Counterfeit Pilot IDs and Uniforms Will Now Be Sufficient to Bypass Airport Security

This seems like a really bad idea:

…the Transportation Security Administration began a program Tuesday allowing pilots to skirt the security-screening process. The TSA has deployed approximately 500 body scanners to airports nationwide in a bid to prevent terrorists from boarding domestic flights, but pilots don’t have to go through the controversial nude body scanners or other forms of screening. They don’t have to be patted down or go through metal detectors. Their carry-on bags are not searched.

I agree that it doesn’t make sense to screen pilots, that they’re at the controls of the plane and can crash it if they want to. But the TSA isn’t in a position to screen pilots; all they can decide to do is to not screen people who are in pilot uniforms with pilot IDs. And it’s far safer to just screen everybody than to trust that TSA agents will be able figure out who is a real pilot and who is someone just pretending to be a pilot.

I wrote about this in 2006.

Posted on August 12, 2011 at 6:59 AM69 Comments


D0R August 12, 2011 7:03 AM

I assume the pilots’ identity is checked thoroughly via biometrics, difficult-to-forge IDs, etc.
I hope.

Paul Renault August 12, 2011 7:07 AM

Oh, and make sure you’re carrying a copy of “Catch Me If You Can” under your arm while you’re breezing through security.

Mike Ash August 12, 2011 7:34 AM


The best biometrics and anti-forging technology in the world won’t protect against a corrupt official willing to exchange cash for real IDs with fake information on them. That is how some 9/11 hijackers obtained their IDs, as I recall.

Bewildered, UK August 12, 2011 7:51 AM

The more I hear about the TSA, the more concerned I feel that they are a scared, bungling authority of uninitiated busy-bodies who present a front of security through image (“we’re here to help you feel that you’re protected by making you think that you’re protected!”) rather than substance. Bruce’s many reports of the ineffectiveness of their technology, attitude, procedures, rules and collective belief that they are making a difference, compounded by their – frankly – bizarre decisions and contradictory beliefs simply beggars belief. At what point do they become accountable for their jobs? At what point do they have to prove that these ideas are worth of merit and have a recognisable return on actual, worthwhile security?

I apologise for my negative attitude – I confess to living in Europe and, therefore, having only minor, touristy experience of TSA practices first-hand: perhaps I should engage more with the subject matter for myself but, having read the posts from this (and other) renowned bloggers, along with the many threads that they engender, I find it astonishing to believe that such idiotic autonomy, expenditure without evidence, and unaccountability of attitude is routine on the front line of the world’s most prestigious boarders.

Please correct me if my remote assessment is incorrect: I’m going on holiday to Florida next year, and I’d love to be proved wrong…!

Dilbert August 12, 2011 7:59 AM


The primary function of TSA is not to make flying safer. It is merely to make everyone FEEL that it is safer so they continue to fly.

Chris August 12, 2011 8:16 AM


I’m kind of assuming the TSA has a database with pilots biometrics. No need to store them solely on the ID.

Perhaps something like the TSA Registered Travelers Pilot/Experiment? (Which ended in 2008, see

In this case it becomes a matter of secure identification instead of screening, and doesn’t involve gloves and semi-cavity-searches.
Screening always lags behind. Even todays bodyscanners wouldn’t have caught all previous attacks, much less the next.
Identification however, is like cryptographic, you can evolve it. With Pilots it is possible to use high-grade iris biometrics without having the world cry out ‘privacy’. Of course, facial recognition and finger prints aren’t enough, those are too easily faked. If a pilot wants to fly, sure, have a database with an ID including biometrics, sign it with a secure key by both origin and destination airports/customs both vouching for the accuracy of the ID. This avoiding a single corrupt officer from issuing a fake signature.
Surely the TSA can come up with an appropriate mechanism to keep a certificate private key secure.

Freiheit August 12, 2011 8:16 AM

Bewildered, UK –

Your assessment is correct. The TSA really just goes through the motions of security and screening, but doesn’t really do anything effective. At best they are annoying, at worst they are offensive, invasive, rude, and dangerous.

Having said that, I do hope your trip to my country is a good one. The USA is not perfect, but we do have some neat things to see and fun things to do. If you happen to speak to any folks from the tourism board or such, let them know your concerns about the TSA. Knowing they’re bad for business might help get rid of them a little sooner.

Mike Ash August 12, 2011 8:27 AM


I’m sure there are ways to make this better, but a database of biometrics isn’t a magic bullet. There’s going to be a way to add new pilots to the database, and so there’s going to be a way to bribe people to add new fake pilots.

Christopher August 12, 2011 8:32 AM

What I don’t understand is why pilots/staff don’t have a separate employee-only entrance? You can still screen employees and staff, just do it somewhere else. Presumably, this would be easier to manage since screeners for employees would find it easier to spot outliers/ aberrations.

