Airport Security Failure

At LaGuardia, a man successfully walked through the metal detector, but screeners wanted to check his shoes. (Some reports say that his shoes set off an alarm.) But he didn't wait, and disappeared into the crowd.

The entire Delta Airlines terminal had to be evacuated, and between 2,500 and 3,000 people had to be rescreened. I'm sure the resultant flight delays rippled through the entire system.

Security systems can fail in two ways. They can fail to defend against an attack. And they can fail when there is no attack to defend. The latter failure is often more important, because false alarms are more common than real attacks.

Aside from the obvious security failure -- how did this person manage to disappear into the crowd, anyway -- it's painfully obvious that the overall security system did not fail well. Well-designed security systems fail gracefully, without affecting the entire airport terminal. That the only thing the TSA could do after the failure was evacuate the entire terminal and rescreen everyone is a testament to how badly designed the security system is.

Posted on March 14, 2006 at 12:15 PM • 32 Comments

Comments

Michael AshMarch 14, 2006 12:53 PM

If this can be done reliably, it would be a great way to get weapons through the system. Go through the primary screening, and when selected for secondary screening melt into the crowd. Head straight for the bathrooms and dump your gun or bomb in the trash. Then you'll be evacuated and sent through screening again, at which point you'll have no contraband. After passing the screening a second time, recover your items from the trash bin and board a plane.

They could of course do a detailed sweep of the terminal before letting people back in, but I have a feeling that they don't.

Is this just a movie plot threat?

PhxMarch 14, 2006 1:08 PM

@Michael Ash

>"..a detailed sweep..."

More than once, Phoenix Sky Harbor airport has had the "melt away into the crowd" problem, and they did indeed sweep the whole terminal area, in addition to rescreening everyone. It took hours.

PerfDaveMarch 14, 2006 1:09 PM

Unfortunately, the reaction to this incident will probably be to throw more money randomly at the problem rather than to revise it sensibly.

Richard BraakmanMarch 14, 2006 1:18 PM

Not just more money. Also felony convictions for melting-into-the-crowd crimes. And RFID tags for all the passengers.

paulMarch 14, 2006 1:26 PM

The layout of many airport security stations seems to favor this kind of attack, since there's often no point where you're officially released into the concourse, just an open area for gathering your stuff from X-ray and putting your shoes back on if needed. The secondary-screening folk aren't so much a backstop to the primary ones as a parallel path to the exit line. It doesn't seem surprising that someone could just walk right through, especially on a crowded day.

This could be solved by requiring positive action by security for someone to leave the screening area, but that in turn is complicated by the fact that no one in the screening area seems to have global knowledge of who has or hasn't been passed. They know what's happened at their station, and that's it. A workable system would (one imagines) follow each person from line entry through the screening station(s) and out to an exit. (It's also struck me that the tables behind the x-ray machines would be a perfect place for people to swap luggage or other material, although I'm not sure how one might base an attack on that.)

Nick JohnsonMarch 14, 2006 1:31 PM

If they're really being paranoid about security, you'd still have to evacuate and screen the whole terminal even if you caught him before he got too far - he could've slipped the contraband to someone in the few seconds before you caught him.

For that matter, two accomplices could go through the screening one after the other, and if one gets selected, he slips the contraband item to the other one as they pick up their assorted items.

AnonymousMarch 14, 2006 1:34 PM

Note: Guy had enough time to put his shoes back on before leaving the area. Why did'nt the screener spotting a problem with the shoes pull/put the shoes aside?

Bill TimsMarch 14, 2006 2:51 PM

If you watch one of the security gates for any time, you will see that they don't have enough room to establish a decent parameter so it is very easy to have someone disappear on you. They need a single exit gate to match the entrance gate and there just isn’t enough room.

Kevin McGrathMarch 14, 2006 3:22 PM

I can't wait to read about the first airline passenger security riot that takes place at a major airline hub. Maybe then they will get real about all this airport security nonsense.

I'm betting on a Friday afternoon at LGA. :-)

Alun JonesMarch 14, 2006 3:34 PM

You'd think that a revolving door with an electronic lock would be a good answer. Can be locked remotely, without causing sliding doors to injure people, and has an interface everyone is familiar with. Only allows people through one way (if set up properly, with poisonous spikes in the third segment :-)).

ProbitasMarch 14, 2006 3:49 PM

The first report I heard on this matter said that the terminal was shut down for a brief period, until it was "determined that the man didn't pose a threat" Since I am not familiar with the terminal, does anybody know if it could be shut down and evacuated, and then have all the people rescreened in the time between 3:30 and 4:15? Knowing the efficiency of the crack TSA teams, I kinda doubt it.

