This past Friday, the 1st of November, Paul Ciancia walked into Los Angeles International Airport’s Terminal 3 with a singular mission, his mission was to shoot and kill Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees. Upon arriving at the TSA Travel Document Checker (TCD) station at the entrance to the security checkpoint, Mr. Ciancia opened his bag and removed a Smith & Wesson .223 caliber M&P 15 rifle, then methodically sought out TSA employees. Before Mr. Ciancia’s rampage was ended by law enforcement on the “air side” of the security checkpoint, he has fatally wounded a TSA Behaviour Detection Officer (BDO) Gerardo I. Hernandez, wounded another BDO, Tony Grigsby and shot Security Training Instructor (STI) James Speer.
As the events of this tragedy continue to come to light, talk has once again returned to how securing airports need to be addressed, as well as balancing airports security with the needs of an airport to operate, remain economically viable and not impinge upon the rights of those in and around the airport in the United States.
When discussing airport security, and in particular the role of the TSA in airport security, it is important to remember one critical factor. The TSA is not designed to protect an airport; the TSA is designed to protect the aircraft.
The protection of an airport, while the TSA plays a role, primarily falls to law enforcement and other security entities. The TSA’s focus is on making sure nothing gets through the airport that may place a flight at risk.
A frequent suggestion for airport security is that the United States adopt airport security procedures from Israel’s playbook, but that is both impractical and financially impossible. Here in the United States passengers complain about the 15 minute wait for TSA screening check points, we complain about taking our shoes off and the we will actually pay money for PreCheck to jump to the head of the line … but if you look towards Israel’s airport security you’ll find yourself longing for the days when you only waited 15 minuets for security and had to take your laptop out of your bad. For those who want ringed layers of security to prevent another shooting, be prepared to stop complaining about the minimally invasives questions you are occasionally asked by the TSA.
Before we dive into Israeli airport security, let’s not pretend cost isn’t a factor. Cost is a tremendous factor. The current costs of aviation security in the United States are seen by many as bloated, including the elected officials in Washington D.C who oversee the budget. Presently 99% of the TSA’s current US$7,644,585,000 budget is dedicated to aviation security, however the costs of Israeli style airport security are astronomical by comparison. Israel has six commercial airports with passenger carriers, and only one major international hub, whereas according to the Airports Council International, there are 494 airports in the United States with service from commercial passenger airlines and many international hubs spread throughout the country.
But how does airport security in Israel really work?
Upon arriving at the outer edge of an airport, every vehicle is stopped and the occupants of the vehicle are asked seemingly innocuous questions, typically these questions are, “How are you?” and “Where are you arriving at the airport from?” Those asking the questions aren’t really listening to the answers as much as they are observing how the questions are answered. Cars are frequently searched, frequently randomly, sometimes not so randomly. Searches may take place with mirrors being run under the vehicle, dogs sniffing cars or possibly a fiber optic scope being placed into the gas tank.
Once those traveling to the airport have parked their vehicle, or stepped off the bus, and they approach the terminal building they encounter the next layers of security. The first ring of security is Israel’s version the TSA’s Behaviour Detection Officers, however their training is far more extensive and those security agents are significantly armed. These security agents are watching every person’s body language both in person and via security cameras utilizing technology such as BriefCam, that offers automated review of security footage, looking for patterns that may be missed by humans when indexing hundreds of things at once. As people approach the entrance to a terminal they are stopped based on either behaviour or at random to be questioned and have their bags run through a magnometer. A magnometer is not looking for a gun or narcotics; it is looking for magnetic fields, ones associated with explosives and biological magnetic fields.
Upon entering an airport terminal in Israel passengers don’t head to the shops to buy a magazine or grab a snack they are placed into staggered lines, rather then snaking queues we are accustomed to in the United States. Staggered lines move slowly, but also prevent any choke points or mass gatherings of people that are ideal targets for a suicide bomber or a person with automatic-weapon. In these queues every passenger is approached by a security officer who has the job of literally getting in their face and making them uncomfortable, by unflinchingly looking them in the eyes while asking questions that they cannot refuse to answer. Passengers may be asked about where they are headed, their families, and other topics that may seem irrelevant. Largely the security agent, much like at the vehicle checkpoint, is not listing for the words of the answer, but for how the person reacts to the questions and how they answer the question. Typically questioning last less than 30 seconds, but if for any reason security is not satisfied with answers secondary screening can last for hours without the option of leaving the airport, or a passenger could simply be denied the ability to fly until further investigation.