Grounded August 12, 2011 8:33 AM


Then this policy is full of fail. I feel even less safe now than I did before. Total feeling of safety is now firmly in imaginary numbers territory, along with the value of the TSA.

Bhaggy August 12, 2011 8:38 AM

I too am a Brit.

I have recently travelled to the US on business and I had no issues with being groped or irradiated at the airport. The microwaves were there and approximately 50% of passengers received a cooking, I went through the usual pocket-emptying, shoes off metal detector procedure that we’ve all come to know and love. So my experience of the TSA was acceptable. However I would not travel to the US for a holiday. My wife would NOT accept any form of groping whatsoever and i would not want to expose my children to a mild roasting or a groping. That’s all despite having free and pretty much unfettered access to a nice 3 bed place in Florida.
It would be interesting to see if tourism figures have been affected by the actions of the TSA.

Bhaggy August 12, 2011 8:42 AM

Oh, and to the point of the article, does this mean that pilots can (again) be used for moving large quantities of cash or drugs across the country (or internationally)?

Ben Senise August 12, 2011 9:15 AM

The commonly shared view that “screening pilots doesn’t make sense because they could crash their plane if they wanted to” is absolutely wrong. A pilot, sympathetic to the cause of a terrorist (or being bribed with enough money), could take guns or bombs through security to give to a terrorist taking a different flight.

George August 12, 2011 9:31 AM

According the Salon columnist who writes about pilot issues, none of the airport staff gets screened. So while you can say that all people have to do now is pretend to be a pilot, it is also the case that all anyone ever had to do was pretend to be the guy who puts the food on the plane.

Increasingly Less Anonymous Poster of Brucedom August 12, 2011 9:49 AM

Freiheit: “If you happen to speak to any folks from the tourism board or such, let them know your concerns about the TSA. Knowing they’re bad for business might help get rid of them a little sooner.”


Welcome to America! (Big Hug) Please be aware that we are still having a little problem with roving gangs of older rich (mostly) white men in suits wrecking things. Don’t go to Wall Street unless you can display the correct gang colors for Harvard, Princeton, etc. Other than that, you should be fine.

Chip August 12, 2011 9:54 AM

The thing that makes screening pilots even more farcical, as Patrick Smith of Salon’s Ask The Pilot column has repeatedly pointed out, is that airport maintenance etc. people do not go through security. If you want to smuggle bombs or weapons onto a plane, that’s the way to do it. (They do get background checks; I assume flight and cabin crew do too.)

Bewlidered, UK August 12, 2011 9:58 AM

Thank you all for your enlightenment. I shall continue to exercise my own caution – against the TSA as much as any other threat…

FTR: I am a big fan of USA. I may well impart my concerns over the bad publicity elicited by the TSA on behalf of “USA Plc.”, but won’t let it deter me: I was in New York two years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I found the Americans to be helpful, polite, enthusiastic and amiable. I anticipate nothing less from Florida. If nothing else, it should be a contrast to the disinterested, detached window-to-the-world projected by our ambassadors at LHR… 

p.s. @’Increasingly Less Anonymous Poster’ – totally loving the Bruce factoids! Haha!

Roy August 12, 2011 9:59 AM

Interesting use of the word ‘enhance’. Functionally, it is enhancing by diminishing. Only in America ….

Skybert August 12, 2011 10:15 AM

Lee Moak […] said the plan would speed up screening for passengers.

And there is less oxygen in the atmosphere after I take a deep breath.

Adrian August 12, 2011 10:34 AM

My search-fu is failing me.

Does anyone remember which of the 1970s “Airport” movies had the altitude-triggered bomb hidden in the pilot’s carry-on bag? If I recall, they discover it after landing at Denver airport, which was a high enough altitude not to trigger the bomb.

Flyboy August 12, 2011 11:26 AM

I’m an airline pilot.

It is not true that a fake airline ID and a pilot uniform will be enough to bypass this system. If you read through the publicly available information (which isn’t much, I admit, you can see that this will be tied to the database already used to verify crewmember identity and status for cockpit access. (Basically, pilots ride for free on the jumpseat in the cockpit of other airlines so that we can get to work. There’s a complicated and relatively secure process with a database that allows real-time verification of employment status. The moment you leave an airline or go on medical leave, your access is revoked.)

The new system that allows pilots to bypass security is based on biometrics, initially fingerprints, but I’ve read that retinal scans are coming.

Furthermore, I think it’s publicly available knowledge that pilots and tens of thousands of airport employees already bypass security at large airports all around the country every day, but pilots can only do so at their home base. The process involves matching an ID card to a fingerprint scan.

It’s not perfect, but subjecting pilots to the insanity of security theater every single on our way to work is not acceptable. Think about how much you hate it as a frequent flier: imagine doing it every day on your way to work. This is a much-needed, sane, good thing. I’m a big fan of yours, but I wish you’d do a little more research before speaking out against known crewmember verification.