Based on that, I am assuming they saw the guy go through, started the evacuation, and then decided to call the whole thing off cause it was a mid-50's white guy, clearly not a terrorist. Is this the kind of dangerous response to false alarms you have written about in the past, Bruce?

jMarch 14, 2006 4:09 PM

"Note: Guy had enough time to put his shoes back on before leaving the area. Why did'nt the screener spotting a problem with the shoes pull/put the shoes aside?"

Problem was, he melted away before they got him to take his shoes off in the first place.

Jan Theodore GalkowskiMarch 14, 2006 5:03 PM

there are other risks, too. that noone keeps track of everybody is clear. there have been many cases of people getting possessions stolen by people upstream of them, including some really valuable ones.

Plead the FifthMarch 14, 2006 5:24 PM

re PerfDave's comment about "throwing money"

Dave, the whole TSA has been massively underfunded and understaffed from the word go. Throwing money at it would only bring it up to an adequate level.

BTW: I'm a consultant to airports, so, yes, as a matter of fact, I do know what I'm talking about. I've seen, worked on and supervised the passenger simulations that calculate the number of screeners necessary. I'd estimate that at most airports TSA staff is anywhere from 1/2 to 3/4 what we've (consultants) recommended it to be.

Don't get me started on layout and equipment. It's not as bad as staffing issues, but also underfunded.

Here's an example of cost cutting measures instituted recently: In late 2004/early 2005, the TSA laid off Raytheon employees thatthe gov't had hired to evaluate the efficacy of (airport initiated) proposed passenger and hold baggage screening solutions. Who's doing it now? Non-technical bureaucrats who many times are more concerned with the politics than functionality.

So, in future, do a little research before you chime in, please.

meMarch 14, 2006 7:47 PM

If one had to walk down a long corridor, with a controllable exit after leaving the screening area, that would give screeners some time to close the exit, and prevent the person from entered the post-screened secure area, if they realized there had been a breach.

I guess in many airports such a layout is not possible.

I'd note that when leaving the plane, and after the customs station, many airports do have very long corridors to walk down, with controllable exits. This could stop people from being able to exit the secure area into the general area too quickly after leaving the customs station, and enable an airport security person some reasonable time to close the exit, and trap anyone who left the customs station within the secure area.

When entering a secure area though, such layouts are rare ...

RobertMarch 14, 2006 8:43 PM

Once going through La Guardia, the x-ray screener asked someone to check my carry-on. The woman, who looked like she hadn't been out of high school very long, unzipped my duffel bag, patted the clothes on top, and asked me if there was a gun in there.

Now, admittedly, this was pre-9/11, but I really wonder if the level of competence has improved very much since then.

ZMarch 15, 2006 12:27 AM

At Dallas-Fort Worth International, they are using a double set of doors that works as follows:
1. 1 person walks in with carryon-luggage
2. The door closes behind them.
3. The door in front opens.
4. The person walks out.
5. The front door closes.
6. The back door opens

They use it for people leaving the gate area.
It wouldn't be a stretch to have 1 of them for each x-ray lane.

erasmusMarch 15, 2006 3:10 AM

My recent experience of US terminals is limited so hopefully my observations are not typical.

But from what I've seen the layout of these places scares me. Next time you are waiting inside a terminal hall try looking for (padlocked) fire exits, sprinklers and firefighting equipment.
I hate to think that one day there will be a dreadful tragedy which is exacerbated by "security" measures.

FlyerScottMarch 15, 2006 6:55 AM

This is similar to an incident that I observed in Indianapolis in 2000: A passenger in a hurry to catch a flight ran in through the exit gate past security, who didn't bother to stop them. The entire airport was closed for several hours, all flights were held until the place was searched. Plus ca change...

It is unlikely that the overall security structures at airports will become less brittle simply because of the huge scale of operations, the usual funding problems and the often inept and corrupt management of ground operations at airports.

It is worth noting that post 9/11 the security process which used to be laughable (my favorite incident was a stoned-to-the-gills screener at Chicago's Midway Airport ceaselessly asking me "You godda clock in dere?" while looking at the X-ray screen showing what is clearly a laptop computer), is now two-tiered and somewhat standardized and concerned with quality of effort.

Previous to 9/11 all airport functions, including security, were the private fiefdom of the individual airport's management. This meant that security contracts, particularly in large urban areas, were the usual mix of payola and connections and often the services rendered were astonishingly bad. (This is one of the reasons that pilots are quietly very alarmed at the slow privatization of ATC operations under the Bush administration.)

