"Where Should Airport Security Begin?"

In this essay, Clark Ervin argues that airport security should begin at the front door to the airport:

Like many people, I spend a lot of time in airport terminals, and I often think that they must be an awfully appealing target to terrorists. The largest airports have huge terminals teeming with thousands of passengers on any given day. They serve as conspicuous symbols of American consumerism, with McDonald’s restaurants, Starbucks coffee shops and Disney toy stores. While airport screeners do only a so-so job of checking for guns, knives and bombs at checkpoints, there’s no checking for weapons before checkpoints. So if the intention isn’t to carry out an attack once on board a plane, but instead to carry out an attack on the airport itself by killing people inside it, there’s nothing to stop a terrorist from doing so.

[...]

To prevent smaller attacks -- and larger ones that could be catastrophic -- what if we moved the screening checkpoints from the interior of airports to the entrance? The sooner we screen passengers’ and visitors’ persons and baggage (both checked and carry-on) for guns, knives and explosives, the sooner we can detect those weapons and prevent them from being used to sow destruction.

This is a silly argument, one that any regular reader of this blog should be able to counter. If you're worried about explosions on the ground, any place you put security checkpoints is arbitrary. The point of airport security is to prevent terrorism on the airplanes, because airplane terrorism is a more serious problem than conventional bombs blowing up in crowded buildings. (Four reasons. First, airlines are often national symbols. Second, airplanes often fly to dangerous countries. Third, for whatever reason, airplanes are a preferred terrorist target. And fourth, the particular failure mode of airplanes means that even a small bomb can kill everyone on board. That same bomb in an airport means that a few people die and many more get injured.) And most airport security measures aren't effective.

His bias betrays itself primary through this quote:

Like many people, I spend a lot of time in airport terminals, and I often think that they must be an awfully appealing target to terrorists.

If he spent a lot of time in shopping malls, he would probably think they must be awfully appealing targets as well. They also "serve as conspicuous symbols of American consumerism, with McDonald’s restaurants, Starbucks coffee shops and Disney toy stores." He sounds like he's just scared.

Face it, there are far too many targets. Stop trying to defend against the tactic, and instead try to defend against terrorism. Airport security is the last line of defense, and not a very good one at that. Real security happens long before anyone gets to an airport, a shopping mall, or wherever.

Posted on December 20, 2007 at 12:28 PM • 48 Comments

Comments

MartinDecember 20, 2007 1:06 PM

"If you're worried about explosions on the ground, any place you put security checkpoints is arbitrary."

I would argue that having the checkpoint at the entrance is actually worse than having it inside the building. A checkpoint at the entrance might make it possible to use a car or bus bomb on the security checkpoint queue, with far more devastating results than a suitcase bomb or suicide bomber on foot inside the building.

Alan PorterDecember 20, 2007 1:10 PM

It's bad enough as it is. Let's not go moving the checkpoints into the freezing weather!

Rich WilsonDecember 20, 2007 1:11 PM

Who's going to pay for the security screenings of all the people go go to the airport but do not pass the current screen?

We can't even adequately scan the people getting on the planes, and he wants to scan the people going to see people off or meet people arriving? Yeesh!

AustinDecember 20, 2007 1:16 PM

Just what I want to do, stand in line in the rain/snow, take off my jacket and shoes to put through the x-ray, then put my now wet and cold jacket and shoes back on.

bobechsDecember 20, 2007 1:17 PM

Well, if the idea is to start security screening early, well outside the area where the public gathers, then by rights it should start before travellers leave home.

See, I have this idea that if we just placed cameras in the walls of every room the authorities could keep an eye on what goes into each piece of baggage as it is packed, nipping any shenanigans in the bud. Also, by closely watching the daily activities preceeding travel it would be possible to identify those persons engaging in suspicious precursor activity to actually launching an attack and to extend scutiny to those who associate with suspicious characters.

If we combined the camera with a tele-screen and speakers we could also use the sysytem to inform the public of important information about security issues.

