Don't Fear the TSA Cutting Airport Security. Be Glad That They're Talking about It.

Last week, CNN reported that the Transportation Security Administration is considering eliminating security at U.S. airports that fly only smaller planes -- 60 seats or fewer. Passengers connecting to larger planes would clear security at their destinations.

To be clear, the TSA has put forth no concrete proposal. The internal agency working group's report obtained by CNN contains no recommendations. It's nothing more than 20 people examining the potential security risks of the policy change. It's not even new: The TSA considered this back in 2011, and the agency reviews its security policies every year. But commentary around the news has been strongly negative. Regardless of the idea's merit, it will almost certainly not happen. That's the result of politics, not security: Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of numerous outraged lawmakers, has already penned a letter to the agency saying that "TSA documents proposing to scrap critical passenger security screenings, without so much as a metal detector in place in some airports, would effectively clear the runway for potential terrorist attacks." He continued, "It simply boggles the mind to even think that the TSA has plans like this on paper in the first place."

We don't know enough to conclude whether this is a good idea, but it shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. We need to evaluate airport security based on concrete costs and benefits, and not continue to implement security theater based on fear. And we should applaud the agency's willingness to explore changes in the screening process.

There is already a tiered system for airport security, varying for both airports and passengers. Many people are enrolled in TSA PreCheck, allowing them to go through checkpoints faster and with less screening. Smaller airports don't have modern screening equipment like full-body scanners or CT baggage screeners, making it impossible for them to detect some plastic explosives. Any would-be terrorist is already able to pick and choose his flight conditions to suit his plot.

Over the years, I have written many essays critical of the TSA and airport security, in general. Most of it is security theater -- measures that make us feel safer without improving security. For example, the liquids ban makes no sense as implemented, because there's no penalty for repeatedly trying to evade the scanners. The full-body scanners are terrible at detecting the explosive material PETN if it is well concealed -- which is their whole point.

There are two basic kinds of terrorists. The amateurs will be deterred or detected by even basic security measures. The professionals will figure out how to evade even the most stringent measures. I've repeatedly said that the two things that have made flying safer since 9/11 are reinforcing the cockpit doors and persuading passengers that they need to fight back. Everything beyond that isn't worth it.

It's always possible to increase security by adding more onerous -- and expensive -- procedures. If that were the only concern, we would all be strip-searched and prohibited from traveling with luggage. Realistically, we need to analyze whether the increased security of any measure is worth the cost, in money, time and convenience. We spend $8 billion a year on the TSA, and we'd like to get the most security possible for that money.

This is exactly what that TSA working group was doing. CNN reported that the group specifically evaluated the costs and benefits of eliminating security at minor airports, saving $115 million a year with a "small (nonzero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity." That money could be used to bolster security at larger airports or to reduce threats totally removed from airports.

We need more of this kind of thinking, not less. In 2017, political scientists Mark Stewart and John Mueller published a detailed evaluation of airport security measures based on the cost to implement and the benefit in terms of lives saved. They concluded that most of what our government does either isn't effective at preventing terrorism or is simply too expensive to justify the security it does provide. Others might disagree with their conclusions, but their analysis provides enough detailed information to have a meaningful argument.

The more we politicize security, the worse we are. People are generally terrible judges of risk. We fear threats in the news out of proportion with the actual dangers. We overestimate rare and spectacular risks, and underestimate commonplace ones. We fear specific "movie-plot threats" that we can bring to mind. That's why we fear flying over driving, even though the latter kills about 35,000 people each year -- about a 9/11's worth of deaths each month. And it's why the idea of the TSA eliminating security at minor airports fills us with fear. We can imagine the plot unfolding, only without Bruce Willis saving the day.

Very little today is immune to politics, including the TSA. It drove most of the agency's decisions in the early years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That the TSA is willing to consider politically unpopular ideas is a credit to the organization. Let's let them perform their analyses in peace.

This essay originally appeared in the Washington Post.

Posted on August 10, 2018 at 6:10 AM • 22 Comments


SteveAugust 10, 2018 8:06 AM

Clearly preventing tiny pocket knives on aircraft has made everyone, everywhere safer too.

