Officials aren’t sure what to believe about the man’s story at this point, but they are sure of one thing: The O’Hare airport security system experienced what Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta called "a failure of dramatic dimensions."
[an error occurred while processing this directive]Fallout from the spectacular breach was immediate; lawmakers called for fines against United Airlines, which hired Argenbright, the private security outfit conducting the screenings. The largest airport security operation in the country, Argenbright is already under investigation for lying about performing background checks on employees at the Philadelphia International Airport. The O’Hare workers involved have been suspended.
How can we make it better?
The latest breach doesn’t surprise people like Richard Gritta, an airline industry expert and business professor at the University of Portland. "At this point," says Gritta, "the system is so full of holes you don’t have to be all that clever to get through. You just have to count on the incompetence of the people who are in charge of security, and based on what we’ve seen, that’s a pretty safe bet."
So how do we make the system work? First, we need cash, and second, we’re going to have to totally reconstruct our security infrastructure.
One of the key flaws in U.S. security systems stems from the fact that only 2 to 5 percent of checked bags are X-rayed or hand-searched before being loaded onto a plane. Those bags, which are chosen randomly or flagged by a computer system, are subjected to intense scrutiny much like the rigors endured by each and every bag tagged for Israel’s El Al airline. But most experts agree we should screen every bag that makes it onto an airplane, a task that would require at least 2,000 highly sensitive giant CT-scan machines. Each of these truck-sized x-ray chambers costs a whopping $1.2 million to install, and while the government has pledged $2 billion for the new machines, there are logistics to consider: At peak capacity, each scanner can accurately examine about 150 bags per hour, or 212 million bags per year. Considering that passengers check about 1 billion bags every year, that estimate seems a bit paltry.
Another, more controversial measure would match baggage to passengers, making sure no bags are checked without an accompanying traveler. European airports have embraced this arduous and time-consuming task, but U.S. pilots hate the idea, says Gritta. "Pilots hate it because it’s a pain and pushes their time back even further when they’re up against the wall already." Opponents also argue that such a move would do nothing to deter suicide bombers, who by definition are happy to climb aboard a plane right along with their bombs.
Cues from abroad
Gritta, like many others, points to El Al as an example of how heightened security can work. Airline security employees are among the most diligently vetted, highly trained and respected workers in Israel, and despite perpetual threats against its planes, El Al’s safety record is flawless. Gritta is quick, however, to point out that sheer volume of travelers will dictate significant differences between Israeli security and any system adopted in the U.S. In just two days, he says, U.S. airlines carry as many passengers as fly El Al over an entire year. "It’s obviously going to be quite a bit tougher for us to implement tight security."
But implement we must cost be damned. Recent polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans are in favor of increased security at airports, even if improvements mean hiking ticket prices by $5 or $10 apiece.
The key to truly effective airport security, says Gritta, is eliminating the human factor altogether. No matter how well trained or well-paid you are, if you’re sitting at a scanning station for more than an hour at a time, you’re probably going to drift off occasionally. "But if there’s a way to automate the whole process, with fingerprint recognition techniques or highly sophisticated scanners," says Gritta, "we’d be a lot better off."
Given the sluggish pace at which American airports have implemented even the most basic security improvements, it seems highly unlikely the American traveling public will be confronted with such space-age technology anytime in the near future. We can, however, hope (and lobby) for a more comprehensive airport security system one which does not compromise safety in the name of the bottom line.