Airport Security Breach

One of the problems with airport security checkpoints is that the system is a single point of failure. If someone slips through, the only way to regain security is for the entire airport to be emptied and everyone searched again. This happens rarely, but when it does, it can close an airport for hours.

It happened today at the Charlotte airport.

One sentence struck me:

Passengers on another 15 planes that took off after the breach will have to go through screening again when they reach their destinations, the TSA said.

It's understandable why the TSA would want to screen everybody once someone evades security: that person could give his contraband to someone else. And since the entire airport system is a single secure area -- once you go through security at one airport, you are considered to be inside security at all airports -- it makes sense for those passengers to be screened if they're changing planes.

But it must feel weird to have to go through screening after flying, before being able to leave the airport.

Posted on August 10, 2007 at 11:12 AM • 36 Comments

Comments

jmrAugust 10, 2007 11:19 AM

Actually, I think those people could legally refuse to be searched; after all, they no longer wish to enter a secured area. There is case law allowing people to refuse searches if they simply accept the consequence of not entering the secured area.

BelaAugust 10, 2007 11:25 AM

I'm wondering about the percentage of people being checked, the cost of the checks, and the actual payoff, in terms of disasters being prevented (or not) by these screenings. Especially since now they are adding body xray and invading our privacy with that embarassing procedure. Can other passengers see the screen while someone is being xrayed for security?

King AAugust 10, 2007 11:26 AM

Don't you think this means taking them off the plane and depositing them outside the secure area (so if that's your destination you're done and no need to re-check but if you're changing planes on a tight schedule you're hosed?). Would they really set up a one-time new security station at each gate for those incoming planes? I'm old enough to remember the stairs that roll up to the plane! Put them on a bus and take them around front. Done.

King AAugust 10, 2007 11:27 AM

Don't you think this means taking them off the plane and depositing them outside the secure area (so if that's your destination you're done and no need to re-check but if you're changing planes on a tight schedule you're hosed?). Would they really set up a one-time new security station at each gate for those incoming planes? I'm old enough to remember the stairs that roll up to the plane! Put them on a bus and take them around front. Done.

StephenAugust 10, 2007 11:53 AM

"But it must feel weird to have to go through screening after flying, before being able to leave the airport."

Yes it does, but it happens all the time in Atlanta. If you arrive on an international flight, you have to pass through security again. It's mainly there for folks making connections (I guess in case security at their origin airport wasn't up to TSA standards), but those of us who live in Atlanta have to go through security in order to leave the airport. Quite frustrating after a long transatlantic flight, immigration, customs, and baggage to find yet another long line to suffer through.

Joe BuckAugust 10, 2007 11:57 AM

This is a lot less true at most European airports, where the security checkpoints are generally pushed back to the gates. Often each individual gate is its own security zone. If there's a breach, you only have to re-check the people waiting for one flight, or maybe several where a few flights share a waiting area.

SnapperooAugust 10, 2007 12:08 PM

@Stephen: I flew on 9/22/2001, from LHR to SEA, and it took me 4.5 hours to get from the plane to curbside at my destination. It wasn't so much "weird" as crazy. I had already had a 4 hour wait at LHR on the way out.

Timmy303August 10, 2007 12:24 PM

Just in case the terrorists have a layover before their main target? Sounds odd, but then again Mohammed Atta timed his flight to reach the WTC eighteen minutes after the first crash so the little debutante could die with the maximum number of cameras pointed at him. They plan for max media impact, and if that means changing planes once or twice I have no doubt they'd do it.

JimAugust 10, 2007 12:38 PM

"I think those people could legally refuse to be searched"

Then they would likely be detained for God knows how long in some airport security facility, until somebody could question them some more. It's easier to go along with the system than fight it. All of which is why people aren't going to argue with airport security or question them. I guess you could cite case law to airport security and hope for the best. I doubt it's going to speed things up so you can get out of the situation and get home. Litigation is slow and costly.

ChadAugust 10, 2007 12:59 PM

Actually, the part of the story that most concerns me is this comment from TSA spokesman John Allen "It's too soon to say whether there was malicious intent or whether it was someone who was confused."

Or, in other words, our security is so secure that only a truly confused terrorist/dope smuggler/music downloader would be able to bypass it.

Unix RoninAugust 10, 2007 1:19 PM

These are your tax dollars at work.

These are your tax dollars sitting around in the washroom shooting up crack.

Any questions?

MichaelAugust 10, 2007 2:14 PM

This now happens in London (Heathrow) for international travelers with a stop-over. Once you get off the flight, you are directed through a security gate. Don't remember if you had to go through the search point if you were going out though...

