Memphis Airport Inadvertently Gets Security Right

A local newspaper recently tested airport security at Memphis Airport:

Our crew sat for 30 minutes in the passenger drop-off area Tuesday without a word from anyone, and that raised a number of eyebrows.

Certainly raised mine. Here's my question: why is that a bad thing? If you're worried about a car bomb, why do you think length of time sitting curbside correlates with likelihood of detonation? Were I a car bomber sitting in the front seat, I would detonate my bomb pretty damned quick.

Anyway, the airport was 100% correct in its reply:

The next day, the airport told FOX13 they take a customer-friendly "hassle free" approach.

I'm certainly in favor of that. Useless security theater that adds to the hassle of traveling without actually making us any safer doesn't help anyone.

Unfortunately, the airport is now reviewing its procedures, because fear wins:

CEO Scott Brockman sent FOX13 a statement saying in part "We will continue to review our policies and procedures and implement any necessary changes in order to ensure the safety of the traveling public."

EDITED TO ADD (4/12): The airport PR person commented below. "Jim Turner of the Cato Institute" is actually Jim Harper.

Posted on March 25, 2016 at 12:26 PM • 36 Comments

Comments

Coyne TibbetsMarch 25, 2016 12:57 PM

Review isn't a bad thing, so long as one of the options is, "Do nothing. The current state is satisfactory."

Unfortunately, once a need to review--to "perhaps do something"--is revealed, that option is almost always omitted. Apparently, "doing nothing" just doesn't feel right when there's a perceived need to "perhaps do something."

So the airport policy will likely be changed to five minutes only, because leaving it as-is just doesn't seem like the right thing to do.

---

A story from a college where I worked. There were disparate policies for cases where a student did not present their ID card, at different on-campus locations:

  • At the cafeteria if you wanted to charge and did not have your ID, they would accept your verbal statement of your ID number, but charged a service fee of $0.75.
  • At the book store, they would look up your ID number, but added a $0.25 fee.
  • At the sports center, they would look up your ID if you were buying something, but charged no service fee. If you were borrowing equipment, someone was supposed to present ID but if the desk clerk knew you, hand wave.
  • At the library, they would not allow you to check out books without a valid ID. card

A student complained that the $0.75 charge at the cafeteria was excessive, prompting a review. But, as noted above, there was no option to "do nothing, the current policies are satisfactory."

Instead, the review process set out with the goal of defining a "uniform policy"...and of course that could only be resolved one way: No charges anywhere without your ID, no checking books out without your ID.

Now notice that the complainant didn't have to pay the $0.75 fee; to avoid it, he only had to take his ID to the cafeteria. But under the old policy, for no ID and $0.75, he got a meal charged to his account; for the new policy, for no ID he gets nothing.

But, hey, saying the existing policies were satisfactory would not feel like properly "doing something."

Ian PMarch 25, 2016 1:10 PM

In the video report they mentioned they were sitting directly in front of a security guard. This makes it even more silly. Of course if the security guard noticed them acting suspicious, or causing traffic congestions he would have been able to enforce the "no parking" policy. Depending on the amount of traffic, time of day, etc. he can use his judgement to determine who to "move along" and who to leave alone. It's a matter of trusting the judgement of your staff to decide when it's not worth it to hassle folks.

The OneMarch 25, 2016 1:12 PM

Or it could be lip service. Like most public statements. Brockman's statement sure sounds like "We're going to keep doing what we've been doing and put forth the minimum effort to shut you guys up" to me.

James MacMarch 25, 2016 1:33 PM

Not sure the review of procedures is about security so much as the ability to screw another coupla bucks out of the poor unfortunates who have to use the airport...

Tim!March 25, 2016 1:43 PM

This is the part that has me worried:

“That’s totally unacceptable, and we have to do better than that,” U.S. Congressman Buddy Carter told FOX13.

Congressman Carter is a member of the Homeland Security Committee.

I'd like to encourage anyone here to reach out to the Congressman to say "Actually this is totally acceptable, and no, Buddy, we don't have to do better than that."