AlanDecember 20, 2007 1:20 PM

If he is worried about ground weapons, why does he think that they have to be delivered personally? They have these things called "missiles" and "mortars" that allow you to attack at a distance.

He is not only scared, he is clueless.

matt aDecember 20, 2007 1:29 PM

"...because airplane terrorism is a more serious problem than conventional bombs blowing up in crowded buildings..."

Its a perceived serious problem because Americans HEAVILY rely on airplane travel to get about. I contend that terrorists attack targets not modes of transportation. WTC (first attack), pentagon, 9/11, Sears tower. Terrorists traditionally have NOT used airplanes as weapons of terror because of the skill complexity required even to fly one effectively (as noticed in 9/11, it took several months to get enuf people skilled to just fly the planes straight into buildings). The vast majority of all this "security" at airports is a dog and pony show for the public to reassure them the govt is doing something to protect them....

dobDecember 20, 2007 1:45 PM

Why stop at the front door to the airport? Why not search everyone as their leave their houses, or their bedrooms? Why not randomly search anyone at any time?

The stupidity, it hurts.

SkipDecember 20, 2007 1:51 PM

The long and short of it is you are not "safe", you never were "safe", and you never will be "safe". Giving people a false sence of security is almost as dangerous as installing unreasonable fear into them. Know the possible risks, evaluate a reasonable probability of bad things happening, and if you think its too great don't do that activity.

Sadly if some extremist organization did set off a bomb inside an airport terminal, something like a suitcase sized claymore meant to maim not kill, then I could see the over reaction being screening at the door. Which as another reader pointed out would be a perfect place for a car bomb to be used.

Brandioch ConnerDecember 20, 2007 2:15 PM

It is going to cost a LOT of money.

First off, they really need to state what is "acceptable" risk. You will NEVER be 100% safe.

If you're going to screen at the airport, and ONLY at the airport, then you do need to screen at the entrance.

But you need to move that entrance away from the terminal ... and have secured halls/tunnels for the people to travel through.

And as Bruce noted, you have to do this at ALL the airports. No exceptions. If you're allowed to land at a secured airport, you MUST have departed a secured airport.

And a quick point, as Bruce said, arrest them. Do not bomb them. Arresting them means that you disrupt ALL the plans and people that they were aware of. Killing them means that you disrupt only the plans that they were central to.

JeremyDecember 20, 2007 2:17 PM

There are some countries (e.g., Israel), where there's screening going into shopping malls, restaurants, etc. If you drove, your car would be searched before you got into the parking lot. Or at least they were the last time I was there a few years ago. That's the logical extension of Ervin's essay.

What's interesting (to me, anyway) is that these entry-point screening stations are reasonably effective - they stopped lots of suicide bombers before they could get in - no, it didn't prevent them all, but it made it harder to detonate and murder in a large crowd.

Of course, this has to be paired with intelligent screening, which TSA doesn't do - so you screen people based on risk factors.

Kanishka ChowhurdyDecember 20, 2007 2:17 PM

Death by murder: More than 5 per 100,000 per year in the United States.

Death from emphysema: About the same.

Fatalities on scheduled U.S. airline flights in 2006: About 50.

John WDecember 20, 2007 2:19 PM

Would not be smart to move it to entrances. Congesting everyone at the entrances would mean a terrorist would not have to get a bomb inside the airport, just have to get one to the curb. Drive up with one much larger than he could have carried in and kaboom.

I agree with Bruce and most posters. Not a smart plan.

DarrylDecember 20, 2007 2:24 PM

One time flying out of LAX, the line up for security was a security problem, so they moved the tail of the line outside. At least LA is warm.

DaveBDecember 20, 2007 2:29 PM

Airline security seems to be based on the idea that people will be safest if they're made as helpless as possible. Since I think that premise is exactly backwards, any "security" based on doing more of the same strikes me as ludicrous and counter-productive.

