CNN reported last week that the Transportation Security Administration was considering a proposal to eliminate security screening at 150 small- to medium-sized airports across the nation. If it was a trial balloon, it was rightly shot down.
Within days, TSA Administrator David Pekoske forcibly pushed back against the notion. “TSA will not be eliminating passenger screening at any federalized U.S. airport as suggested in recent media reports,” he said.
As tantalizing as the idea of not having to go through a TSA checkpoint at Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport might be to some, this proposal simply couldn’t stand up to scrutiny.
According to the original report, TSA officials believed cutting security at smaller airports would save $115 million a year that could be used to beef up security at larger airports. Luggage and passengers from smaller airports would be screened when they arrived for connecting flights.
Internal documents reviewed by CNN suggested that the smaller aircraft from these airports wouldn’t make “attractive” targets to terrorists because “the potential loss for loss of life” would be lower than with larger aircraft.
That is a completely unfounded and dangerous assumption.
Imagine, for instance, the psychological and economic impact of a series of coordinated attacks on regional jets — a trivial accomplishment if security is eliminated at the airports they fly from. If hijacked jets were weaponized as they were during the 9/11 attacks, the damage could easily approach or even exceed that of the most devastating terror attack against America.
“People, weapons, dangerous goods and what’s boarding the plane are all potential risks,” said Juliette Kayyem, a CNN analyst and former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. “TSA is falling into the trap that this is just about terror. A gun could be brought on board too.”
It’s certainly true that providing security screenings for larger airports is more efficient and cost-effective than it is for the relatively small number of flights and passengers that depart airports like Sonoma County’s — about a dozen flights daily with maybe 600 passengers. But that doesn’t mean the duty could be shirked without absolutely unacceptable risks.
CNN said this proposal would have affected about 10,000 passengers every day. Since it targeted airports with flights of fewer than 60 passengers, that would mean at least 160 flights taking off every day in the United States with no security screening — a completely absurd and intolerable situation that would practically invite an attack.
TSA administrator Pekoske insists the proposal was merely a “pre-decisional budget exercise” that had not been subjected to a risk assessment. But the idea should have been an absolute nonstarter. No risk assessment is needed to determine that the risks posed by this idea are too great to even consider it at any stage in the budgeting process.
There are undoubtedly many ways TSA could improve the security screening process to make it more efficient, as well as a more pleasant experience for travelers, without sacrificing effectiveness. Eliminating security checks from smaller airports is not one of them.
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