ChelloveckMarch 25, 2016 1:52 PM

Without knowing anything more about this than what Bruce reported, the statement from Scott Brockman sounds like a blow-off answer to an overly-excited reporter. "OMG! What is the airport doing about this deplorable situation?!" "Don't worry, sir, we've got our top men working on it. Top. Men."

best thingMarch 25, 2016 3:16 PM

So let me get this straight... people think it should "raise suspicions that you're a terrorist" if you "hang out in an airport" for too long??? What the heck.. has anyone actually flown on an airplane without waiting for long periods of time? So you're saying people think that ALL FLYERS are really suspicious, because they hang out instead of getting on planes immediately? Why the heck do they put seats in waiting areas then??? Or even have waiting areas to begin with... What's next, you're suspicious if you sit behind the wheel of a car for too long? Or if you go outside and walk down the street? Or if you get out of bed? Or wake up? Come on people! Use some common sense!

OttoMarch 25, 2016 6:20 PM

I live in Memphis. Have used the airport many times.

There's no real threat here. The "passenger drop off area" is like half a mile from any gates. Even the front doors are concrete barriers with some minor double door faux glass things. A bomb there would do negligible damage.

OttoMarch 25, 2016 6:24 PM

BTW, FOX13 in Memphis is basically a bad joke as far as reporting goes. Nobody here takes them seriously.

kiwanoMarch 25, 2016 8:17 PM

"Continue to review"? That sounds an awful lot like PR-speak for doing nothing, from an entity that has an ongoing review process in place for its policies. They're not initiating a review, or even committing to bring the point up at an ongoing or subsequent review.

Suppose I'm driving a car (on a long trip), and someone (say a small child of mine) were to tell me that they're getting hungry and would like me to stop so they can have a burger. Suppose also that I answer "There are some sandwiches in the cooler behind my seat. We'll be pulling off to get gas in 45 minutes", how committed do you think I am to addressing their desire for a burger? I trust you can see the parallel between my response and the airport's.

Not only did they get the security policy right, they seem to have the right language in place for blowing off media demands for security theatre. Sounds like they deserve some extra kudos for that.

(I once had a PR guy for a roommate, he helped tune my nose to this kind of thing.)

Wang-LoMarch 25, 2016 11:07 PM

It is a true humanitarian tragedy that there is no social mechanism by which the dedicated actual journalists of the world could rise up and fall upon the cargo cult journalists like seagulls on locusts.

JohnMarch 26, 2016 8:45 AM

Even if it was a blowoff answer, the point is that they lost an opportunity to respond more intelligently and say no.

albertMarch 26, 2016 11:09 AM

FoxNotNews as a source? Please. This is what passes for 'news' today? @Otto is correct. Stop wasting your time citing Fox!News. It's BS. Notwithstanding Ottos information, what day of the week and time was this 'test' carried out? 2AM on a Wednesday, or a Sunday evening? Simple fact, not 'reported'.

Memo to Rupert: Leave News Creation to the experts; your people suck at it.

Memo to Buddy Carter: Sometimes it's better to be silent and thought a fool, then to speak and remove all doubt.

I also have a memo for FOX13, but it's not suitable for use in polite company.
. .. . .. --- ....

Pete FrankMarch 26, 2016 1:15 PM

Ultimately, all news reporting exists for the sole purpose of selling advertising, not to inform you. Whether it's Yahoo or CBS, all they want to do is sell advertising. As a general rule, news people are very dumb. They can't even get the account of a local car accident right. Years ago MSNBC repeatedly posted information about how much solar energy falls on the Earth everyday. It was off by a factor of 10. Worse, they claimed their source was the Nat'l Geographic. It wasn't. For two years people told them it was wrong. They just kept saying the same thing, over and over. There are simply too many instances of stupidity in news to expect anything else.

for goodness sakeMarch 26, 2016 3:36 PM

I dunno, we just can't find enough needles in all these haystacks we've piled up, we need to redefine what a needle is so that all long and skinny things are needles, then we'll find a few more of them...