Joe PattersonDecember 20, 2007 2:46 PM

Here's another point: What about people who are carrying guns in checked baggage? It's currently permissible to do so. So I come up to the checkpoint and say "I've got a pistol in this locked luggage that I'm going to check." Does he:

A) take me at my word and let me pass, at which point I might decide not to check my bag and just carry that pistol on the plane?
B) Check my bag at the security checkpoint, at the street? At that point, you've basically moved baggage check-in to the street, and combined it with security check. Actually, you'd have to do this for a lot more. If they're convinced that I can blow up a plane with my bottle of shampoo, and they put the security check outside of the baggage check, then it means that I can't take shampoo with me to my destination even in my checked bag. Add into that knives, tools, and nailfiles, and it starts to look fairly grim for travelers.

So yeah, he's saying to combine the security check (done by the TSA) with baggage check-in (done by the airlines), and move it all into a possibly unpleasant environment outside the door. That's just *certain* to make things just *oh so much better*. And of course the terrorist target throngs of people behind the combined checkpoint that's doing more things for many more people couldn't possibly be larger than the throngs inside the airport where they're harder to get at if you're, say, a sniper in the parking garage or a guy with a car bomb or a guy with a suitcase bomb or maybe just a guy with a grudge and a big truck.

Sigh.

brian tDecember 20, 2007 3:05 PM

I had to laugh when I flew back from Bangalore a year ago. They checked my passport at the door, then told me to get my case X-rayed before I checked in. (My case, but not my hand luggage.) The check-in desks were about 20 yards from the door, and the X-ray machine was halfway there... and I had to wait ten minutes for someone to come and operate it. Then there were more security checks and emigration checks after check-in... it's harder to get out of India than to get in, I found. Weird...

PaulDecember 20, 2007 3:08 PM

Doesn't matter one bit if you move the checkpoints to the building entrance and make everyone stand in the cold. You're still making people collect in 1 spot, so it's still just as easy to wipe them out with a car bomb....

IsaacDecember 20, 2007 3:09 PM

There is a big difference between Israel and the US: Israel has endured a period of being under frequent attack by suicide bombers. The US hasn't. If the US faced a real suicide bomber threat, then it would be reasonable to do things to keep suicide bombers out of crowds.

stacyDecember 20, 2007 3:26 PM

@Albatross
"I want TSA agents to come to my house and help me pack."

That won't help. When you get to the airport, the security screener will ask you if you packed your own bag, you will say no and then its off to the extra screening line for you.

John WDecember 20, 2007 3:36 PM

@Isaac: There is a big difference between Israel and the US: Israel has endured a period of being under frequent attack by suicide bombers. The US hasn't. If the US faced a real suicide bomber threat, then it would be reasonable to do things to keep suicide bombers out of crowds.

____

Fair point. They're will never be a perfect solution that makes everyone safe and happy. I also think some of the overkill is to make bring some people's fears in line with the actual low risk (notice, I didn't say no risk.) Sort of like how ineffective ankle braclets are to prevent infant abductions--yet sometimes this makes parents feel better at a hospital, so they chose that hospital and are more comfortable there. Same with airlines. Not that I totally agree with it, but i see where, though they may have lost some customers because of security, they may have gained some who feel safer with the visible controls.

RyanDecember 20, 2007 4:42 PM

I disagree. I'd say the main point of airport security is to keep the revenue flowing for the airline industry. A couple of coordinated attacks would make everyone afraid to show up to the airports,not just afraid of flying. And it doesn't matter where you put the checkpoints, because even terrorizing the parking lot would do the trick,
so the method of 'increasing' security is pointless. The best method is to make everyone rich and apathetic so that even if they're angry, they'll have too much to lose to consider blowing themselves up or fighting.
>>The point of airport security is to prevent terrorism on the airplanes,

jbDecember 20, 2007 5:10 PM

Part of the reason aircraft are assaulted more than airports is ease of keeping hostages.

The very fact it's hard to get out of a passenger jet (a slow, agonizing process for anyone) makes them an ideal hostage target. Exits are easily covered, people easily controlled (well, were).

Until the events of Sept 11th, 2001, the SOP was negotiation and encouraged co-operation by passengers and aircrew with the kidnappers/terrorists, and attempt to secure their release that way.

