Why it’s time for airport screening to come full circle

hyxdil/Shutterstock
hyxdil/Shutterstock
Andy deLivron says he’s no threat to aviation security. But he flies with box cutters in his checked luggage — the same weapon used by the 9/11 terrorists. And he recently packed the sharp tools in the wrong suitcase.

By the time deLivron, a sales manager from Pottersville, NY, realized the box cutters had been misplaced in his carry-on bag, it was too late. He was already past the TSA screening area at Dallas Love Field and boarding his flight to Orlando, where he planned to catch a connecting flight to Albany, NY.

DeLivron missed his connection and had to spend the night in Orlando.

“But now I had a problem toss the knife or try to get it home in my carry-on bag,” he says. “I decided if I could place the knife on edge in my carryon it would be highly likely that security would miss it again. Sure, enough I was right. My carryon went right on through in Orlando.”

Yes, you read correctly. TSA agents missed a box cutter in his carry-on luggage. Twice in a day.

And no planes fell from the sky.

“I’m an experienced business traveler and not a threat to my fellow travelers,” deLivron adds. “But imagine what a mercenary is capable of doing?”

Coming full circle

Airport security is devolving before our eyes. The latest slip is the TSAs surprise announcement that it would allow pocket knives — but still, no boxcutters — to be carried on to a plane starting April 25.

Why? TSA says a committee reviewed its prohibited items list “based on an overall risk-based security approach” and decided the knives, as well as selected sports equipment such as ski poles and golf clubs, could be carried on board.

Never mind that any knife can be used as a weapon. For reasons that remain unclear to many air travelers and to America’s flight attendants, blades will soon be OK on planes.

But this is as good a time to any to ask where this is all heading, and whether the last decade has done little more than make us feel better about aviation security.

Rewind to Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists boarded several aircraft armed with the same kind of box cutters deLivron carried to Orlando and Albany. Back then, the private airport security guards screened us almost exactly the same way we screen elite-level frequent fliers, passengers with Pre-Check clearance, flight attendants, pilots, members of the military and dignitaries today — which is to say, they walked through a metal detector with their shoes on.

No body scan, no pat-down or chat-down. It was a quick common-sense screening, and it worked.

If there’s a consensus among security experts, it’s that the meaningful screening takes place long before you arrive at the airport, and that’s where the failures of 9/11 happened, and why we now have a formidable new Department of Homeland Security, no-fly lists and pre-checks for every passenger.

No size fits all

When TSA Administrator John Pistole says we’re moving away from a “one size fits all” approach to security, what he really means is that we are returning to airport screening that actually works, which is pretty much what we had before 9/11.

I’m confident the TSA won’t contact me to find out the specifics of deLivron’s flight because it knows that stuff gets through its vaunted 20 layers of security, and it knows there’s nothing it can do about it.

But that should be reassuring to all of us, in a way.

The faster the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems returns to a common-sense screening approach, the better off all travelers will be. And by “common sense” I mean decommissioning the hated full-body scanners, banning “enhanced” pat-downs, retraining agents in the basics of customer service, allowing all passengers to leave their shoes on and travel with liquids, and using metal detectors as a primary screening method.

The heavy lifting of airport security should take place long before you arrive at the terminal. That’s where your name should be vetted and compared against a list of known terrorists. That’s where they’ll catch the next hijacker.

Eventually, we will come full circle and airport screenings will devolve to where they were before 9/11. It’s only a matter of time.

Should we return to pre 9/11 airport screening techniques?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Saul B

    No passenger flying within the borders of this country should need to be subjected to any sorts of questioning and interrogation. Airports are not courtrooms.

  • marie3656

    Again, I’m not claiming to know how it could work. What I’m saying is that our current system doesn’t work. The old system didn’t work either. It makes sense to me that instead of having poorly trained people that are given a badge and a big ego, you have trained professionals who know what to look for and understand the rights of those they are vetting.

  • EdB

    Just how exactly did the old pre-9/11 system not work when it came to the screeners? You mentioned efficiency earlier but by the lines to get screened, seemed the old way was more efficient.