Which means, the problem is that terrorists are too rare, we need to invent new ways to be suspicious of everyone, so that more people will fit our new definition... Fear the future folks, that's how a holocaust starts.

SteveMarch 27, 2016 10:45 AM

“We’re all going to be inconvenienced and we understand that,” Congressman Carter told FOX13.

I first read that as "We all want to be inconvenienced. . ." and in retrospect I think that's probably a telling mental "Freudian slip" of sorts.

We tend to equate security with inconvenience and the more inconvenience, the better the security.

hermanMarch 27, 2016 11:41 AM

Well, as an ex-officer I can say that most airports are not designed with safety in mind. The two obvious problems are:

1. Huge open spaces with choke points where people are forced to congregate, which have no blast deflectors or ballistic protection of any kind.

2. Huge swaths of cheap glass with no shatter proofing.

Basically, the security checkpoints are the most dangerous areas with no physical protection for staff or passengers against anything.

Security can be improved enormously and at low cost, by sticking shatter proofing onto the glass and by placing massive concrete pot plant containers and road traffic barriers randomly around the place for physical protection.

However, since the above solutions are too low cost and low tech, it will never be implemented.

Glen ThomasMarch 28, 2016 10:45 AM

Bruce,
Thanks for the blog post and thanks to everyone for their comments. There were many questionable aspects of these two stories. First, I want to clarify that MEM did not tell the reporter that we were reviewing our security policies as the result of his "investigation." In fact, we told him that we felt that it was inaccurate to describe his actions as any type of investigation or evaluation of our security preparedness. What we did tell him is that we continually review all of our security policies and procedures, and that we try to find a balance between security and passenger convenience. Those comments weren't meant to be a blow-off.

I found it telling that he not only omitted most of our statement in the 2nd story, he also failed to include quotes from Jim Turner of the Cato Institute, whom he interviewed and who told him he had not found a security flaw. It's apparent that he was determined to do his story a certain way, regardless.

Glen Thomas, Public Information Officer
Memphis International Airport

Anonymous CowMarch 28, 2016 1:04 PM

@herman

The ugly reality is that many airports are NOT designed with traffic flow in mind. I've seen vehicle drives such that a drop-off or a taxi has to merge across 3, 4, even 5 lanes to get to where they want to go and fight those vehicles that need to turn across them. Many vehicles sitting are actually waiting for a space in traffic to get out of the area.

But despite those flaws a car bomb likely is not a high risk simply because many airports do not have one central building; most have multiple terminals. Anybody wishing to put an airport out of business will need more than one car bomb to do so.

You are right about the security checkpoints. Airports with one or two checkpoints are at higher risk than those with a dozen or more checkpoints. Hopefully US airports have taken a lesson from other countries and have plain clothes security wandering around between the doors and the checkpoints.

ianfMarch 28, 2016 3:41 PM


@ herman […] “most airports are not designed with safety in mind

Oh, really? Do observe that, with exponentially growing traffic volume, and fluctuating threat assessments, the airports are constantly changing their layout, adapting best they can. The examples of "bad safety" you quote, "no blast deflectors or shatterproof glass" are superficial at best. As an ex-officer (of what, the TSA?—if so, I'm sooooooo impressed), you should know that the objective of airport security is to prevent BLASTS, not to deflect or shatterproof them; and that area security begins way before a passenger even approaches a counter.

    Perhaps in some (to you) ideal world, in order to eliminate congregating and the bugaboo choke points, every budding passenger would be required to first strip naked inside a opaque self-driven cart in the Arrivals hall, mechanically checked there, with rectal probe if needed, for explosive and other contraband, and only then escorted one by one by armed mobile robots to the ticket counter and the secure area. Fortunately we're not there yet, if ever.