Now, I suspect passengers may not be the nice sheep they were before.

AnonymousDecember 20, 2007 5:24 PM

Not to mention that what he's saying doesn't even make sense. Sure, there's thousands of people in an airport terminal now, but if you moved security to the airport's entrance, guess what? There'd be thousands of people in front of the airport, waiting to get in. Same kind of target really.

ekzeptDecember 20, 2007 6:02 PM

Yes, I fear that we are doing airport, airline, and other security like we pick Presidents. What matters isn't getting answers to real questions or solving real problems, it's all about fluff, appearances, money, and, along the way, exploiting the new institution and its trends and flows to increase the power of this and that individual, this and that agency.

AkakieDecember 20, 2007 6:13 PM

"That same bomb in an airport means that a few people die and many more get injured."

Which is the more damaging attack? A bomb that kills 3,000 people, or a bomb that disables 3,000 people? Yes, the former is horrifying, but is it easier or harder to deal with 3,000 dead bodies or with 3,000 living and seriously injured people overwhelming our medical system?

I'm not sure the answer is obvious.

RogerDecember 20, 2007 10:26 PM

I generally agree with Bruce's argument that this is muddle-headed thinking. However, I can't agree with many of the supporting comments.

For example, many people have argued that this idea would result in large queues at the street entrance which would be just as inviting a target. However, Ervin wasn't aiming to protect queues, he was aiming to protect the people using the facilities. As much as queues may seem interminable, the number of people using the facilities inside is far larger.

Further, in some countries they actually do have all the restaurants etc. inside the secured area. (This creates problems of its own, with a larger and more complex security boundary, but that's a whole other issue.) Far from getting bigger queues at the security gates, in fact people tend to hit the gates in a more timely manner (so they can go inside to relax, rather than waiting outside to relax then rushing the gates at the last minute.) Combined with an adequate supply of gates, the result is shorter queues at the security gates: MUCH shorter queues. For example at Sydney in Australia, in my last 4 trips I haven't hit a queue at all; just sailed straight through with barely a pause to drop my coat on the conveyor belt (I shift all my coins and keys to the coat pockets as I approach.)

The ticket counter and luggage check-in area -- which is outside the security gate -- does still have a queue, but some airlines are working hard to get rid of it. If you choose their fastest option, you can be checked in and on your way to the security gate within 3 or 4 minutes even at peak periods; the fast check-in queue doesn't often get longer than about a dozen people.

By the way, these gates are a good 200 feet from any place accessible by public vehicles, although all the intervening structure is glass; however, as soon as you have passed the gate you drop down out of line of sight from the "queue", parking area and glass walls. In short a powerful car bomb at the drop -off point, or a suicide bomber right at the gate, could typically expect to kill about 6 people around the gates, rising to the high teens at peak periods.

Nomen PublicusDecember 21, 2007 12:46 AM

It must be remembered that the current airport security theatre is almost entirely due to the actions of one man, Richard "shoe bomber" Reid. His crazy scheme, was just that, crazy. There was almost zero chance of success, even if he was able to blow out a window, planes are designed to survive such events.

There there was the "binary explosive" farce. Again, the "security" actions taken far exceed the threat. Liquid binary explosives of sufficient power and quantity to fatally damage an aircraft are extremely difficult to prepare, transport and trigger.

What we have at the moment is a "faith based security" system. If we perform some specific rituals the "god of terrorism" will be pacified. There is no evidence that the god exists, but we still do the rituals, just in case.

AFDecember 21, 2007 2:05 AM

Jeremy and Isaac give good points but I need to elaborate:
most of the security in Israel's airport is unseen and unnoticed and non intrusive. Whenever I travel to Europe or the US I am always amazed at the intensity of the show off ("look, we do security") but it is not really as effective as Israel's. Security must be smart.
There is no such thing as 100% fail safe security, but the experience in Israel shows that there should be layers of security checks, not full "in your face" security gates/check points.
I totally don't agree that the notion of security starting at the entrance is stupid. Terror can happen in the airport, not only on the airplane. As a matter of fact, a terrorist attack in May 30, 1972 led to the inception of the security measures in Israel: a group of 3 terrorists landed, got their luggage, pulled semi automatic guns and grenades from their luggage and started shooting people. 28 people were murdered and more then 70 wounded.

buntklicker.deDecember 21, 2007 2:32 AM

Antalya airport in Turkey has the security screeners at the doors of the building. At least it's reasonably warm there. But waiting outside in the wee hours of the morning, I also wondered how easy a target the long queues of waiting tourists outside the airport building were.