  • Saul B

    Where did the old system not work? The last time a plane leaving a US airport was bombed was way back in 1962. Seems like a pretty darned good track record to me.

    If a passenger does not have any prohibited items on their person or in their bags as they transit the checkpoint, how do you propose any checkpoint worker divine that the passenger has ill-intent? Should screeners be given free rein to grill and interrogate a passenger about the most intimate aspects of their lives?

    Your mantra of “intelligence-driven screeners” sounds great on paper (or on screen). But it’s drivel without further clarification.

  • http://www.libertyinnnyc.com/ libertyinn

    anything that could be used as a weapon should not be allowed on a plane, but the screening system should not become more complicated than it already is!

  • cjr001

    You’re more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport.

    Just because you haven’t yet doesn’t mean it won’t one day, right?

  • marie3656

    September 11, 2001. It didn’t work because it failed to keep 19 people from getting on planes and then bringthem down. Did security fulfill their job obligations that day? Yes, because their jobs were to look for specific weapons. Did it meet the purpose of having airport security? Most definitely not. What we learned from 9/11, I hope, is that the purpose of screening is to keep flights safe from actions of individuals on those flights. Before 9/11 we thought the risk was bombs and guns. We have a broader understanding of that risk now. Claiming that pre 9/11 security was effective is just wrong. It failed. And it failed for thousands of people. At best, and even though I don’t think that Chris meant it this way, it is insensitive to those lost family, friends, or colleages on that day.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    That would be a whole lot of things, up to and including your own body. Really? You think that’s the best way to go?

  • Saul B

    Marie, no one is arguing that the events of 9/11/01 were a gross *intelligence* failure.

    But I ask again: when those 19 hijackers presented themselves at the checkpoint (I’m assuming their boarding passes did not have a big “HIJACKER” red stamp on them), if they had no prohibited items on them, then on what grounds should they have been denied access to the flight? This debate is about airport checkpoints, and you continue to evade any details about the grounds by which checkpoint workers should be able to deny a passenger boarding if they are not carrying any prohibited items.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    Global Entry should not be described as a “whopping” $100. It is effective for 5 years…so that comes out to $20 per year…or $1.66 per month. This amount is far less than a cup of coffee.
    Just wait until you are in line for over an hour and look over and see the rest of us use the kiosk and just breeze out of the airport.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    I can’t believe you received 8 down arrows.
    You fly because that is your job. Bringing knives onboard affect you more than the rest of us.
    Your concerns are justified.

  • Joe Reynolds

    Again I will say again. It is not what is getting on the
    airplane, it is who is getting on the airplane that is important.

    One silly thing I see is the attendant placing a drink cart
    to block the aisle as the captain opens the flight deck door to use the
    restroom. Any potential hijacker will
    know when the door is open even if it is only a short time.

    A simple curtain would suffice so that no one knows when the
    flight deck door is actually opened.

  • Fisher1949

    12 in the past two years, and those are just the one who have been caught.

  • Fisher1949

    TSA employee or just woefully misinformed?

  • BobChi

    I consider it a real bargain. Arrived at O’Hare, which I’ve been told has been notorious lately for getting through, but I went from the jetway to free and clear in about three minutes. It’s worth every penny.

  • BobChi

    I’m surprised. Your experience has indeed been true for me for flights within Europe, but whenever I’ve boarded a plane back to the U.S., the security always has ratcheted up to TSA levels. Maybe things are changing?

  • Michael__K

    I can think of a few minor changes to pre-9/11 screenings that I could buy into:

    * Restricting the screening process to passengers only was probably a good idea.

    * Some (less draconian) limitations on liquids could be justified.

    * Airlines awarding screening contracts to private companies that competed primarily on price and had no consistent training or hiring standards — as was the case before 9/11 — was probably a bad idea.

    Other than these few relatively minor changes, I’m not aware of any other good reasons why we shouldn’t return to pre 9/11 screening techniques.

  • TonyA_says

    In Japan there is a sign and notice in English that food, liquid and solid, is allowed for all domestic flights so please do not throw it.
    Fruit gels are a big thing in Japan and they are great to take on short flights.
    It is only USA and EU that seems to be so uptight about taking liquids, gels and cupcakes.