@ Anonymous Cow “the ugly reality is that many airports are NOT designed with traffic flow in mind” (cc: @ herman)

The only ugly thing about this statement is your apparent lack of reflection over what you write. Because, if anything, all modern airports ARE DESIGNED with incoming/outgoing—both vehicular and bipedal—traffic flows in mind. That's why in several major EU airports (known to me) the Departures and Arrivals halls are on different levels, or else separated horizontally/ terminals grouped by traffic type (domestic/ regional/ hub/ international/ intercontinental/ high security). Subsequently all bus/ taxi/ etc approach lanes are arranged in a fashion to prevent build-ups, congestion, ease the ingress, and abet egress from the terminal/ airport area. Similarly with the passengers moving inside the buildings.

Of course not all solutions, the underlying flow control philosophies, AND implementations, are equally well chosen or appropriate (I got lost inside the terminal of the Malaga Int. because of unclear navigation markings and bad advice from personnel that didn't know better).


ADMINISTRIVIA @ Glen Thomas
as a Public Information Officer of Memphis International Airport posting a clarifying comment in a public thread you ought to know better than to refer to some "MEM" entity – an acronym that makes no sense to the readers of this blog. Maybe you're not as "International" as you think you are.

AJWMMarch 28, 2016 7:08 PM

@ianf

MEM isn't an acronym, it's the IATA 3-letter designation for MEMphis International Airport, the same way DIA is Denver International, YYZ is Pearson International in Toronto, or LHR for London Heathrow. It's not at all surprising that someone working for that airport would refer to it that way.

Nick PMarch 28, 2016 7:29 PM

@ Otto

"I live in Memphis. Have used the airport many times. There's no real threat here. "

""BTW, FOX13 in Memphis is basically a bad joke as far as reporting goes. Nobody here takes them seriously."

Good to see another Memphian! I'm not living there right now but I'm about 10-20 min from hometown. Both statements are true, esp Fox13. Media coverage of Memphis is always negative, scary shit to drum up the ratings. There's like 5000 good things going on in the city at any time. Yet, Fox is like, "We're going to spend the rest of the day reporting what a gangsta in North Memphis getting shot means to you in the suburbs of Germantown." (rolls eyes)

WaelMarch 29, 2016 2:50 AM

@Nick P,

Good to see another Memphian! I'm not living there right now but I'm about 10-20 min from hometown.

You saved me the trouble. So you're a Butternut after all ;)

AstromacMarch 29, 2016 4:24 AM

@AJWM, DIA is not the IATA code for Denver. DEN is. I've never understood the practice of using DIA to refer to the airport. Why not just use the real IATA code?

ianfMarch 29, 2016 9:25 AM


@ AJWM–not an acronym, but well a pseudonym,
                    You are missing the point, which is that IF one is a spokesman for some entity, THEN it is one's duty to express oneself clearly, unambiguously, and without presuming one's vertical frame of reference by the receiving party. Had said "Public Information Officer" managed the latter, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

But you also seem to be harbouring an illusion that everybody and her uncle, you included, automagically decodes every encountered new TLA (=3-letter acronym here ;-)) to mean the IATA airport code, not to mention that said everybody bothers to remember IATA codes of (to you well known) airports. Well, imagine that!

As Astromac already pointed out, not even people who know where Denver is (=apparently some city that's big enough to have an "International" airport with an IATA code all of its own!) recall the official DEN designation, but refer to it as Denver International Airport. Denver=DIA. Memphis=MIA, get it? (And @Bruce should be spanked for not using the IATA not-acronym in lieu of the airport's full name in this post's title).

Nick PMarch 29, 2016 10:22 AM

@ Wael

"You saved me the trouble."

Given you plenty hints. Mid-South. Tri-State Area. One of largest cities. Lots of hoods and murder. Great BBQ. Typing all or some of it into Google should've identified the city. Matter of fact, I just tried it with this search. See if you get the same top hit. So terrible lol...

"So you're a Butternut after all"

Nah, the taxonomists say I defy classification. The psychologists, if I wasted dime on them, would admit that too if they weren't always pushing an ideology. I just be me and keeps it real in an area where many kinds of bullshit thrive. I'm liked and hated by all. :)

WaelMarch 29, 2016 12:08 PM

@Nick P,

Given you plenty hints. Mid-South. Tri-State Area. One of largest cities.