Post 9/11 these private personnel have been relegated to checking tickets on the front end of the security line while TSA does the passenger inspections. Capable or not, well funded or not, it's a breath of fresh air to have any kind of external influence on the security operations.

I would be very surprised to see a broad scale change in the "brittleness" of airport security operations simply because there is no corresponding influence in the larger scale operations of airports, and it is unlikely that any kind of government attempt to improve this would survive lobbying efforts by airport management interests.

Moreover, I think that TSA will eventually be shouldered aside by the interests that represent the previously mentioned private security contractors with a return to the laughable inspections and reduction in airport security. The results of this, in turn, have already been demonstrated.

shoobe01March 15, 2006 11:58 AM

I don't think this would take much money to fix, just a small number of people sitting down and thinking it thru. Which is clearly not happening with a lot of airport security. Even the way that people are coralled thru the lines in the least efficient way possible (e.g. IAD) points to this lack of understanding of traffic flow and human factors.

Two examples I can think of are valuable. Customs on motor vehicles and military base security. They (often) put the car in a dedicated lane, you never back up. You have a dedicated table per inspection lane, you are told to not leave the inspection area. You are given paper that says you are being inspected, and when done they sign the box that says its all done and okay. This requires no gates, RFID tags, etc. Just paint lines, photocopiers, pens and procedures.

Similar procedures could clearly be followed at airport screening points, and might even satisfy people by making it less of a mad rush to get your shoes back on and pack your luggage. It would probably take no more room as laning people would be more efficient than the mass, multi-directional rushing taking place today.

David DonahueMarch 15, 2006 5:06 PM

My take is that is that if a system is really just theater and doesn't actually provide any security, the fixes for it's failures don't really matter. The only thing it has to do in the event of failure is some additional theater.

For example: screeners could be told to secretly hide the fact the person slipped into the crowd. Then camera logs could be pulled identifying the individual and he can be snatched up quietly later hopefully before, but if necessary, after his flight.

The thing to keep in mind always is that the screening doesn't really provide effective security, so even if he was screened and hadn't slipped into the crowd, we would still be insecure.

DonMarch 15, 2006 7:04 PM

The whole discussion of passenger screening is pretty funny, actually. Improving passenger screening at airports is like improving the locks on the front door while leaving the windows of the house wide open and unprotected.

I have on several occasions completely circumvented the passenger screening system. It is not particularly difficult but you need to do some preparation.

No one seems to be asking the question, "If I wanted to get on an airplane unopposed, how would I do it?"

And as for pilots preferring privatization of ATC, no they don't. If ATC is privatized most of the pilots of GA aircraft will opt out for financial reasons. This means that many airplanes that participate in "the system" (which improves safety) will no longer do so. The result will be an increase in "incidents".

DarlaMarch 16, 2006 12:14 AM

My last experience thru airport security was so exasperating. Going one way to pick up a car in Denver qualified me for the 'treatment'. Picture this, white haired greatgrandmother stripped to the bare breast for a half inch safety pin on my back support belt. I was seething on the inside. I asked this twit doing this search if she liked her job. Well, she says,"it pays more than McDonalds." I had to leave my purse on the counter as they were going thru my credit card folder with all my cash. Let me tell you, "airlines are on my no fly list". It takes me over nine hours to shuttle to the airport (DFW), fly to Denver, shuttle to my appointment. I can drive it in 13 hours and for a lot less money and aggravation.

Eric FergusonMarch 16, 2006 5:28 PM

Bruce wrote: At LaGuardia, a man [at screening] disappeared into the crowd. That the only thing the TSA could do after the failure was evacuate the entire terminal and rescreen everyone is a testament to how badly designed the security system is.

Isn't it even worse than that? What if this "terrorist", once in the crowd, took the "weapons" out of his shoes as planned and hid them (perhaps helped by an accomplice) in a prepared hideout within the "screened area". Unless TSA managed to do a 100% reliable search of the whole area before restarting the screening the weapons got through the checks anyway.

Not only was the failure "non-graceful", but the "patch" was fundamentally flawed.

Apparently the TSA is not even competent to diagnose such fundamentally flawed "patches", and conclude that they can just as well not apply them.

Eric


MacMarch 27, 2006 6:02 PM

Those that have commented are probably unaware of several things: TSA is constrained by budget and authority by Congress, etc. For instance, TSA is not in control of the "sweeps" you are talking about; usually it is the airport operator and their own or local law enforcement people. In addition, all of the rearranging of the checkpoints is the same, TSA has to "lease" space, and cannot force airports to construct or modify new ones either to enhance security or efficiency. Nor will Congress fund the TSA to do the construction. And forget cameras.
After 9/11 all you heard was "better security"; now it's "passenger inconvenience", "long lines", and "reduce the number of screeners".
As always, you get what you ask for and pay for.

