Major vulnerabilities persist in the decade since air travelers sacrificed convenience and privacy for the promise of heightened security in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the message from the government and security watchdogs is that there still is much to fear.
A new video that is played for airline passengers waiting to go through security checkpoints at many airports addresses the unpopular post-Sept. 11 rule limiting carry-on liquids and gels to 3.4-ounce containers. The video hits a nerve — bad people are still trying to harm us — while appealing for the traveling public's cooperation and patience in response to the continuing threat of terrorists bringing aboard explosives to blow up airliners.
But travelers' tolerance and confidence that they are being adequately protected has thinned over what many of them consider silly and ineffective security measures designed to obscure glaring weaknesses in a well-funded system that has had 10 years to get it right. Passengers said they see children or elderly people being patted down by federal Transportation Security Administration screeners, and they become angry that the least risky individuals are being pulled out of line and searched.
"It's annoying. You can't say it's not," said Tony Blood, 34, of Chicago, who was traveling on business from O'Hare International Airport to Toronto last week. "To me, the TSA reaction to a threat is always stronger than the event that led up to it.''
Passengers said they spend less time being scrutinized during the screening process than they do putting shoes and other clothing back on after submitting to full-body imaging scans, before hurrying to retrieve laptop computers and other personal items that went through X-ray conveyor belts. Travelers said they know firsthand that prohibited items often get through and the quality of screening varies from airport to airport, another weak link that sophisticated terrorists or criminals would know about too.
Continuing concerns about weaknesses in U.S. aviation security were spotlighted in a report released by the former heads of the 9/11 Commission last week. It said the TSA's ability to detect explosives hidden on passengers boarding planes "lacks reliability," the aviation screening system "still falls short" and the new full-body scanners cannot detect explosives hidden in a body cavity.
Dissatisfaction with the security apparatus is evident among members of Congress too.
After 9/11, the consensus among lawmakers was that the U.S. would spend whatever was necessary to defend homeland security. Now, the TSA is fighting for funding, promising to perform its job smarter and to close security loopholes. At the same time, the agency defends controversial huge expenditures, such as on body scanners, that have prompted a flood of complaints about invasion of privacy and possible health risks.
"The reason all those body scanners are here at the airport is because of the 'Underwear Bomber,'" Blood said, referring to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who on Christmas Day 2009 boarded a Detroit-bound flight in Amsterdam with plastic explosives sewn into his underwear. "That one event happened in Detroit, and the TSA said, 'Oh crap, now we have to start checking people's underwear, right?'"
Ross Ratcliff had already cleared security at O'Hare last week when he encountered a second screening process at his gate before boarding a Virgin America flight to San Francisco. TSA screeners randomly selected passengers to have their bags manually searched.
Ratcliff thought the exercise was redundant and unnecessary, remarking that the screeners didn't even appear to do a thorough search during the re-check.
"Screen the bags right the first time," Ratcliff, 38, said. "This doesn't give me a safe, warm and fuzzy feeling. This is delaying my departure, and it's my tax money rolling right through all these government employees standing around here doing this.
"Taking my tweezers away from me is not going to win the war on terrorism."
Skip LaSaker, a TSA manager at O'Hare, said random gate screening is conducted all across the airport every day, and it sometimes prompts questions from concerned travelers regarding whether their individual flight was targeted for extra attention.
"My officers will explain to them what they are doing, and that is usually sufficient,'' LaSaker said.
Yet the inconvenience factor has shot off the charts in recent years, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.
"The real pain for business travelers is the lost productivity," Mitchell said. "You leave a customer's office an hour or more before you should because you just don't know what to expect at the airport."
With no repeat attacks in the U.S. since 2001, the TSA's strategy to make travelers feel it can be dangerous to fly is "a buzzkill," Mitchell said. He said passenger traffic on shorter flights has not rebounded since the terror attacks because many people are opting to drive out of fear or to avoid the security hassles at airports.
Others give the TSA more credit, especially for communicating with the public honestly about risks and about building support.
Aviation security hassles, weaknesses persist
Critics complain screenings inconvenient, ineffective; TSA says it's moving toward risked-based system
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