Steven Hoober August 12, 2011 11:27 AM

Forget pilots. Just watch any screening point for ten minutes. All sorts of people get through with just an airport ID and a handwave. How hard would it be to pretend to be an airport worker to smuggle something to a legitimate traveler who does whatever evil he wants to?

And that’s if you don’t just get an actual airport worker in on your plot.

Flyboy August 12, 2011 11:37 AM

From your earlier article: “We have two choices: Either build an infrastructure to verify their claims, or assume that they’re false. And with apologies to pilots, maintenance techs and people with clearances, it’s cheaper, easier and more secure to search you all.”

What you apparently don’t realize is that infrastructure has existed since sometime around 2003. It’s good, it’s used every day, and it should be expanded.

I also disagree with the premise that it’s easier and cheaper to search all of us, but it’s a moot point since the “expensive” infrastructure you were saying would be too difficult to implement back then already existed at the time you wrote about it.

Airline Pilot August 12, 2011 12:16 PM

Bruce, you really shouldn’t write about topics you don’t understand.

If you had done some research you’d know that the Known Crewmember Program accesses the current employment database of each member airline to verify the employment status of each pilot in real time. It also requires additional forms of governement-issued ID in addition to company-issued ID. As Flyboy mentioned above, biometrics will be part of the protocol as well.

Please do better research next time before spouting your opinion about something you don’t understand.

Mapes August 12, 2011 12:29 PM

It’s my understanding that ground crew do not go through any type of screening? Has that changed? Also I’m curious how LEOs are dealt with. I’ve seen law officers routinely passed while carrying concealed. How do they verify LEO’s identities?

Frederick August 12, 2011 12:45 PM

What would be wrong with eliminating all security and changing to fly-at-your own-risk? Every day, people are usually in dozens of situations where someone else in their environment could create a localized disaster. If you want more “security” there are usually plenty of companies that will give it to you for a price. In this case, individual airlines could offer a range of options, based on cost-risk models.

Jeremy August 12, 2011 1:53 PM

That implies that only the passengers are at risk if a plane is hijacked. Based on 9/11, that doesn’t seem to be true.

Planes don’t merely need to be secured as possible targets, but also as possible weapons.

Alan August 12, 2011 2:03 PM

Screening pilots is a good idea. Sure, a suicidal pilot could easily crash his own plane. But if they get no or lesser security, you open other attacks:

  • Sneak something onto the pilot or into his bags, then recover it on the secure side.
  • Maybe the pilot isn’t willing to die, but is dedicated enough to a terrorist cause to carry bombs or similar for other people to claim on the secure side.
  • Bribe a pilot to carry something into secure side. Lie about the contents so the pilot thinks he’s making money on a minor crime (smuggling untaxed alcohol, minor illegal drugs) when he’s actually smuggling weaponry or explosives.

Of course, so long as ground crew get to skip screening, this is all a sad joke as all of the above apply to them as well.

Rookie August 12, 2011 3:05 PM


Your idea has been discussed before, but I don’t think it would work. If we used that model, and we only lost two planes a year to attacks, some people would say that we’re saving all that money and time, and statistically it’s still very safe to fly. What people forget is that human emotions, motivations, and feelings are an important part of the security puzzle. Almost everyone would flock back to the “high-security” flights.

Some dismissively talk about “feeling secure” as opposed to actually being secure. Well, guess what? Technologists who dismiss “feeling secure” do so to their own detriment. Humans are not Spock-like analytical mathematicians who run their lives according to actuarial tables.

It’s much, much easier to gripe about things like airline security and the TSA rather than to sit down and actually develop a model that would work better than the current one. The current model has plenty of faults, but I’m willing to bet there are few people capable with coming up with a better one that would allow over 1,000,000 people to fly daily in the US in a manner that would be acceptable to the vast majority.

Bruce Schneier August 12, 2011 3:30 PM

A couple of clarifications.

I do realize that many airport employees are able to bypass security entirely. That’s definitely a security hole, but not relevant here. If pilots are able to use that hole, I don’t care any more than I care about anyone else using that hole. As long as pilots are using the passenger system, I think they should be treated as passengers.

And yes, I realize that there is an existing database of pilots that’s used by the airlines. Again, I would rather pilots be screened than extend that database to every TSA checkpoint.

I also realize that every pilot disagrees with me on this.

Mike Ash August 12, 2011 3:42 PM


“I’m willing to bet there are few people capable with coming up with a better one that would allow over 1,000,000 people to fly daily in the US in a manner that would be acceptable to the vast majority.”

It’s trivial to come up with a better system simply by eliminating pointless waste that doesn’t even have a psychological benefit. The most obvious one is to get rid of the body scanners. They have no security benefit and I’ve yet to hear of anyone who likes them, even among the TSA-loving crowd. Now you’re spending less money for the same results, both practical and psychological.