P.S. Darla: I call b.s. on the being required to strip to a bare breast.

BiteBackJune 18, 2006 10:26 PM

I am appalled by the negativity displayed here by people. I was there when it happend and let me tell it was no picnic. I work for security and although it was something that could have been avoided it happend and the end result was the terminal was evacuated. No security is ever fool proof but we do our best to try to prevent event like 9-11. I take pride in my job and sometimes it's annoying when you hear passengers complain about getting checked and being touched. Lets not forget 9-11 changed life as we know it and no one can be trusted. Terrorist do not care who they hurt and will stop at nothing to cause as much damage as they can. Yes the mans shoes did alarm, his shoes met the criteria for secondary screening using the ETD machine. His shoes alarmed, and when they went to retrive his ID and boarding pass the man had taking off and left. Unfortunatly no one rememberedwhat he looked like.We get thousands of passengers in one afternoon and after a while faces start to look the same. No there is no excuse for what happend but the terminal was evacuated to make sure nothing was carried back in. No we do not do security sweeps in a cases like this, in these types of cases the local airport law enforcement and airport staff take care of that. They use canine bomb dogs and do a full sweep from top to botom and check all planes as well. The end result is long hours of waiting to get back in.
TSA is also short staffed in may airports due to high turn around rate. Most do not know the stresses we have to endure. We have to get tested every year on all procedures and protocol, and if we fail the first phase of re-certification your out of a job. So every year you worrying wether you will have a job or not. I know I passed mine this year and the last 2 years. Its not that I don't know my job but it is nerve racking and very stressful because you know your job is on the line. By the way the event happend at about 2:30 and passenger were all in by 5:00. It was along and ardous process but it was done in a timly and efficient manner. Plus staff was pulled from other concourses to get the passengers quickly but without compramising security. Just please think about those who are doing their job to the best of thier ability and having to be cursed out and things thrown at them simply because they are doing what they are being paid to do.

BiteBackJune 18, 2006 10:27 PM

I am appalled by the negativity displayed here by people. I was there when it happend and let me tell it was no picnic. I work for security and although it was something that could have been avoided it happend and the end result was the terminal was evacuated. No security is ever fool proof but we do our best to try to prevent event like 9-11. I take pride in my job and sometimes it's annoying when you hear passengers complain about getting checked and being touched. Lets not forget 9-11 changed life as we know it and no one can be trusted. Terrorist do not care who they hurt and will stop at nothing to cause as much damage as they can. Yes the mans shoes did alarm, his shoes met the criteria for secondary screening using the ETD machine. His shoes alarmed, and when they went to retrive his ID and boarding pass the man had taking off and left. Unfortunatly no one rememberedwhat he looked like.We get thousands of passengers in one afternoon and after a while faces start to look the same. No there is no excuse for what happend but the terminal was evacuated to make sure nothing was carried back in. No we do not do security sweeps in a cases like this, in these types of cases the local airport law enforcement and airport staff take care of that. They use canine bomb dogs and do a full sweep from top to botom and check all planes as well. The end result is long hours of waiting to get back in.
TSA is also short staffed in may airports due to high turn around rate. Most do not know the stresses we have to endure. We have to get tested every year on all procedures and protocol, and if we fail the first phase of re-certification your out of a job. So every year you worrying wether you will have a job or not. I know I passed mine this year and the last 2 years. Its not that I don't know my job but it is nerve racking and very stressful because you know your job is on the line. By the way the event happend at about 2:30 and passenger were all in by 5:00. It was along and ardous process but it was done in a timly and efficient manner. Plus staff was pulled from other concourses to get the passengers quickly but without compramising security. Just please think about those who are doing their job to the best of thier ability and having to be cursed out and things thrown at them simply because they are doing what they are being paid to do.

DinoNovember 13, 2007 9:19 PM

My recent experience with the totally unprofessional, rude and fascist screeners at Midway leaves no doubt in my mind that someone could breech security if they were really serious about it. Why? Because the morons there are too busy with hasseling real life people by confiscating little jars of saffron and making snide nasty remarks to the paying public rather than being concerned with the real issues of security.

SKYJOGGERJune 17, 2008 12:16 PM

you said all the bad things about airport security. Are there any good parts what so ever? Surely many people have been caught... I don't think maker of the security planned on it being perfect.

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