the best way to prevent bombings, just that it does make sense to do something.

> One, because he has no reason to suspect that security procedures could be suspended.

That's commonly called "underestimating the opponent". Not all terrorists are stupid. Sometimes, the smart ones are even in charge.

> Two, he'll probably be too busy trying to stay alive.

Heard of suicide bombers?

> Three, he won't have enough time to plan anything nefarious, since natural disasters rarely give significant advance warning.

Nearly 4 days passed between the first evacuation warnings for Rita (in the Keys) and the snarl up on the 22nd. It doesn't take more than a couple hours to ring up half a dozen terrorist buddies, tuck a pistol down your pants and throw a sawed off shotgun or a couple of grenades into your carry-on bag. Heck, if you know what you're doing you can probably make a knapsack sized bomb in about a day.

Richard BraakmanSeptember 26, 2005 6:04 AM

I'd add that someone who is planning a bombing doesn't have to wait for any _particular_ natural disaster. If it's known that screening is often suspended during evacuations, then one could plan an attack long in advance, and execute it when the opportunity arises.

That said, I'd personally rather take the risk of a bombing than the risk of being stuck in a disaster zone. The big question here is whether speeding up boarding will allow more people to escape. That depends a bit on the imminence of the disaster, the capacity of the airport, and the number of flights available.

Larry the UrbaniteSeptember 26, 2005 11:04 AM

In reply to Robin:

- Your cost factor needs to include the psychological effect that a bombing would have. More bombings means less air travel, means bad economy. That's probably why screening is always gonna win out. It's like insurance. The chance of an earthquake/flood/fire etc is small, but it's worth it to pay a little (relatively) now. (Hmm, wish Bush hadn't cut the levee funding to pay for the war in Iraq. Oops, did I say that out loud).

Suspending screening would be, frankly, ludicrous. Yes, heavily financed and carefully planned bombers could get through regular screening(as the Red Team routinely proves), it's primarily the crazies that u are going catch, and there are a lot more of them.

"They won't have enough time to plan,....." This is exactly my point. The planned terrorists are not going to try to go during a natural disaster, because they cannot anticipate what the chaos at the airport may throw at them. The crazies may (and could) try on short notice however, thinking they can take advantage of the chaos. That is why you cannot suspend screening. Think of it as a prison break or bank heist movie. The escapees/criminals either plan things out to the nth degree, expoiting a weak point in the system, to which there is very little defense (other than strengthening the system), or the escappees/criminals try to pull it off after a diversion. The latter has a lower chance of success IF U DON"T LET YOUR GUARD DOWN.

ChrisSeptember 26, 2005 12:52 PM

Larry, I think what you meant to say is "Hmm, wish the Sierra Club hadn't sued the Army Corps of Engineers in 1996 to keep them from strengthening the levees" or perhaps "Hmm, wish those fishermen hadn't sued the Army Corps of Engineers in 1977 to keep them from building a 25-mile-long barrier to protect the Eastern side of New Orleans and making them cancel that project."

Major public works projects like building or exhancing levee systems always include a period of several years to allow for citizen comments on the project. Esenntially nothing happens for a couple of years while everyone debates the proposed project. You may disagree with the war in Iraq, and that's fine, but two-year-old funding for that action wouldn't have affected any plan to enhance the levee system in New Orleans.

IanSeptember 26, 2005 3:08 PM

@ Tethered Rose

"But we cannot trust our Government or Big Business or our Churches (which of course is just a dynamic blend of Government and Big Business and should go without saying but cannot)."

And here I was thinking your Government was a dynamic blend of Big Business and Churches!

APOSeptember 26, 2005 8:00 PM

"Semi-skilled people making low wages" who "can't make any decision on their (sic) own?"

Come on, folks. Why is it that whenever the topic of airline security comes up, I seem to detect a nasty streak of class prejudice?

Who knows under what pressures these folks were operating? Were they allowed to weigh the values of job, life and family, as were most people in Houston? Were they considered "essential personnel" and ordered to stay? I doubt it. Certainly they were not valued or paid as such.

Why not have a little compassion and think of the people who screen your belongings as human beings? Just because you have the money to fly doesn't make you better than those who enable you to safely board your plane.

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