Even beyond such easy stuff, I really don’t think it’s as hard to come up with a better system as you say. The people who designed the current system simply have different priorities than other people. Their priorities are to further their own careers and extract political gain, and actual security and even the feeling of security only happen incidentally.

People who are good at this stuff might actually sit down and come up with something better if there was the slightest hope that people in power would listen. But they won’t, so why even bother?

Dr. T August 12, 2011 4:13 PM

@Bewildered said: “The primary function of TSA is not to make flying safer. It is merely to make everyone FEEL that it is safer so they continue to fly.”

TSA adminstrators don’t care if we continue to fly (or they would not have adopted nudie scanners as primary screening tools). TSA is a government bureaucracy, so, like all such entities, its primary purpose is to become bigger and more powerful so that its administrators and supervisors can move up in grade and pay. Its secondary purpose is to acclimate Americans to violations of their dignity and rights by federal government workers. Its tertiary purpose is to provide security theater.

Chris hope August 12, 2011 4:26 PM

“It’s much, much easier to gripe about things like airline security and the TSA rather than to sit down and actually develop a model that would work better than the current one. The current model has plenty of faults, but I’m willing to bet there are few people capable with coming up with a better one that would allow over 1,000,000 people to fly daily in the US in a manner that would be acceptable to the vast majority.”

Remove the scanners at a checkpoint and have sound,geotec and smell sensors were people walk and seat.
I sopuse if people are more relexed they might not notice the security sensors or get cocky getting close to the plane.

No One August 12, 2011 5:35 PM

Re: Design a better system…

Bruce and others who frequent this site have repeatedly hammered home that investigation (both pre and post-incident) and emergency response have far better cost-benefit payoffs than increasing gate security beyond metal detectors and baggage x-ray for actual explosives. (Not just science fair projects that look like explosives. Those should be investigated and returned after chemical testing and inspection.)

JustNiz August 12, 2011 5:56 PM

Sorry but I disgree with nearly everyone here and see this as a good thing.
Many here agree that TSA are basically just giving the appearance of security, and anyone truly determined could get “something bad” through anyway, so whether known aircrew get patted down or not is actually irrelevant.
Apart from anything else, if the pilot really wanted to kill people, its naive to think he needs to smuggle anything onboard given he is actually in charge of the plane.

Many here moan about TSA’s invasive security checks but then moan again when the TSA stop doing them. Wierd much?
Why am I apparently the only one that is happy that that the TSA are finally starting to back off a little?
I’m looking forward to the day when the TSA go away entirely and flying goes back to being as easy as pre 9/11 days.
I mean how many actual terrorist attempts (even failed ones) on aircraft have there been since 9/11 compared to the number of flights that happen daily? If not actually 0, its so small as to be statistically insignificant. Isn’t the continued perceived threat of terror completely just our own paranoia now? The more we continue to live in fear the more the ghost of Osama still wins. I say F him and lets live in freedom again.

JJO August 12, 2011 6:22 PM

While a biometric database is not perfect (what is?), bribing an official to enter a fake pilot into the database will be easier said than done. The pilot’s biometric database would be relatively small, and it would be pretty clear that a false pilot seeking entry into the database is probably a terrorist, making the corrupt clerk’s position perilous indeed.

If the airlines were required to cross-check between the TSA database and their own personnel databases, the number of bribes required would expand significantly, making such a bribery scheme cumbersome if not impossible.

Gabriel August 12, 2011 9:34 PM

Doesn’t this just scream that this is all security theater? If you want to get something through, buy a carryon just like a crew member’s. Perform the suitcase swap outside security, and then swap again once through. Most of us would be lousy at this, but look at what full-time pickpockets can do. A crew member should at least have to put their bag through the xray and walk through the metal detector. I’m sure a skilled pickpocket could put a knife in your pocket and take it back out without you noticing.

Nobodyspecial August 12, 2011 9:38 PM

” And it’s far safer to just screen everybody than to trust that TSA agents will be able figure out who is a real pilot and who is someone just pretending to be a pilot.”

So presumably they are also not allowed on the flight deck – since you can’t be sure they aren’t fake pilots how can you let them fly the plane?

acidradio August 12, 2011 11:51 PM

The whole reason for full screening of pilots and flight attendants was after the hijacking of a PSA flight in California in the late 80’s by a disgruntled flight attendant. He was going to be fired, figured out which flight his manager was going to be on and decided that his life was not worth living anymore if he was going to lose his job. He used his flight attendant credentials to bring a gun onto the flight where he took over the flight deck and forced the plane into a nosedive killing everybody. We need to screen everybody.

David August 12, 2011 11:57 PM

I understand that a pilot is in control of an airplane and can crash it, but still, this only means a pilot can crash his/her own airplane.

