Everyone empty your pockets?
Stopping only those who fit a terrorist `profile' might make the skies safer
Delta Airlines pilot Dennis Dolan recalls it happening at Newark, but the scene could be at any of the nation's 429 commercial airports. A harried young mother, struggling to steer her three fractious youngsters through security, was pulled aside, searched, and made to empty her carry-on bags and the backpacks of her now bawling kids. Says Dolan, head of the Airline Pilots Association's security task force: "We've got to inject some common sense into the screening system."
The young mother Dolan spotted would almost certainly not have been stopped and searched in Europe--where the security gantlet is considered more rigorous than the egalitarian system favored in the United States. Since September 11, there have been hundreds of similar horror stories at U.S. airports: elderly and infirm passengers, sometimes frail and confused, spilling out the contents of their pockets and purses at airport checkpoints; even pilots and flight attendants aren't exempt. The question is, does treating everyone as a potential suspect make air travel safer?
High profile. Critics say there is a better way. Domestic airport security could be significantly improved by adopting methods pioneered by the Israeli airline El Al and adapted for use at European airports, which have decades of experience defending against terrorist attacks. Their systems are designed to identify high-threat passengers--those who fit a particular profile--and subject them to intense scrutiny, while speeding low- and no-risk fliers through the security zone.
The tools include computer databases containing watch lists provided by Interpol and other law enforcement agencies. Passenger scrutiny may include considerations of race, ethnicity, and other personal factors--the kind of profiling that the United States has been loath to adopt. Fliers who voluntarily undergo rigorous background checks can obtain "trusted traveler" cards, used in Israel and now being tested in Europe. The cards are safeguarded with biometric information and permit holders to bypass high-level security checkpoints. This in turn leaves screeners more time to concentrate on passengers deemed high risk.
The European system places greater emphasis on human interaction with passengers than on X-ray machines and metal detectors because terrorists--including the September 11 hijackers and the alleged shoe bomber Richard Reid--may not be carrying prohibited or metallic items. Ferreting them out, believes security consultant Joel Feldschuh, a former CEO of El Al, "is more art than science." Probing questions by skilled interviewers trained in psychology and interrogation techniques are far more effective in detecting jittery hijackers than the American ticket agents' perfunctory "did you pack your own bags?"
Instead of zeroing in on those who fit the high-risk profile, U.S. domestic airports treat each passenger as an equal threat, throwing in random checks in hopes of keeping the villains off balance. Some safety experts regard this model as badly flawed. "If you treat everyone as a potential terrorist, you get to a system of averages, and the bad guys love that," says Lior Zouker, president of Amsterdam-based ICTS International, whose company operates screening at some 100 European airports and identified alleged shoe bomber Reid to French police as a suspicious flier. "They are excellent at collecting information, analyzing it, and trying to get to the soft underbelly of the system."