B-ConAugust 10, 2007 2:40 PM

This happened about a month ago (June 30th) here in Sacramento. I waited an extra 45 minutes (as I recall) for my girlfriend to clear security. Well worth the wait, though. ;-)

MichaelAugust 10, 2007 2:47 PM

Like Stephen above, I went through the exiting check though the ATL was my final destination. Are they worried that someone would smuggle a weapon into the city? They also took the wine (unopened) that I had left over from my flight. Is that typical?

MadsAugust 10, 2007 4:12 PM

I've had to go through security to get off the plane and into the terminal several times when flying from Copenhagen to Schiphol. Apparently CPH doesn't (didn't?) live up to their standards and since Schiphol couldn't separate inbound passagers, they wanted another security check.
Funny when you know that Schiphol will allow people to walk in off the street and up to their roof with free overlook of all the planes parked at terminals, without any form of security check or any other forms of visible security.

Stephen SmoogenAugust 10, 2007 4:15 PM

Well it goes down to the fact that airports are not built for security, but are being retrofitted in the same way that 'Windows 98' was more secure than 'Windows for Workgroups'.

Keep adding little bandaids knowing it wont fix things but knowing that if you do not do it you will get smacked down for doing nothing.

Redesigning/rebuilding airports would cost billions of dollars that would be better spent on fixing bridges (but will be spent on pork barrel items elsewhere.)

TomCAugust 10, 2007 7:59 PM

Okay, isn't this where it gets pointless?

The current problem is bombs. The old problem was guys with weapons. We know that bomb-sniffing dogs are far better at finding explosives than TSA agents.

The cockpit doors are already hardened enough to slow hijackers down. Let's abandon the checkpoints, hire enough air marshals to put one on every flight (this is what, maybe 10,000 marshals? There are only 5-6 thousand flights in the air at a time) and put a bomb-sniffing dog at the bottom of each jetway. No more huge security theater, but rather the "cop on the beat", "community policing" approach to airline security.

If the handler also has some behavioral training, it seems you'd have a great chance of catching bombs, and I frankly don't care if you bring an Uzi in your bag, as long as you leave it in your bag.

What am I missing?

WayneAugust 10, 2007 8:49 PM

What I want to know is what happens if you don't pass the security exam? Do you have to go back to your airport of origin?

;-)

cluelessAugust 10, 2007 8:54 PM

I don't get it, but maybe I'm not supposed to.

What the hell does inspecting people AFTER they leave an airplane do? You may as well check the door seals of your submarine AFTER you're submerged.

Really, if one of the disembarking passengers was up to something nefarious, surely an incident would have occured DURING the flight. So the TSA should be inspecting the AIRPLANE, which might contain a concealed bomb or weapon that was smuggled on, not the PASSENGERS, who'd have to be freakin' idiots not to have unloaded contraband.

Yes, I'm really looking for some kind of somewhat logical answer here, because the way it's done now is utter nonsense, or magical thinking, or something completely bass-ackwards.

ydra2August 11, 2007 5:48 AM

It sort of makes sense if you want complete security. If there is a bombing in city X, then it is fair game to suspect any traveller from city X. So if the bad guys do something in your city, then you are potentially guilty by association.

This makes sense because the guilty associates would be more likely to fly from the disaster origin city than from any other random city. How could it be otherwise logically? If you are a terrorist and do something in city X, you cannot possibly be trying to flee from city Y or Z. We should not waste much time on travelers from city Y or Z, but instead concentrate on travelers originating from city X.

Of course only movie terrorist slip on an outbound airplane moments after the explosion. In reality, they would just take a car they purchased months earlier and drive away, or just sit tight for a few months.

But nevertheless, we have to assume that any traveller from a terrorist attack city is a potential suspect. Because if we don't the terrorists will know they can just hop the next flight out of town. So we're stuck and Kip Hawley is right. We just have to assume that anyone moving away from a disaster is potentially the cause of the disaster. DOH!

SkippernAugust 11, 2007 7:23 AM

@Michael: "This now happens in London (Heathrow) for international travelers with a stop-over. Once you get off the flight, you are directed through a security gate. Don't remember if you had to go through the search point if you were going out though..."

The checkpoints for arrivals on Heathrow (and a few other UK airports) is only applicable to connections, you can still leave airport without being checked.