If we allow pilots to bring unaudited weapons past the security checkpoint, one pilot could bring in a bunch of weapons and hand them off to a bunch of terrorists who could then hijack a bunch of planes (not including the malicious pilot’s). I assume this is why pilots, who are allowed to bring guns onto airplanes, still have to register those guns when bringing them into or out of an airport.

Even if this biometric stuff works, the ability for one bad pilot to crash many other pilot’s planes is quite disturbing.

Cellar August 13, 2011 1:10 AM

Oh fun fun fun. The problem isn’t the screening. That one’s been proven useless (and worse) already; it is specifically that they’re punching a big fat hole in their “security screen” that’s just asking to be abused.

Cards can be stolen or faked. Uniforms can be obtained easily as there’s many sources, all looking slightly different but equally valid.

Biometrics are always easier to fake than to replace, and faking fingerprints takes a gummi bear. Now you need to pat down everyone in uniform to see if they don’t also have a packet of gummi bears on them, BEFORE you take their fingerprints.

And what if you’d simply flood the gates with people “in uniform”? Even without cards and matching biometrics, just the presence of a giant flashmob in pilot uniform is bound to confuse things, and if there’s one thing the TSA cannot deal with, it’s confusion.

At this point it really does not matter what they’re doing. They’re fighting a –by definition– losing battle and incompetent at it to boot. Thus ensuring that actual safety levels, as opposed to apparent safety levels, and cost effectiveness both cannot be anything but low.

As for “backing off a little”, well, no they’re not. This is more of a feint for the purpose of grabbing yet more data so as to discern who is pilot and who isn’t. INTERPOL already advocated having governments tag people’s passport RFID chip with a “colour code” to indicate scrutiny levels at the gate (wonderful concept, that) and this is more of that. Pre-selection, resulting in discrimination built right into the system, legitimised to boot. It might look positive when spun a certain way but really is bad for everyone, as it is an excuse to do more of that hopelessly ineffective yet privacy invading stuff (databases, lists of badness, etc.) they should’ve stopped doing long ago.

It really doesn’t matter what the TSA thinks up next. It won’t improve security, nor efficiency. Nothing short of getting rid of the entire TSA will.

EvertheWatcher August 13, 2011 2:32 AM

Even with the current looser standards for flight crew, I witness them claiming items as their own, then giving them to non-crew because of their decision that that pax was okay… crew members are still implicated in smuggling operations, and have still been caught with firearms…
The unfortunate thing is, no “clearance” can prove that someone will not engage in a behavior… (see virtually every case of espionage).
Although many TSOs don’t see the point in screening them, if you work there long enough, you get to see that they’re like the members of any other profession… good, bad, or indifferent.

A-Pilot August 13, 2011 8:56 AM

People seem to forget that the tens of thousands of rampers, caterers, fuelers and maintenance personnel don’t go through security either. That’s right! … the guy with no credentials who doesn’t speak any English gets full access to aircraft every day. Having pilots go through security was just another addition to the illusion of security to make the public feel more secure. I have zero faith in the system’s ability to stop a terrorist in the first place and as a pilot, I have no interest in playing a part in the TSA charades.

Joe August 13, 2011 9:10 AM

“If the airlines were required to cross-check between the TSA database and their own personnel databases, the number of bribes required would expand significantly, making such a bribery scheme cumbersome if not impossible.”

The TSA will be checking the Airlines database at the checkpoint. It does not maintain its own.

Clive Robinson August 13, 2011 10:26 AM

@ ALL,

I get the feeling reading a lot of the posts that many people do not quite understand what Bruce is saying or importantly the good and proper reasoning behind it, and the serious implications for security exceptions create.

What Bruce is saying,

As long as pilots are using the passenger system, I think they should be treated as passengers.

He is not saying anything else about how the pilots should or should not be treated if they use another system or if there are any other systems in use for pilots.

And I agree if you have a screening system in place then everybody that goes through that screening process should be treated the same irrespective of name, rank, status or perceived privilege.

If the TSA want to treat some people seperatly then they should have another entirely seperate screaning process. Which should be entirely segregated from any other screening process with no shareing of staff equipment walkways, gates, doors, etc.

If the US President decides to walk through the passenger process then he and anyone with him such as his family and security guards should be scanned and groped up just like any other Jane/Jo Doe, NO EXCEPTION.

Now if there is an existing database of pilots that’s used by the airlines this again for good and proper security reasons should only ever be available at the entirely segregated process for pilots.

Whilst I realize that many pilots may disagree about Bruce’s view I don’t think the actually thought it through and understand why when they go through a passenger screening process they should be treated exactly the same as the passengers. Not just for security reasons but for political reasons as well.

If as a pilot you object to being treated as a passenger when going through the passenger screening process, and also find the airport you use does not have an entirely segregated system for pilots, then you should be getting your associations to lean on the airports and/or the TSA to make it that way, not be asking for exceptions to an existing process that weakens that process for security, but importantly creates resentment amongst passengers, which is bad for the image of pilots.

hermesbee August 13, 2011 10:53 AM

The Currency of Fear

I think Bruce brings up a really valuable point, and that is a security white list created by easily forgable documents and costumes creates a gaping back door. It seems like the confusion comes from distinguishing pilots who fly the plane and should be given the utmost respect, and those who just look like pilots.