  • TonyA_says

    Jim, how did the terrorists get in and stay in the USA in the first place. Isn’t that a failure of some of the most expensive departments in our government? Did anyone get fired after that?

  • William_Leeper

    I must agree with fellow commenters, the government knew about the hijackers, our intelligence community did not pass this information along, and everything that the hijackers had with them were perfectly legal items at the time. Had our intelligence community passed along the information that they had, this would most likely had been prevented.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    This comment has been flagged by another user as a possible violation of our comments policy. We have reviewed it and are letting it stand.

  • cjr001

    “Airports are not courtrooms.”

    And airport security areas are not fiefdoms, contrary to what TSA believes.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I’m not sure what you mean by “Work with real information during the screening process.” Do you mean background checks for everyone who flies?

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I strongly disagree with your idea of “modifying the screening procedures based on intelligence information.”

    As a law-abiding American citizen, no government agency should be gathering intelligence on me or interrogating me based solely upon my desire or need to travel domestically.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Am I correct in remembering that some of the hijackers overstayed their visas?

  • Mundane Lustrator

    The TSA has never existed to stop someone from being a jerk on a plane. No security (theater or not) can prevent nor guarantee 100% safety for all passengers. Bad things happen. It sucks. Life goes on.

  • TonyA_says

    Probably. Though remember they entered on Saudi Arabia passports which do not require a Visa [CORRECTION BELOW]. But their passports are stamped with a max stay requirement (usually 6 months long).
    I understand some of the hijackers were on FBI watch-lists. So that in itself was a failure.

    CORRECTION: Saudis were given a VISA EXPRESS process. But they still needed a VISA to be allowed at our port-of-entries. That is what made it easy for the hijackers to get a VISA to the USA. Technically they overstayed their I-94 status (not their visas).

  • Mundane Lustrator

    I used to love to go to airports, even if just to drop off someone. They seemed like portals to adventure. Now, all I get is annoyed and bored due to the TSA, the stupid “security” recordings that play literally ad nauseum in the terminals, and having to arrive an extra hour or two in the hopes that I’ll get through security without being violated too much.

    I’ve been developing ways to deal with the situation in a manner that is positive for me, but I still remember a time when I didn’t have to mentally prepare to deal with jerks and annoyances and intrusive procedures to get on a plane.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    That makes me sad.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    Sorry, Trey. You know pocketknives have always been on planes. As well as tons of other items that are or can be fashioned into a weapon. No one wants anyone else to get hurt on a plane, except for a very, very, very, very, very (you get the picture) few.

    You are more likely to encounter a weirdo, dangerous person, or someone with a weapon on a city street than on a plane.

    Do you accept those situations as part of life and not worry about them?

  • http://litbrit.blogspot.com/ Deborah Newell Tornello

    Yes, they did. And the INS (as it was then called, as in, the Immigration and Naturalization Service) was so deeply incompetent, it actually sent a couple of “Dear Middle-Eastern Flight Students: You’ve overstayed your visa!” notices to a couple of the hijackers in Florida. Some two months after they’d blown themselves and a few thousand others to bits.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    No belts? Shoelaces? Laptops? Pillows? The list goes on and on for what can be used as a weapon.

  • http://litbrit.blogspot.com/ Deborah Newell Tornello

    Sorry, Marie3656, but I find it to be in really poor taste that you use the deaths of almost 3000 people, eleven years ago, to justify the violative, unconstitutional policies of our current TSA, while demonizing the pre-9/11 policies that managed to keep planes from being blown out of the sky for decades. (The Lockerbie tragedy resulted from a bomb in checked baggage.)

    Horrific acts of terrorism that kill people en masse is not something that began on 9/11. Perhaps in the opinion of Americans it is–after all, this was the first such attack by foreigners on American soil during a putative time of “peace”. But ask some Brits, ask some Irish folks, ask Europeans, ask the Israelis and Palestinians and citizens of numerous countries in North, Central, and Southern Africa–they’ll tell you all about it.