KanlyDecember 21, 2007 3:54 AM

We already knew this, but good to see it in the popular press:

http://www.smh.com.au/news/news/...

Authors say the dumbass measures make us no safer and why don't they apply scientific method to see if this stuff works?

The idiocy over water bottles, the fact you can kill someone with a ballpoint pen, that laptops are ok but a tube of toothpaste isn't, the shoe dumbness, that you can supposedly crash an aircraft by turning on your mobile phone, yet these are ok. I'd love to know the names of the idiots who came up with these rules... I want to see their faces. My money is on cross-eyed with overbite.

Erik NDecember 21, 2007 5:08 AM

The problem evidently is that there are huge areas where terrorist can move unhindered and unchecked, and at the few secure areas there are problems of congestions.

How about this:

Divide the entire country in sufficiently small security compartments, any terrorist will have a very difficult time getting to the target. I guess such secure areas should be around 100x100 meters with security checkpoints, x-ray scanners etc. on all crossing to neighboring compartments.

This will slow down traffic so much that potential terrorist will die of age before reaching target.

MarkDecember 21, 2007 5:09 AM

@martin
I would argue that having the checkpoint at the entrance is actually worse than having it inside the building. A checkpoint at the entrance might make it possible to use a car or bus bomb on the security checkpoint queue, with far more devastating results than a suitcase bomb or suicide bomber on foot inside the building.

In such a case the terrorists can actually omit the "bomb" part. It's also a lot easier modify a car or truck to be an effective battering ram than it is to mess around with explosives.

KaukomieliDecember 21, 2007 6:27 AM


So if the screening would be moved to the entrance of an airport, then the area where people arrive would have to be roofed and walled etc..

Basically he is asking for doubling the size of each airport - is this some stock-pumping we see here? ;)

anonymous canuckDecember 21, 2007 6:42 AM

The Globe and Mail just published an article "Is tight airport security worth the hassle?"

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/...

It describes a study by the Harvard School of Public Health.

They looked for studies to support airport security measures. None were found to support if X-raying carry-on luggage prevented hijackings or attacks, or if checking shoes was effective.

Great quote "Can you hide anything in your shoes that you cannot hide in your underwear?"


bobDecember 21, 2007 6:52 AM

@Joe Patterson: No, then they arrest you. This scenario played out several times already. Remember "PeopleXpress" airlines? Part of their schtick was to not have check-in counters, you checked in at the gate. Meaning you had your checked baggage with you through security. So you had a legally carried, unloaded, tagged firearm in your luggage in accordance with federal and state laws, went to security so you could give it to the counter personnel, and then they arrested you for violating the laws that contradicted the laws you were obeying.

paulDecember 21, 2007 9:34 AM

I notice no one has even mentioned the Denial-of-Service attack, which happens when someone (or something) not properly screened appears on the far side of the security barrier and the entire airport/concourse has to be cleared out and rechecked. Imagine how much easier this would be in a checks-at-the-entrance scenario...

MarkDecember 21, 2007 10:18 AM

@Nomen Publicus
It must be remembered that the current airport security theatre is almost entirely due to the actions of one man, Richard "shoe bomber" Reid. His crazy scheme, was just that, crazy. There was almost zero chance of success, even if he was able to blow out a window, planes are designed to survive such events.

