Let airports decide on own safety measures

As we approach the busiest air travel day of the year and the busiest season for flying, airline travel is poised to be fouled up not only by the weather but by the Transportation Security Administration and the inevitable backlash against the TSA’s new intrusive screening mandates.

Whatever happens this Thanksgiving week, the government’s approach to air travel security should be questioned and reassessed, perhaps by the lame-duck Congress and certainly by the new Congress the midterm elections created.

What rankled many passengers is the TSA’s decision to require all passengers to go through a full body scan machine that displays not only possible hidden weapons or contraband, but genitalia — and shows it all to somebody in a different room who doesn’t see the passenger — in the flesh. But still.

All the safeguards the TSA touts have been circumvented in the past. If someone refuses, the balky passenger is subject to “enhanced” pat-down procedures that include probing the groin and breast areas. Many Americans find both choices unacceptable.

More rankling is the strong likelihood that the decision to deploy the intrusive (and expensive) full-body scanners was made with no real cost-benefit analysis performed (as the Government Accountability Office noted in a March report), and that scanners add little or nothing to security. Officials (after being lobbied by scanner companies) spent $300 million to acquire scanners. Operating them will require hiring 5,000 more TSA personnel at a time when the entire federal government is being asked to take cuts, which will cost another $340 million a year. Other countries, notably Israel, rely more on asking questions of passengers than high-tech gimmicks.

Our government’s approach to airline security has been reactive and focused on objects. The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters, so the government banned blades, down to fingernail clippers. The “shoe bomber” episode led to passengers having to take off their shoes. Some wannabe terrorists worked with liquid explosives so water bottles had to go. In the wake of the (failed) underwear bomber last Christmas, the TSA decided to scan or grope more private areas on all passengers.

Official policy doesn’t seem to have noticed that, while bomb methods have changed, often in response to well-publicized changes in screening policies, would-be bombers (so far) have all been young men of Middle Eastern birth or extraction. But to say so in public would be “profiling.”

A system focused less on things and more on the people who are the real threat wouldn’t have to mean singling out one group. Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation has proposed a three-tier approach involving “trusted travelers,” who would be issued a biometric ID card, ordinary travelers, who would go through metal detectors, and a few high-risk travelers, whether identified by some watch list or current intelligence, who would get enhanced screening.

At the least, Congress should hold hearings at which the dissolution of the TSA — to be replaced by airports and/or airlines being able to hire private security or their own personnel to operate under guidelines that allow some experimentation to find best practices — is on the table, along with more modest options.