Global events bring attention to airport security on U.S. soil
Anyone who flies on a regular basis is familiar with airport security lines. Created after 9/11 to help prevent acts of terror against commercial aircraft, the Transportation Security Administration is responsible for screening passengers and luggage before they are allowed to board a commercial flight in the United States.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which operates under the Department of Homeland Security, has been plagued by issues in recent years, including failing nearly all of the Inspector General's undercover security tests in 2015. During the 2015 tests, agents carried fake bombs and prohibited items through checkpoints, which screeners failed to catch in nearly every instance - they failed 67 out of 70 tests.
With radical groups such as ISIS targeting aircraft at an increasing rate in recent years, such failure rates arguably leave the American flying public at risk of a terrorist attack. The question is: How much is the public at risk?
TSA plagued by turnover and management issues
Large turnover and management problems have been issues in the past, but testimony by TSA Administrator, Peter Neffinger, before a Senate Appropriations hearing committee in March 2016 after the Daallo Airlines attack, asserted that actions to remediate issues leading to the failed tests in 2015 were underway or completed.
Speed over security?
Neffenger indicated that in the recent past, improper focus pushed speed and efficiency rather than safety and security, and a full awareness of technological capabilities was lacking among TSA checkpoint screeners.
The recent, significant increase in the length of security checkpoint lines may indicate a shift in focus back towards security effectiveness, but it is frustrating passengers nonetheless. Americans want to ensure their flight is safe, but with summer travel vacations increasing the number of travelers moving through TSA airport checkpoints, long lines are getting even longer.
EgyptAir Flight 804 increases scrutiny
Although steps to immediately remedy past TSA issues were implemented, recent airline crashes oversees, including the EgyptAir Flight 804 last week, have again placed TSA under heavy scrutiny.
Technology has advanced significantly, but thanks to the Internet and to the increasing sophistication of hackers, access to information is getting easier. The ability of the TSA to stay one step in front of any terrorist attack is critical to ensuring the flying public's safety, but just how possible is that?
According to Neffenger's testimony, the proposed $7.6 billion 2017 budget "will allow TSA the opportunity to more fully address the additional requirements identified last year in response to findings from covert testing of screening processes and procedures." That statement deviates slightly from previous comments noting that remediations were already underway or completed. He also noted that further staffing reductions needed to stop, as the organization has 6,000 fewer employees than it did four years ago.
The true nature of the constraints
Are the long lines because of an increased focus on security and safety, or merely a continued reduction in staffing due to budget constraints? Or is it simply due to spacial constraints, as Neffenger suggests is the case for some airports.
As with much of the nation's infrastructure, many of the airports, especially those located in dense urban areas, are already at or have exceeded capacity.
La Guardia in New York is a good example of this scenario. Built in 1939 perched on the edge of Flushing Bay, bordered by water on nearly three sides, and having just two runways, typical wait times for gates and departures during peak times prior to 9/11 often exceeded one to two hours. Current delays during peak hours are creeping higher, and, without having room to grow, it is clear the airport has exceeded its capacity.
Regardless of specifics, it is likely that the TSA will remain under intense scrutiny in the coming weeks and months, and perhaps even doubly so if the Egyptair 804 crash is determined to be caused by explosives from a terrorist attack. Efforts to maximize efficiency without compromising security are paramount to helping clear security checkpoints more quickly.