We probably have Hollywood to thank for this stupidity. In the movies a gunshot results in huge chunks of aircraft being ripped away. Whereas in the real world you get a bullet sized hole. Even enough bullet holes that the PACs cannot pump air in fast enough to keep the plane pressurised it's unlikely that you'd actually get a significent pressure loss. Because the most likely reaction of the pilots to hearing gunshots in the cabin will be to land the plane ASAP. (Cracking a few terrorist skulls on the ceiling in the process gets extra points.)
Had Mr Reid been sucessful in blowing out a window he'd have probably wound up with what was left of his leg hanging out of the window having to put on his oxygen mask unassisted before he passed out due to blood loss and lack of oxygen. The only person he'd have been likely to kill being himself.

Aloha 243 and United 811 are examples of major decompression events where most of the people on board survived.

anonymous canuckDecember 21, 2007 11:54 AM

@paul - actually with multiple security zones you might only need to evacuate the breached zone.

Of course that would require analysis and an informed policy decision. And they might still decide to go large but it's an option.

John David GaltDecember 21, 2007 11:58 AM

Even before 9/11, the airline industry made flying such a pain in the tail that I would rather drive to any destination within 2000 miles.

Nowadays, if a destination can only be reached by air, I'll forget about going.

I just hope the Keystone Gestapo don't ruin buses and trains next.

KanlyDecember 21, 2007 8:12 PM

> I just hope the Keystone Gestapo don't ruin buses and trains next.

And let's not forget shopping centers. Far more people with little security at all.

Good news is the fear campaign is failing. In Australian ex-Prime Minister Howard campaigned in many elections using the FEAR FEAR FEAR strategy to great success. There were big BE ALERT billboards plastered all over the city. In the end it fizzled out. Earlier this year they tried to frame an Indian Doctor Haneef working in Australia as a doctor. The whole thing was such a farce as the Australian Federal Police and the Government tried repeatedly to set the guy up as Public Enemy #1. The public alternately laughed and got bored with the whole FEAR charade. Now Howard's Government is out (and ultimate ignominy Howard even lost his own seat) and Haneef has had his visa restored.

Security yes. Security Theatre no.

EriugenaDecember 22, 2007 5:43 PM

In Ireland in the 80s and 90s (when we knew terrorism only to well) all airports had a checkpoint at the entrance of the airport buildings and all bags were (quickly) checked with a handheld "explosives sniffer"

HeatblizzardJuly 8, 2013 1:06 AM


If we didn't have airport security at all except for *crowd control* to prevent fighting and horse playing we would still be safer then ever before,flying or more like sitting in an airplane, as we have long moved past the *Hijack this airplane to Cuba or we will blow this fucking plane up* mentality.

The FBI and CIA are what will stop terrorists and if they were not firewalled in the 90s they would've arrested the suspects of 9/11 at the gate at the very latest (most likely at their house or follow them to the airport and arrest them there) but thanks to a certain President that started with a (B) and ended with the letter (N) that did not happen.

The Scotland Pan Am explosion also is believed to conspire against CIA agents who were on board to protest against the drug trade route that the government is using.

'Oh let's just give a few cruise missiles and blow up an Asprin factory instead. All the while warning the actual terrorists ahead of time thru insider tips so they won't be at the scene of the raids.' LOL

Not that I believe the official 9/11 story as it's being proven more and more that there are holes that need patching which it's like the titanic sinking and they only rearrange the deck chairs and many of the people are afraid to get off the ship so the lifeboats are leaving half empty.

HeatblizzardJuly 8, 2013 1:16 AM

Sorry for the long post. I'll just leave it at this.

I find it amazing that not ONE supposed pilot reached for the "This plane has been hijacked and needs help like now!" frequency on their mic the moment they heard the commotion outside when the first 9/11 suspect announced they had a bomb which they supposingly did.


Emergency landings even in the early 90s were pretty common over the slightest issue except the news was not controlled to bring fear into the public about flying so most people did not pay attention.


An extreme one that the news did not talk about happened in Feb of 2000 an Alaskaian airline had to make an emergency landing after someone broke into the cockpit to stab the pilots but the flight stewardess and a passenger helped subdue the person and the flight landed I believe in Anchorage but I found out about it in an old post on an airline forum that I read.

I was browsing old post from the late 90s using the oldest date first.

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