But the flip of side of this discussion is that it just seems to fuel the underlying wave of fear, set in motion in 2001.

I hypothesize that a much more fruitful line of research lies in exploring the security loopholes in the mind’s operating system that allows such a currency of fear to grow in importance. What would have a senator declare in one moment that 911 is over in one breath, and that we need to extend surveilance/retract liberties the next.

I think good starting points are

Edward Bernais’ 1923 classic
“The Crystallization of Public Opinion.”

and Adam Curtis Documentary “Happiness Machines” — available on the Internet Archive.

Ron Scubadiver August 13, 2011 11:35 AM

I am a regular flyer. Since the “nude” scanners have been installed I have received the TSA sexual massage twice after passing through the scanners. That was only supposed to happen if one refused to go through the scanners.

To put it mildly, I am pissed off and think this system is completely wrong.

Look at what they do to these poor grannies.


Brandioch Conner August 13, 2011 1:24 PM

“People seem to forget that the tens of thousands of rampers, caterers, fuelers and maintenance personnel don’t go through security either.”

No one has forgotten them.

Here, let’s make this a bit easier to understand.
The terrorists have a goal. They want to get 20 bombs onto 20 planes. And those bombs MUST be undetected. And they MUST cause the plane to crash. And they cannot involve more than 21 terrorists.

“That’s right! … the guy with no credentials who doesn’t speak any English gets full access to aircraft every day.”

Yep. And even with that access, he could not accomplish the goals stated above. It is too likely that some non-terrorist would notice something odd. And once one bomb is discovered, the whole plot unravels.

“Having pilots go through security was just another addition to the illusion of security to make the public feel more secure.”

No. The security might be an illusion. But having everyone who can bring luggage on-board go through the same process is better than having multiple avenues.

“I have zero faith in the system’s ability to stop a terrorist in the first place and as a pilot, I have no interest in playing a part in the TSA charades.”

What does “as a pilot” have to do with that? Having a different avenue for pilots reduces whatever security the TSA had. In fact, it compromises even the pre-2001 security practices.

Silence Dogood August 13, 2011 5:21 PM

This is a travesty. This program should also be available to congressmen and reputable business people. For example IBM, or Mercedes Benz.

Chris Cross August 13, 2011 5:22 PM

Now we only need to issue Luftwaffe style trenchcoats to pilots and the cycle will be nearly complete.

NotMine August 14, 2011 2:05 AM

Perhaps the TSA should have spent a few more seconds thinking about the public impression of their policy.

At most airports there are locations where people with the proper ID can enter the secure areas without going through the checkpoints. If you sit in any airport long enough you can spot these locations. Sometimes it is only 1 place and sometimes there is more than 1 place.

If TSA really wants to give preferential treatment to pilots, crew, airport workers, yet still maintain a minimal level of security, they can do it behind these “closed doors” where they can access these employee databases without exposing them to the “open public areas”. They can inspect or wave by packages without arousing the general public. Whatever special procedures, secret handshakes, etc. are hidden from public view.

From what I can tell, all checkpoints provide some degree of “wave by” for credentialed airport works, crew, etc., and all they are doing is saving those people a possible long walk to a gate. I’d say make them go through specific secure points that are off limits to the general public and make them walk, or have their airline provide a shuttle cart for them.

Brian August 14, 2011 3:09 AM

@Nobodyspecial: If the TSA were in charge of credentialling pilots, I’d be worried about that, too. As it is, making sure that the real pilot is the one in the cockpit falls to other, more competent hands.

@acidradio: The attack you cite would have failed after 911 because the passengers would have jumped the guy. The TSA’s idea of “screening” is a bad joke on all of us.

@David: What’s even more disturbing is if you rewrite your post using “dirty cop” instead of “pilot”. As others have noted, cops go through the “security” checkpoints without being screened.

BJ August 14, 2011 4:07 PM

At a major airport like LAX there are
Thousands of employees who just walked in with a pass card!
No Screening!
I can’t get excited IF uniformed and
properly ID’d Pilots & FLT Attd.
do the same.

Cos August 14, 2011 6:16 PM

If you accept that TSA screening doesn’t actually do a lot to protect flights from terrorists, then the loophole you describe isn’t such a bad idea, because we’re not losing anything valuable.

On the other hand, we are gaining a much lower chance of bad security interactions with pilots, and happier pilots who are also more likely to get through the airport quickly.

Of course, if you accept that TSA screening doesn’t actually do much to protect flights, it’d also be true that we could gain even more by relaxing that screening for everyone, regardless of their uniform and ID. We’d have happier passengers, who could also get to their gates more quickly. So this exemption for pilots is a bad idea within the TSA’s admitted frame, where screening is important.