    You’re basing your arguments for searching for every object or substance that could conceivably be a weapon (or used as one)–as opposed to looking for “some” (as in, specific) weapons or substances–by citing the horribleness of a unique and exceedingly rare terrorist event, despite the likelihood of it happening again and killing you is less than that of your being struck by lightning. Four times.

    Moreover, the list of objects or substances that can be used as weapons is long and varied, and it contains a plethora or ordinary items, the quantity of which make it not just impractical but impossible to search for and seize. String. Yarn. Chopsticks used in hair, and even some barrettes. Pencils. High heels. Medium heels. The recently-permitted baseball bats and golf-clubs. The hands and knuckles and foot bones of anyone who’s studied full-contact karate, including Yours Truly.

    Intelligence is the answer–stop the terrorists long before they get to the airport. Stop wasting money and time–and stop stripping the bodies and dignity–of millions of Americans who merely seek to travel from Point A to Point B in their own country.

  • TonyA_says

    Did the INS know these students were terrorists? You seem to make that connection. Don’t you think there are thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands or even millions, of visitors to the USA that overstay their visas? What’s the INS supposed to do? Find them and arrest them then deport them? Not all overstaying aliens are terrorists. In fact most of them “just like it here”, so they overstay.

  • http://litbrit.blogspot.com/ Deborah Newell Tornello

    (Deleted by author and replaced with comment above.)

  • Anowscara

    Yes, yes, yes! I couldn’t agree with this more. How can we get this to go viral?

  • TonyA_says

    If you remember a few folks with the same names were investigated. We don’t even know if the hijackers used their real names. So the INS simply mails letters to inform I-94 status violators that they are overstays. I bet if you were the employee sending out those letters you would not know if the person on the I-94 is the same as the hijacker. They may have the same name but you are not sure they are the same person. So you mail the notice anyway because if it is not the same person then you have done your job.

  • http://litbrit.blogspot.com/ Deborah Newell Tornello

    CORRECTION: Forgive me, I had not remembered the exact nature of the letters, nor the precise amount of time that had passed since 9/11. In reality, the incompetence of the INS was even worse. The letters were actually letters of approval, sent to the Florida flight school, for student visas for two of the terrorists. Six months after 9/11:

    “MIAMI, Florida (CNN) — Six months to the day after Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Immigration and Naturalization Service notified a Venice, Florida, flight school that the two men had been approved for student visas.”

    [Edited to add: The Senate Report for the DHS Appropriations Bill 2012, in requesting funding for improving immigration enforcement, points out that at least three of the 9/11 hijackers had overstayed their visas. I believe one of them was even pulled over by the police, for speeding, shortly before the attacks.]

  • TonyA_says

    The point about the VISAs is why were they given one in the first place? Without VISAs these terrorists would not have come here. Once here, it is very difficult to find them. It is not the INS that gives out VISAs. It was the State Department. It was a full system FAIL. Not just INS.

  • http://litbrit.blogspot.com/ Deborah Newell Tornello

    Please see the above comment. The letters were letters of approval for student visas (not overstay notifications), and they were sent to the students, via the flight school, six months after 9/11. You can keep defending the INS, or interpret that however you wish; in my book, that qualifies as staggering incompetence.

  • http://litbrit.blogspot.com/ Deborah Newell Tornello

    They all obtained visas under their actual names.

  • http://litbrit.blogspot.com/ Deborah Newell Tornello

    They applied for visas, normally and legally, at the US embassies or consulates in their native countries. None had criminal records. They had all obtained new passports from their native countries before applying for the visas, presumably to remove evidence of their visits to Afghanistan or other countries with significant Al Qaida presence. They all entered as tourists. It’s unclear how many of them had applied for student visas so as to legally stay here longer, but two definitely did–and were granted them, and notified six months after their deaths.

  • Mundane Lustrator

    OK, thanks for the info.