Just wish the TSA had a "leave a knife-pickup a knife" trade-in setup at airports across the USA. I'm tired of leaving my tiny keychain knife at every airport because I forget.

scotAugust 10, 2018 8:27 AM

So when are universities going to start offering majors in "Security Theater"? What would be the required courses?

JAugust 10, 2018 9:33 AM

There is one and pretty much only one reason why they're doing this: Private jets.

You may be surprised to find there are TSA agents working private jet flights - there are - but they do little more than confirm the people getting onto the plane have ID that matches the name on the flight manifest. No groping, no luggage searching, no checking against a 'no-fly list'.

However even this much bothers those who fly private jets around, and they have lobbied heavily to do away with it. In an administration where money talks like no other, that's why the TSA is considering this.

You may also be astonished how many private jets fly out of tiny airports, too - There's many good reasons for that (scheduling, cost, convenience, &c) but a big part of it is just not having to deal with the hoi polloi.

So that's why. Enjoy your jet in peace.

Jon (fD)

MeAugust 10, 2018 10:12 AM

Just get a fresh cut key, they are sharp enough for many things that you would need a knife for (opening letters/boxes), but aren't considered as dangerous.

RonnieAugust 10, 2018 10:26 AM

Saving $115 million out of $8 billion amounts to a rounding error (about 1.5% if I did the math correctly).

And they won't even be saving the money, they intend on spending it "to increase security by adding more onerous -- and expensive -- procedures". So the net effect will be to make travel more unpleasant for the general public.

vas pupAugust 10, 2018 11:22 AM

@all: is entrapment security theater as well? see below
Chicago police under fire after 'bait truck' used to lure thieves:

My take: baiting is standard tool of IC and LEAs. It is good for fighting crimes like in the cases in the linked above, BUT there is one thing with baiting: bait should be passive in nature meaning it is not actively provoke the crime. E.g. when sting operation on prostitution conducted in those countries where it is illegal, female police office dressed as hooker pretend to be a hooker standing at particular street location. If man initiate contact, then it is legitimate sting operation by police, but if officer/hooker did this - that is entrapment and should be banned in ANY country claiming to be civilized. Same when police officer (not in uniform) initiate contact with real hooker - that is entrapment. When hooker initiate contact - that is legitimate sting operation.

DanielAugust 10, 2018 12:04 PM

I'm not gonna get into the US security side of things, but in New Zealand if you're flying on a turbo-prop plane you never go through security. It doesn't matter the airport either. We also never check, unless it's a US bound flight, if the people going through security have a boarding pass.

Just an interesting observation from a little island in the South Pacific.

AlexT August 10, 2018 12:50 PM

Hmm, surprised that such a reasonable and balanced op-ed would be published in mainstream media,let alone the WaPo.
Maybe there is still hope?

65535August 10, 2018 3:13 PM

I am all for the shut down of TSA screening at small airports. It is a huge waste of money. As CNN notes:

“…passengers and luggage arriving from these smaller airports would be screened when they arrive at major airports…”-CNN

These passenger from smaller planes will be searched when boarding larger airplanes.

The small airport screening is security thearter because private jets of 737 size to wide body jets can still take off with little or no screening and do as much damage as other sized jets. Also, large military planes that could carry powerful munitions constantly fly both internationally and state side. One rouge pilot of one of those styles of planes stolen or highjacked could do a lot more damage. Also, large “diplomatic aircraft flights” occur all the time from sketchy countries which could cause the same type of 9/11 style damage.

In fact, I would be happy to see the whole TSA program dissolved and a step up of Air Marshals who is actually in the cabin of an aircraft when in flight. That is the guys/gals who are onboard to confront and stop a highjacking in progress. The Air Marshals and the pilot[s] can take care of their now hardened aircraft.

Last, is the cattle lines at airports caused by the TSA which could be easily attacked. It is lucky we have not had no major pool of people kille in those TSA cattle lines at a major airport in the USA. If you remove the pool of people the attack surface declines significantly.

I say start to shut down the TSA and put the money in better solutions. The TSA is security Thearter. It has caused huge losses of productivity/hours/money in the air transportation system which are in the billions of dollars per year and a fear of being molested or scammed out of items of value as mentioned by one poster.

JohnAugust 12, 2018 8:32 AM

fwiw, so long as the rest of the world (now maybe Canada) is against us airport (of any size) security shouldn't be relaxed.

that's just me.