But, since they’re wrong, this is a small gain that we can get without forcing them to acknowledge that they’re wrong about the whole thing.

Richard Steven Hack August 14, 2011 9:25 PM

Getting back to the main point, pilots don’t go through “screening” – which means searches for weapons and explosives.

THAT is the point.

What pilots do go through is (quoted from above):

“the Known Crewmember Program accesses the current employment database of each member airline to verify the employment status of each pilot in real time.”

That is, the database that probably any dude from Anonymous can access…

“It also requires additional forms of governement-issued ID in addition to company-issued ID.”

All of which can be faked and even if checked online in real time probably can be faked.

“As Flyboy mentioned above, biometrics will be part of the protocol as well.”

This might have some chance of providing some security depending on how its done. The fingerprints are inadequate – modify the database to put the right prints in to match the perp’s.

But the bottom line is the pilots are not searched. As others have repeatedly said above, this means the pilot is a security risk EVEN IF YOU KNOW THAT HE IS WHO HE SAYS HE IS!

What part of that don’t some of you get?

The fact that he can crash the plane whenever he wants – which by the way isn’t true since he has a CO-PILOT and NAVIGATOR with him – is irrelevant.

But it may have happened. There was a case some years back where an Egyptian airliner went down in the Atlantic. The pilot was Egyptian who allegedly had no motivation. There were a number of Egyptian generals on the plane. The consensus of the investigation was that the pilot deliberately crashed the plane.

My theory was simple: you grab the pilot before takeoff, show him pics of his family taken through the crosshairs of a rifle telescope, or better yet, hear them on the phone being taken hostage, tell him his plane better never land at its destination if he wants his family to live. What’s he going to do? Nothing but commit suicide by crashing the plane – if he cares about his family.

There might be some who would rather their family die than 150 passengers. So what? You try it again with the next guy. Sooner or later you’ll get lucky.

This approach completely bypasses all security and doesn’t risk a single terrorist and cannot be prevented unless you assign bodyguards to every pilot in existence 24x7x365.

But who needs all that? Who even needs to be an airport employee. Airports are huge. They are surrounded by a variety of terrain conducive to infiltration. The planes are sitting on a runway unprotected by anyone, with open hatches and unprotected gateways. A whole team of terrorists could sneak on board any aircraft – or just plant an altimeter-detonated bomb on it.

Dick Marcinko’s team snuck onto an Naval Air Station flight line and stuck bombs on most of the jet fighters. You think no one can sneak onto a civilian airport and do the same?

If that doesn’t work, said team could probably sneak and/or plant bombs on almost any large corporate aircraft available in the US.

And finally, any said team can sit outside the fence and just blow airliners taking off and landing out of the sky with SAMs.

The only reason there are any planes still flying in the US is because terrorists have no imagination. As an example, one of Carlos the Jackal’s teams had a plan to attack an Israeli aircraft at an airport. They hid their guns in the lavatory. When the time came to retrieve them, there was so many people in the john the terrorists couldn’t get their weapons in time! So the plane was already rolling before they got out on the runway. They had a shootout with security instead. Fail.

anon August 15, 2011 12:15 PM

“Lee Moak, the president of the Airline Pilots Association International, said the plan would speed up screening for passengers.”

Ummm, since the pilot-to-passenger ratio must be somewhere around 1%, why is removing pilots from the security screening area going to speed things up for passengers? This statement makes for a good sound-bite, but I don’t believe it.

Mike August 15, 2011 12:49 PM

Of course, so long as ground crew get to skip screening,

At least at my airport (SJU), the ground crew appear to all be screened. They have a separate screening line downstairs.

Dunmore August 15, 2011 1:40 PM

Last year when I was flying out of Milwaukee the TSA agent spotted a water bottle in my briefcase that I had forgotten. I had to dump it out. Then I looked over at the next X-ray machine and an airport employee was taking boxes of soft drinks and bottled water off his cart, shoving them through the machine, and then reloading his cart.

I felt safer.

Philip Collier August 16, 2011 10:57 AM

I have been an airline pilot since 1989 (Mall Airways, Business Express, ATA, Viva Macau, and Xiamen Air) and have seen it all, as it relates to security. Flyboy and A-pilot have made valid points about the system. It is theater, and people would not buy tickets without a feeling of safety, regardless of the fact that a few rocket propelled grenades or portable missiles would make a moot point out of the screening issues.

As to the robustness of the pilot verification scheme, it is strong, but based on trust. Trust that the pilot will not carry out a terrorist act with the airplane or assist others in terrorist acts. It doesn’t prevent crashes due to human factors (fatigue, faulty decision making, illusions, etc). The biometrics and multifaceted verifications work, but it is theater, because the smarter terrorists will bypass the whole screening defense and attack from outside the perimeter.