  • marie3656

    You must be confusing me with someone else. I do not support the current policies of the TSA. So, no, I did not ” use the deaths of almost 3000 people, eleven years ago, to justify the violative, unconstitutional policies of our current TSA.” Nor did I “demonize” (mighty strong word there) the pre 9-11 policies. What I’ve said many times, and I’ll continue to say it is:
    1) The policies did not work on that day. (Yes, procedures were followed, but those procedures did not stop this from happening). Shouldn’t we have policies (intelligence and screening combined) that would stop this? And if those policies don’t work as they didn’t on 9/11, then they should be changed. The fact is that intelligence did fail, but terrorists were looking to blow up a cornfield or a Wal-mart. Airplanes are prime targets for terrorists and have been for decades. That would suggest that intelligence and sceening should be a little more related.
    2) I am not saying that we stop allowing normal items on flights. I’m not even saying that we don’t allow box-cutters on flights. I’m saying that we need to change something about how we’re screening in order to minimize the risk of something bad happening.
    3) I do not claim to know what those policies should be, but I know that current TSA isn’t working, pre-TSA didn’t work, time to look for a new solution.
    4) Such a solution need not violate our rights.
    5) I agree intelligence is the answer. No reason we can’t have a little intelligence working with the TSA because there certainly is a lack of it there now. :)

  • Scott

    My use of “whopping” was sarcasm, which I had hoped would be conveyed by context. I love Global Entry. It has saved me uncountable missed connections.

  • Mel Snyder

    I fly continually for business and occasionally for pleasure, and frankly, since the advent of whole-body scanners, I’ve found the process inoffensive and quick. I might go for PreCheck, though.

    I’m more concerned that careless TSA checkers are letting stuff through, that gate agents allow obese people board for seats they can’t fit, and screaming/misbehaving children board at all. You know how hotels tell you that if you smoke in a room, your credit card will be dinged for $200? I bet if they did the same for children, and put the same kind of girth-checkers at gates as they have for carry-ons, flying could be happier again. Until there are no more terrorists in the world, scan away!

  • http://afmarcom.com/ Angelique

    I’m still confused by the “nail clippers/small scissors” thing. I thought the reason that nail clippers and sewing scissors were banned from flights is that they could be used to finish up an explosive device in flight. Now I hear they’re allowed on board again — is that right? How did the TSA come to that decision? Will they be admitting that they’ve been inconveniencing passengers for years for no reason?

  • Brad Ackerman

    I have trouble believing any government claims about the extent of background checks. The SSBI is allegedly as extensive as it gets, and yet FBI and CIA both thought it was perfectly fine to give Nada Nadim Prouty a clearance when she wasn’t even lawfully present in the US.

    I’ll grant that Global Entry most likely proves that you have $100 and a valid US passport, but those two facts can also be proved by a) buying the ticket and b) validating the passport’s X.509 certificate, and are completely irrelevant to TSA’s stated purpose (as opposed to their actual purpose—which as far as anybody can tell is protecting airport revenue).

  • y_p_w

    Well – I’ve been through it all now.

    Just recently I flew with my kid, and this was just odd. My kid was wearing overalls, which I’m not thinking weren’t necessarily the best choice because the metal buttons and clips set off the metal detector; however, it was a little bit too late at that point. That wasn’t really all that bad though, except that a couple of TSA screeners sort of argued about what to do next. One wanted to pat down my kid. I offered to remove the overalls to be X-rayed, and my kid could walk through the metal detector in diapers. In the end, my hands were swabbed, and apparently that was good enough. I’m trying to figure out what that accomplished.

    During that whole escapade, I did notice that someone did get stopped with a box of shaving razor blades. The passenger was told they couldn’t go in, and that the blade inside the razor also had to be removed. That actually made sense, while our little 10 minute time-wasting exercise didn’t/

    When I flew out, I was done when one of the “senior” TSA personnel was screaming that everything had to be shut down. It was only one line backed up, and there were two unused screening points that they could open up. Still – I wouldn’t want to be one of the over 100 people in line who had to wait an extra 5-10 minutes because they had to start up the equipment.

    This was actually a bit odd, because typically my experiences at airport security had been pretty good. I give high marks to the guys at Orange County Airport (SNA).