Amy Zegart

Transportation SNAFU Administration

Transportation SNAFU Administration

Good news, travelers! The Transportation Safety Administration has announced that some snow globes (the ones small enough to fit into those little plastic baggies) are now allowed in your carry-ons.

The joy of holiday travel is here. Between now and New Year’s, roughly 40 million passengers will pass through TSA checkpoints in 450 airports across America. According to one senior TSA official, passenger "throughput" in security lines is four times slower now than it was before 9/11. But you knew that already.

We may roll our eyes as screeners bomb-swipe stuffed lambies and pat down grandma, but terrorism experts have long considered the holiday season a high-threat period. And for good reason. The record shows that terrorists like blowing up airplanes, and they like it even more during Christmas, when passenger lines are long and vulnerable, planes are packed, security folks are harried, and the news cycle is slow. Even fizzled bombs have been considered "successes" by terrorist groups. When the Christmas Day bomber failed to detonate his undies in 2009, he still succeeded in getting tremendous publicity and triggering billions in additional U.S. aviation security measures — responses which apparently delighted his terrorist sponsors back in Yemen.

Years after 9/11, aviation security is still serious business. It has also become rife with misperception, waste, and absurdity. So I set out to answer four questions this week: What are the best innovations in U.S. aviation security since 9/11? What works poorly? What’s just plain weird and scary? And what should you know before leaving home this holiday season?

The good news

The most innovative improvement I found is LAX’s ARMOR program, which uses a sophisticated computer algorithm to schedule randomized times and locations for canine searches throughout the terminal and police checks of incoming airport ground transportation. I’m normally highly skeptical of "random" anything in aviation security, since it’s impossible to tell the difference between clever, unannounced checks designed to keep would-be terrorists off guard and sloppy implementation of standard security protocols by TSA folks armed with approximately two weeks of training and a GED. (The two weeks part is true, the GED is not. In some cases, TSA screeners can actually be hired without a high school diploma).

But ARMOR is smart. It’s designed to eliminate predictable security patterns that terrorists can exploit. Random checks also give the impression that police are everywhere — because they are, just not all at the same time. And LAX police have found that because officers are not walking the same beat and doing the same things every day, they are more alert. Since ARMOR began in 2007, arrests for all sorts of criminal activity at the airport have gone up, an increase that appears to stem from better policing, not more criminality. The technology is already being used in maritime, rail, and other transportation sectors.

Bomb-sniffing dogs are also a plus. They’re accurate, fast, mobile, less invasive than pat downs or other security measures, and often kind of cute. Bomb-sniffers include beagles, labrador retrievers, and other familiar breeds that don’t scare the kids but do scare (and smell) terrorists hiding explosives. The TSA has 64 canine teams deployed for passenger screening, with plans for more as well as research to better understand the factors that can improve dog bomb detection (like fatigue and the optimal duration of a search shift).

The TSA is finally starting to get serious about risk-based management, or what TSA Administrator John Pistole calls "reducing the size of the haystack." Until recently, the agency’s strategy consisted of catching every box cutter and bomb at every gate at every airport in America. Now, the TSA’s trusted traveler program, TSA PreCheck, allows travelers to volunteer personal information and pay a fee in exchange for expedited screening. This is long overdue, good for business, and even better for security, enabling screeners to focus on the people who should be screened. Erroll Southers, who served as chief of intelligence for LAX police and was nominated to be President Obama’s TSA administrator, put it this way: "Any time we know more about the passenger, we win. We’ve got to keep looking for the bomber, not the bomb." So far, the program operates in 35 airports and 4.6 million passengers have used it.

The bad

Just about everything else. Privately, many experts say the 3:1:1 rule, which requires you to use those annoying little bottles and baggies, isn’t very effective because terrorists can find many other ways to smuggle explosives. Same thing with shoes. Nobody walks shoeless in an Israeli airport, and Israelis know a thing or two about terrorism. One leading Israeli aviation security expert told me that he found the U.S. shoe removal requirements "silly, ineffective, annoying and even humiliating." These rules stick because removing them is bad politics, making people feel less safe even if they aren’t.

The worst of the worst is full body scanners. Remember the outcries that the TSA would become a Hustler magazine photo booth, sacrificing privacy for security? Turns out the security gain wasn’t much. John Halinski, the TSA’s assistant administrator for global strategies, said last May that none of the full body scanners (there are two major types, one that uses X-rays and one that uses millimeter waves) has nabbed a single suspected terrorist. The Government Accountability Office has questioned whether full body scanners would have caught the 2009 underwear bomber. Many experts believe these machines would almost certainly be unable to detect "cavity bombs" hidden where the X-rays don’t penetrate and the sun does not shine. X-ray scanners elevate passenger cancer risks, which is why they are already banned in Europe. They are expensive, about $200,000 each just for the hardware. And did I mention X-ray scanners take so long, they are now being removed from major airports like LaGuardia to speed up security? Ninety-one of these clunkers currently sit in a Texas warehouse.

The ugly

Helpfully, the TSA has revealed the top 20 airports where employees steal from passengers. #1: Miami. iPads and laptops are the most popular items.

Then there are your fellow travelers, who pack ridiculously dangerous and stupid things far more often than you’d think. In the first week of December alone, TSA screeners discovered 41 firearms (36 of them loaded), 40 stun guns, 4 grenades, 2 eight-inch knives (one hidden inside a cane), and a rocket launcher. And that’s just the stuff they found. Terrorist attacks on airplanes are, thankfully, low-probability events. Scary carry-on items are not.

Travel tips

  • Cooperate. Be prepared for delays. Remember that every time you’re the focus of a screener, somebody else doesn’t get enough scrutiny. You know you’re not a bad guy. TSA doesn’t.
  • If you have the choice (and you often do), select a regular metal detector over a full body scanner, especially for kids. It takes less time and is medically safer.
  • If you get pulled aside for a pat down, you don’t have to stand there with 1,000 people watching. TSA doesn’t advertise this, but you have the right to get a pat down in a private room, by someone of the same gender, with a companion of your choice present.
  • Have your act together. Get shoes off, belts undone, liquids and computers out, change and papers removed from pockets before you hit the front of the line. And if you’re one of those guys that are always in front of me, think about wearing pants that stay up without a giant metal-studded belt. I think I speak for many when I say that view is one Christmas present we’d rather not have.