By the way, the LEOs you see bypassing security screening are also inside the circle of trust. The law allows properly trained and certified armed LEOs but they can’t bring water or nail clippers through, because the exemption only covers guns. Rulez are rulez.

Happy to contribute a comment on my favorite website.

Z.T. August 16, 2011 11:14 AM

If pilots have to pass through scanners for every flight, you can expect their life expectancy to plummet. The scanners are only safe if you use them infrequently.

J K August 17, 2011 3:53 PM

Saw this happen in person at LAX on Monday. The person checking id + boarding pass barely looked up and at the credentials being presented by the pilot and stewardesses, and then they walked around the detectors.

Airline Pilot August 23, 2011 10:46 PM


Clive Robinson August 24, 2011 3:03 AM

@ Airline Pilot,


Well I don’t know about Bruce’s reasoning but I’m of the opinion that a gun is,

1, A transferable tool.

And further it,

2, It lacks traceability prior to use.

So my view is that there should be no guns airside unless the two problems above are solved.

I don’t care if it’s maintanence, cleaning, catering, security, passengers, cabin crew, pilots or air mashals, NO GUNS.

However I’m sufficient of a realist to realize it is an impossible policy to follow given the perimeter of the average airport and the number of staff in a medium sized and above comercial airport.

The point is if you have a security system in place at a perimeter it should apply equaly to all who use it NO EXCEPTION, because exceptions are one of the major causes of failed security.

If you have two seperate security policies in place, you should use two entirely seperate perimeter check points and further the two seperate groups of people should remain entirely isolated from each other to maintain the security.

Because if you don’t do it that way then it’s easy for a security “end run” to be performed whereby a non passenger does a “carry through” and passes it to a passenger on the other side of the check points.

As I said above it’s not just pilots, if you claim an exception for them because “JUST ONE TAKING A NAP COULD KILL YOU” why don’t you have an exception for maintanence staff because “just one being negligent could kill you” likewise for the catering staff…

You can see that claiming an exception because ‘somebody might kill by negligence or insanity’ is a ridiculous argument and you realy should not be making it.

Further apart from the air marshals none of the people on my list above receive or expect to receive as part of their job law or firearms training. And lets be honest, most guards don’t receive the level of training required, otherwise they would be looked at as LEO’s not guards.

So giving or alowing pilots or aircrew who do not recieve a significant level of training in the use and legality of guns would be ‘NEGLIGENT’ on behalf of the TSA, DHS and ultimatly the President as he is the ‘Commander in Chief’ through whom all of the subordinats get their lawfull authority.

If some “I wanner carry” pilots feel otherwise then perhaps they should go get the help of appropriate proffesionals, and become certified.

Airline Pilot September 11, 2011 10:58 PM


Thank you for your thoughtful input. I am particularly motivated to respond to you on this date because I think you, like many Americans, are too idealistic and not pragmatic enough about airport security. Security, like flying airplanes, is about effectively and efficiently manging risk; neither can ever be made 100% safe. I think we agree that the TSA’s current approach to airport security is a facade, but we clearly disagree on how to improve it. You advocate object based security while I would advocate intent based security. The Israeli airline El Al is one of the finest examples of how threat based security works, and works well.

1) You are correct in stating that completely sterilizing an area of all weapons is the most secure possibility. But there are thousands of authorized LEOs who fly armed every single day in the US from hundreds of authorized federal, state and local agencies.

2) It’s possible to check a bag of guns and ammunition that must be handled by a ground agent. In some cities airline agents who work the ticket counter outside security also work the same passengers and bags on the gate and ramp. They don’t clear security in between because they have unfettered access to unscreened baggage. It is their intent to do harm that must be carefully monitored, not their access to weapons. What about the driver of the fuel truck full of Jet A? Should we just not put jet fuel on airplanes anymore because the truck driver could do us harm while fueling our aircraft?

3) There is ALWAYS the possibility of an ‘end run’ as you put it. No matter how remote, it cannot be 100% prevented. Reference Egypt Air 990 if you need an example. Intent is a more secure method of screening passengers than by the objects they carry. That is why anyone who can bring down an aircraft by simple negligence should not be screened for weapons because their intent is the only real security. If they want to bring down an airplane they will just do purposefully destructive maintenance or piloting, no weapon required.

4) Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating giving everyone a gun as they board airplanes, but the events that occurred ten years ago today employed very rudimentary weapons and no firearms. You’re correct about weapon retention but if there had been armed LEOs/pilots on board the four aircraft ten years ago the outcomes may have been different. If those LEOs/pilots had their firearms used against them the result would have been precisely the same.

5) You don’t seem to know anything about the congressionally mandated and DHS administered FFDO program: The airline pilots who currently carry firearms are deputized federal agents and there are thousands of them.

I cannot disagree with your premise that the world would be safer if there were no weapons but I don’t think it is a practical way to approach security.

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