Several other airports have also installed systems for screenings between connections, among these are Schipol in Amsterdam (where there is security control between long distance and short distance international flights, and extra security control on gates used by certain countries such as USA, Kenya and Colombia)

Steve SeidmanAugust 11, 2007 9:28 AM

This isn't exactly new. I once boarded a plane at Heathrow in the midst of the 1980s IRA emergency. The plane had a mechanical problem, so the passengers had to return to the terminal. Although we'd all been thoroughly checked before boarding the plane, we all had to be checked again before we were allowed to enter the terminal. It didn't make any sense, but was a consequence of the security protocol.

IanAugust 13, 2007 2:27 AM

A few years ago I flew from London Gatwick to Orlando. Everyone had to pass through security screening, bag X-ray, body frisking etc. as they arrived in the US. I was then allowed to go and collect my hire car. I never worked out how this helped prevent any sort of attack on the plane.

AndyAugust 13, 2007 6:07 AM

I'm reminded of the "elephant replent spray" joke about the sales man who was selling this around England with the explaination that it must be good because no elephants had been seen for ages.

bobAugust 13, 2007 11:11 AM

They said they "cleared" the terminal. Does that mean they searched it or just removed the cattle, oops, I mean customers? After all if he had contraband, he could have stashed it someplace in the terminal for a cleared person to then use on a later flight. (although the easier way to get something on a plane - such as a bomb, an AK-47 or a stainless steel kitchen sink complete with garbage disposal - is to have the completely unscreened and unsupervised ground crew just climb into the plane with it in the early hours of the morning.)

derfAugust 13, 2007 2:44 PM

They'll be checked after they land to make sure these people haven't stolen any "contraband" that rightly belongs to the TSA's eBay squad.

Peter BrombergAugust 13, 2007 5:55 PM

The bottom line is that there are evil people who want to kill us and one of their preferred methods is to blow up planes. Until somebody comes up with a better way to find them, this is what we've got. Security is imperfect in an imperfect world.

VickiAugust 13, 2007 7:01 PM

Yes, there are terrorists out there. That doesn't mean that anything labeled as an "anti-terrorist" maneuver is worth doing. I could announce that it would reduce the risk of terrorism if all travelers wore perfume, but only perfume that came in blue or black boxes. My so announcing would not actually make this a useful or believable security measure.

EvanerAugust 14, 2007 2:00 AM

Yeah, I think some are missing the point of the reverse screening at the destination. In US airports, people exit their flights on the secure or "sterile" side of security. If the passenger had gotten something through, they could potentially connect to another flight without having to be screened again. And if the airport let them off the flight and into the secure area without screening, then THAT airport security has been breached...

HarryAugust 14, 2007 7:30 AM

@ a: it makes sense that if you have already checked baggage, you can't then choose to leave the airport rather than be searched. Requiring the airport to retrieve your bags is unreasonable and allowing you to abandon your bags is unsafe.

If you only have hand baggage you should be allowed to leave.

erpAugust 15, 2007 5:31 PM

Something similar happened at Melbourne Airport on the 14th of August.

From my recollection of the TV news report, a package that hadn't been cleared or some crap got past and they put the whole airport into lockdown, even going as far as preventing planes on the tarmac about to take off from leaving the airport. they removed the passengers and all the luggage and re screened them.

Googling "Melbourne Airport Scare" pulls up plenty of relevant results.

cAugust 23, 2007 3:35 PM

My partner and I took a delta flight on 12th August from Florida to nyc. We checked our baggage in an hour before take off and proceeded to security. The queue was very long but when we asked staff whether we needed to be concerned abt missing our flight, we were told to continue to queue. There were no announcements or info on the screens so we presumed our flight had been delayed until we heard that the flight had closed + we were to proceed to check in, pay $50 each + get on the next available flight 10 hours later. BUT where were our checked in bags? They were on the flight without us!! We did get them back eventually but isnt it a breach of security for an airline to fly with the baggage belonging to passengers left behind?!! Any advice wld be great as want to bring this issue up with Delta. thanks

cAugust 23, 2007 3:40 PM

Breach of Security?
My partner and I took a delta flight on 12th August from Florida to nyc. We checked our baggage in an hour before take off and proceeded to security. The queue was very long but when we asked staff whether we needed to be concerned abt missing our flight, we were told to continue to queue. There were no announcements or info on the screens so we presumed our flight had been delayed until we heard that the flight had closed + we were to proceed to check in, pay $50 each + get on the next available flight 10 hours later. BUT where were our checked in bags? They were on the flight without us!! We did get them back eventually but isnt it a breach of security for an airline to fly with the baggage belonging to passengers left behind?!! Any advice wld be great as want to bring this issue up with Delta. thanks

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