Inside TraitorAugust 12, 2018 9:48 PM

Why is it always the passengers that are deemed the potential threat, when the inside actor only needs a small amount of chance, co-ordination, and motivation.

Oh but they're "trusted", you'd say... "vetted" even...
None of that stops a determined actor.

It's beyond time to step-up staff security to prevent lone attackers. People in positions of authority need to be held to much more invasive checks every time. That and two/three-man rules. (For instance check the security in the US Mint as I saw in a doco. And that's for money, not lives.)

So let's fix that - the big insider problem - then consider passenger security upgrades and whether they are indeed proportional to that aspect of the security picture.

justinacolmenaAugust 12, 2018 10:41 PM

@ Inside Traitor

Oh but they're "trusted", you'd say... "vetted" even...

It has nothing to do with that. They are providing a service. You are considered a consumer. It's a service industry. Options are severely limited and the customer is not the boss anymore.

JackAugust 13, 2018 5:22 AM

Perhaps having the US embassy in Salafist-Arabia, our good and loyal allie, NOT issuing visas to known Salafist-fanatics so they can attend flight-school in the US would do the trick ?

jonesAugust 13, 2018 9:25 AM

I just flew to Europe for this first time in 20 years and to get back in the country, no pornoscanners or enhanced groping, just walk through the metal detector.

Which tells me: America trusts her own citizens less than foreigners flying into the country.

Also: foreigners with substandard security aren't exploding in American planes.

Also: when the FBI tested the TSA they could get 95% of contraban through security anyway, and still nobody is exploding.

Also: cars kill one 911 worth of Americans every month, can we get our priorities right? Can we have effective intercity mass transit? Can we re-organize our society to get rid of cars, carbon emissions, and fossil fuels?


Clay_TAugust 14, 2018 7:39 PM

I had an entertaining exchange with some of TSA's finest at SNA last week.

I had a small 12V SLA battery in my carry-on (perfectly acceptable per FAA regs).

First TSA drone pulled it out of the bag and asked “what is this?”

I told her it was a battery.

She took it over to some drone behind a desk then, together, they all walked around the corner with my battery.

After a minute, the #1 TSA came back with #4 TSA, who also asked me “what is it?”

Then he asked TSA #1 if she had swabbed it for explosives. She said she hadn’t and proceeded to swab it.

While she was swabbing, TSA #4 asked me what the tape around it was for. I explained that the tape is holding the insulating caps on the contacts, per FAA regs.

About that time, the explosive detecting machine starts woop woop wooping its alarm.

Explosives detected!

It appeared that I was the only one who noticed the alarm though. #1 just stood there with that TSA stare and #4 asked me to remove the tape.

After seeing the unwrapped, exposed terminals, #4 said I was good to go...

I had to ask him for more tape so I could secure the insulating caps back over the terminals.
Apparently, he was fine with me taking it on the plane with the terminals exposed.

TSA security theater at its finest!

WeatherAugust 14, 2018 10:54 PM

When I went there some ladia that was 2m n,w moved her clothes,she was skilled,the ones that were training,maybe other things,the above was skilled but I was paranoid

TheInformedOneAugust 17, 2018 12:25 PM

A 50-seat regional airlines jet travelling at 500 mph is still not something you want hitting a downtown skyscraper or a concert venue just because screening measures were lightened. Think about it.

EvilKiruAugust 17, 2018 3:35 PM

@TheInformedOne: Those screening measures failed to prevent the underwear guy or the shoe guy from getting aboard a plane. Think about it!

Wesley ParishAugust 18, 2018 12:34 AM

I have the ideal plan to replace the current TSA set-up; it would make Americans - and other cans - feel so so much more secure; and it would be so so cheap to implement. Even better still, it would remove the insider threat completely.

What you do is have every passenger on every incoming flight and outgoing flight, do a full body cavity strip search of every one of the TSA agents at any given airport, and give their assessment as to whether or not in their estimation, said TSA agents are likely to smuggle IEDs on board the aircraft.

I'll bet Hustler will sponsor it, as indeed a number of other such publications, as long as the TSA grants them the rights to video and publish each full body cavity strip search. So it would not cost Uncle Sam, that dirty old man, anything.

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