Following questioning by security, passengers may then first approach their airline’s check in desk, at which point all baggage is immediately screened. Scanners are not the open ended x-ray machines seen throughout the United States; baggage is placed in blast proof containment unit that is specifically designed to deflect an explosion of up to roughly 220-pounds of plastic explosives. Typically the baggage screening area will have less than two dozen people in it at any time, so if a bag is deemed suspicious it can be dealt with right then and there, after removing the limited people in the area, and without the need to evacuate the entire airport.
For suspicious baggage with an explosive, screeners are trained is basic explosives handling so they can place the item in a shielded bomb-resistant-box, and placed to the side, while the site bomb squad is called to deal with the package.
The upside to airport security in Israel is that once passengers have passes the first multiple layers of security the lines at the passenger and carry on baggage screening area tend to move quickly. Israeli airport security is not terribly concerned with liquids, as any hazard would have likely been detected by the magnometer, and a person seeking to do harm would have likely been spotted during the first layers of security questioning.
Israel has also begun use of advanced technologies such as the Suspect Detection System VR-1000 that traces sweat patterns. The VR-1000’s technology can identify potential suspects, weeding out the nervous flier from the person seeking to do harm, based on cues rooted in psychological and physiological fear. Further more Israeli airports have automated systems in place that watch the watchers, that removes some issues associated with security being tired or overworked at peak times,
Now … let’s look at U.S. airports …
In the United States, like many nations around the world, an airport is a mix of a shopping mall and a hotel, except the end result for most people entering the airport is that they fly away somewhere else when they are done.
In the United States we do not have the manpower or infrastructure to stop and question every single vehicle entering the airport. Aside from the staffing and training costs associated with this security, airport roadways would need to be completely revamped, cost trillions of dollars and taking years to complete something that is unsustainable for a nation of this size with as many airports as the United States has.
Unlike Israel, airports in the United States have significant private financial interest. Airports are not fortresses, they are public spaced required to generate revenue and many must be financially self sustaining. Creating multiple barriers for entry would keep visitors away, it would keep those dropping people off and picking them up out of terminals which would result in the massive loss of revenue for the shops and restaurants found in airports. Millions of people enter airports to pick up friends and family and while waiting pick up a soda, some gum, and a magazine or sit down at a restaurant. Those retail outlets depend on that revenue and in turn airports depend on the revenue from those retail outlet leases to stay operational and fund the airport’s financial needs.
The way airports are currently designed in the United States, providing layers of security before entry ,would create new choke points, which would in turn create new threats for car bombs and IEDs. Aside from security, the sheer logistics of starting queues for entry outside the terminal in cities such as Minneapolis or Buffalo in January would pose an entirely separate set of problems that Israel does not face. No one has stood outside Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport with three kids in a sub-zero snowstorm waiting to enter the building.
Now, once inside the terminal, the majority of airline passengers already believe the Transportation Security Administration’s Transportation Security Officers are too invasive. There are constant calls that the TSA’s policy and procedure violate four amendment rights … now have passengers met by armed security agents while in their car, stopped and questioned by heavily armed security before entering the terminal and then having to stare a security agent with a automatic weapon strapped to their chest in the eyes at an uncomfortably close distance while being asked questions possibly about their children, their job, those they associate with.
In order to implement Israeli style security within terminals, every airport terminal would need to be gutted and completely redesigned. The costs of those national aviation security overhaul would drive the cost of airline travel up dramatically and cause many smaller airports to be shuttered, costing people their jobs, depriving economies essential revenue and making air travel a burden for those formerly served by these shuttered airports.
Americans are often quick to quote Benjamin Franklin’s “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” and you cannot have what Americans deem to be “essential liberty” and Israeli style security.
So in the wake of a tragedy such as the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport’s Terminal 3 as people demand more security, and want to know why no one stopped the gunman from entering the airport, keep these factors in mind.
Something else to keep in mind … had a gunman walked into a gas station in Chicago, The Bronx, Detroit or Los Angeles leaving behind the same path of dead and wounded this story would have likely taken up maybe two minutes on the 11:00pm news.
Airport security is not straightforward and there are many factors. Changes do need be made and certainly will be made. The key is finding effective long term changes that meet all the complex realities of providing security in a challenging public environment such as an airport.