Most people remember exactly where they were when they heard the news, hijacked airplanes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City.
September 11, 2001, thereafter known succinctly as 9/11, was a shocking time for many people. After the attacks, people feared flying and questioned airport security.
Since that infamous Tuesday morning’s terrorist attacks, the government has spent millions of dollars in efforts of improving the public safety of airports. Despite the cost of these enhancements, the efficaciousness of these changes is challenged by the dangers they pose as well as the numerous airport security breaches in the last decade.
Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks on September 11th, began planning the attacks over a decade before they transpired. Leading up to 2001, the airplane hijackers acquired U.S. passports and visas and enrolled in flight schools on American soil. When September 11th, 2001 arrived, “The hijackers passed through security checkpoints at four U.S. airports, allegedly carrying knives, box cutters, and concealed weapons on their person or in carry-on luggage,” as noted by the Los Angeles Times.
That Tuesday morning, like several thousand others, Debbie Williams took her usual train to the World Trade Center. She had been in the office, on the 104th floor of the South Tower, for less than two hours when one of the hijacked planes crashed into floors 93 to 99 of the North Tower.
My dad, running late, was still on the subway to the World Trade Center, where he also worked, when the second hijacked plane collided into floors 77 to 85 of the South Tower.
Debbie Williams, my mom, was one of the nearly 3,000 9/11 victims that lost their lives that day (September 11 Memorial and Museum). Had the terrorists’ weapons been detected, the fate and future of those innocent people, and the way our country remembers that day could have been forever altered.
After 9/11, TSA created a “Sept. 11 fee,” that would be added to airplane tickets as well as air carrier fees. This added expense has resulted in the collection of almost $15 billion in plane tickets over nine years following the attacks and $2.9 billion in air carrier fees.
People tend to feel comforted when they hear that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has invested $3 billion into extra staffing and scanning technology (PBS). However, while the TSA has dispersed the funding needed to implement these changes, they fail to see effective results. Lives can be put at risk with a single human or technological error.
Before 9/11, knives up to the length of four inches, baseball bats, box cutters, darts, needles, and scissors were approved by security. Since then, full-body scanners, randomized pat-downs, and explosion detection systems have been implemented.
The concern is not with the installation of these new procedures, but with their accuracy. In 2015, the acting TSA director was reassigned after a test revealed a failure to detect potential weapons in 67 out of 70 trials.
In one of these trials, agents failed to detect a fake explosive taped to an agent’s back, even after performing a pat-down that was prompted after the agent set off the magnetometer alarm. High percentages of error bring into question the capabilities of these machines and raise concerns due to the small margins for machine and/or human error.
The biggest fear is that the combination of both a human and technological error may put thousands of lives at risk again. Prosecutors in California report that 66-year-old Marilyn Hartman has attempted to breach airport security at least 18 times. Her most recent attempt was in January of this 2018.
Despite not having a boarding pass or passport, Hartman snuck past two TSA officers in the Chicago O’Hare International Airport and onto a plane bound for London. When traveling for vacation, a Los Angeles Times journalist, David Horsey, stopped to wait for his wife, who had been selected for a random security check. When he explained his situation to a nearby TSA officer on break, the officer replied, ‘“This is all a joke. I can think of a hundred ways to sneak a weapon through all of this.”’
Had Hartman been concealing a weapon when sneaking through airport security checkpoints, the situation could have resulted in tragedy.
If TSA officers do not take the agency seriously, it is unlikely that travelers will either.
Intent on avoiding this reputation, the TSA has made several material changes. Until 2005, employees working at the security checkpoints were known as, “screeners.” Though their job descriptions were not updated, these employees were henceforth known as, “Transportation Security Officers.”
Three years later, on the seventh anniversary of the attacks, TSA employees debuted their new uniforms. Plain white uniforms and embroidered patches were replaced by blue ones, with authoritative metal badges.
In a National Press Release, TSA endorsed that, “this new uniform represent[ed] the highly skilled and tested nature of TSA’s frontline workforce” (TSA).
However, the changes the TSA made were superficial and ultimately failed to address the underlying flaws and inconsistencies that left travelers exposed.
Their attempt to revamp an ineffective system with aesthetic changes to uniforms and titles, designed to imply a new sense of authority and professionalism, failed. Much like the agency itself, the changes were visible but, outside of trying to create a false sense of security for a concerned public, lacked any real substance or purpose.
Since machines have failed to detect security threats, the responsibility of public safety has fallen onto passengers themselves.
On September 11th, passengers on flight 93, the fourth plane hijacked by Al Qaeda on 9/11, regained control of the aircraft and diverted it away from its intended target, Washington D.C.
Since 9/11, other radicalists have passed through the various layers of airport security and threatened the safety of travelers—similar to the case of flight 93, Richard C. Reid, the “Shoe Bomber,” was constrained by airplane passengers when he attempted to light a fuse in the sole of his shoe, which contained C-4.
Tom Kinton, aviation director at Boston-Logan Airport, said, “the courage of the men and women aboard…prevented something very serious from occurring,” especially because, “plastic explosives are undetectable by most airport screening devices and typically are picked up only by trained dogs.”
In 2009, the man known as the “Underwear Bomber” was also restrained by passengers who noticed sounds similar to a firecracker coming from his direction.
While officials are working diligently to improve security measures by implementing harsher restrictions and installing newer technology, the results continue to be negative.
Closer inspections have caused security lines to multiply and “TSA [now] advises arriving two hours early for domestic flights and three hours early for international flights,” compared to the previous one-hour recommendation.
With these longer wait times, “checkpoint lines remain vulnerable terrorist targets for bombings, shootings, or the potential release of chemical or biological agents because they often consist of large congregations of individuals in the “non-sterile” portion of the airport terminal, that is prior to screening for possible threat items.”
In reality, if someone with malicious intent wanted to carry out an attack, they could easily perpetuate it in the now confined and often overcrowded lines resulting from these new security changes. Thus the solution to airport security must be more holistic and effective in preventing motivated attackers.
The TSA’s inability to make significant progress despite increasingly effective infrastructure and technology reveals a concerning pattern regarding their ability to adapt to the ever-evolving threats of the 21st century.
Recent efforts to improve their flawed system have failed to produce the intended results and forced the TSA to reconsider how they are allocating their resources.
Since 2011, TSA has been debating on whether or not they should remove passenger screening from over 150 small airports. In 2018, this conversation intensified.
TSA stresses that although removing screening from these airports makes them more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, it is unlikely that these less populated airports would be targets anyways. The administration claims that this change could save them $115 million. However, those are savings that risk the safety of passengers who visit these smaller airports.
While security systems in place are constantly being modified, terrorist groups and other threats continue to find new ways to pass through undetected.
In order for airport security to be an effective solution and guarantee the safety of passengers, the process must make significant advancements. It is clear at this point that preventing attacks and keeping our airways safe requires a better solution than the currently implemented technology and procedures offer.
While throwing billions of dollars at a problem shows the government is committed to making these improvements, current data reveals TSA remains ineffective, offering little more than a false sense of security.
It is time to reevaluate and restructure airport security if the U.S. government wants to prevent another motivated attack executed on U.S. soil.
9/11 will forever live in U.S. history and has been a catalyst for change. Airport security must continue to evolve in order to be effective in preventing another mass loss of life.