All I needed was one more hint. The search brings the expected results.

I just be me and keeps it real in an area where many kinds of bullshit thrive. I'm liked and hated by all. :)

It's hard to believe you're hated.

albertMarch 29, 2016 1:40 PM

Gentlemen,
A perusal of:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Air_Transport_Association_airport_code

might be helpful here. Most folks don't use IATA codes. Do you hear Chicagos O'Hare called ORD?

Re: airport safety. Seem to me, most airport 'security' is concerned with preventing bombs from being loaded on aircraft. Yes, it would be easier to deal with terminals than aircraft, but there are ample targets with hundreds, even thousands, of people in confined spaces.

Besides, terrorism is like radiation; there's no safe minimum dose. Should we not feel the same for one dead person as for a hundred, or a thousand?
. .. . .. --- ....

parkrrrrMarch 29, 2016 2:42 PM

@albert

No, because "O'Hare" is fewer syllables. Likewise, Seattle/Tacoma International Airport is "SeaTac" rather than "SEA." But you do hear SFO and LAX - especially LAX - referred to as such. JFK is in a whole category of its own, because it's also how we refer to Kennedy himself, but that is its IATA code. And I gather it's popular in some subcultures to refer to Atlanta, the entire city, as "The ATL."

So yes, real people do use IATA codes. Maybe even without knowing it. Just not so often when it's no more convenient than the actual name of the airport (Heathrow, Dulles, Midway) or the name of the city (Dallas, Detroit, Houston [by which everyone means IAH rather than HOU])

Granted, that doesn't really explain La Guardia or Houston Hobby. And nothing explains DIA.

albertMarch 30, 2016 3:01 PM

@parkrrrr,
To add to the confusion, folks refer to Dallas/Fort Worth -and- Denver International as 'DIA", and 'DIA' doesn't exist in the IATA designations, fortunately. How about 'SNA' for the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, CA.
. .. . .. --- ....

AlexSMarch 30, 2016 3:19 PM

Glad to see the airport's response, even more pleased to see it's quite reasonable and common-sense! Is there anyone posting here who hasn't spent at least 30 minutes with their butt in an airport seat either waiting for a flight or waiting for someone?

Separately:

Most of my friends & coworkers with almost exclusively use IATA codes when discussing cities and especially airports! Then again, we're mostly an international bunch, so flights and airports are our second home. It also makes life easier when coordinating travel plans and bookings. ie: JFK-LHR-NRT is far less ambiguous than NYC-LON-TOK

It always bothered me when news agencies failed to do this. I often hear Orlando (MCO) called OIA by local media, Tampa (TPA) called TIA by local media there. To me, TIA means Tirana, Albania's only international airport.

Occasionally we'll use a smaller airport code if it makes more sense for a smaller town which people might not know, ie: FMY = Fort Myers, Page Field (General Aviation) vs. RSW = Fort Myers, Regional SouthWest a.k.a. Southwest Florida International Airport.

FWIW, MIA = Miami International Airport...which makes sense, as does MEM = MEMphis. Even Orlando's MCO makes sense as it was originally McCOy Field.

GApril 1, 2016 4:13 AM

Well if I was a car bomber I'd be waiting a moment when there are many people/cars around.

Clive RobinsonApril 1, 2016 9:18 AM

It needs to be said that a pile of explosives is not a very effective killing device except close in.

In general the killing radius is defined by the shrapnel range, not the blast range.

For shrapnel to get maximum range, it needs be unconstrained after it has reached maximum velocity.

These considerations effect both the design and effectiveness of a bomb, getting it right is a bit of an art if you don't have access to the appropriate computing power and software.

ianfApril 1, 2016 9:46 AM


@ Clive
             I trust you do realize that your learned treatise on bomb design vs. how it is "practiced" in the real by its "practitioners" is v. much like this particular famous football match in comparison to the variety of such actually played on the greens? [That is, unless it was an April Fool].

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