Airport Security: Passenger Safety

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The use of invasive pat-downs and body scans to increase passenger safety with regards to airport security are not effective methods, and it is clear that continued use of these systems is not an effective deterrent of violent action and instead merely results in frustration and anger aimed at officials. Statistical studies have not shown nor proven that invasive pat-downs and body scans are effective, and different approaches may also run afoul of discrimination laws and associated politics. Moreover, the interruption of travel time adds substantial stress to the passengers subjected to the searches, but also to the entire passenger demographic by creating longer lines and slower processing times. Thus, I argue that authorizing the authorities and security personnel to openly bear arms while on duty is an effective and vastly less expensive method to increase the security of airports; moreover, passengers would be more likely to respond favorably to any change in conditions that expedites the security process.  In addition, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would do well to implement metal detectors and scans of passenger baggage rather than ineffective scans and pat downs of passengers.

The question asked of any security policy must be the extent to which it accomplishes the goals set forth by its mandate. The goals, of course, have become more stringent since September 11, 2001. Invasive pat-downs and body scans have not been shown to reduce incidents of violence and criminality. Wein (2010) reports that, out of 232,000 passengers chosen to be searched, only 1,710 arrests were made (p. 413). With only seven percent of secondary screenings yielding enough tangible evidence to warrant an arrest, it is clear that there is little evidence to support the idea that invasive pat-downs and body scans are effective methods in ensuring airport security. Published figures by the TSA state that over eight hundred handguns are confiscated in airports every year, yet virtually all of these weapons are found on checked baggage. The inability and ineffectiveness of invasive pat-downs to catch instances of passengers engaging in illicit and criminal behavior, or attempting to carry contraband on the plane, are simply too great to ignore. 

A substantial issue with invasive pat-downs arises when one factors in the presence of discrimination laws and the heavily politicized nature of the security industry. The TSA has a long track record of accusations against it for targeting specific minority groups and ethnicities for extra searches. While the pat-downs themselves are stated to be free of bias and are only utilized on a random basis as well when a passenger is exhibiting some other security concern, concerns and allegations of racism are abounding. However, even though “federal guidelines forbid screeners to consider race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, clothing, facial hair, language, [and] accent”, there are nonetheless suspicions that individuals of particular ethnic groups are targeted more often than others (Satchell 18). Individuals of Middle eastern descent, for example, often face increase scrutiny, whereas white and elderly passengers are known to be given more leeway, despite federal policies to the contrary (Satchell 19). Indeed, Satchell reports in his 2002 article that “targeting someone for extra attention solely because of his appearance is a likely violation of federal civil rights law”, and that “in the absence of other incriminating evidence, body and baggage searches must be entirely random”. Thus, while federal policy prohibits discrimination against any suspect groups in order to ensure the full and continued extension of civil liberties to all people, it is clear that a strong preference towards searching particular ethnic and cultural groups does exist. 

Though the Israeli method of airport security, which is centered around the concept of subjecting individuals who reflect dangerous traits associated with particular enemies of their state to intense, individual scrutiny and simultaneously expediting the processing time of low-risk passengers has been shown to both greatly reduce travel time and enhance security, such policies are difficult for the American public in particular to swallow (Hasisi et al.). Moreover, substantial civil rights legislation and policies exist to prevent the implementation of the Israeli-style system in domestic American airports, despite the proven effectiveness of its approach in preventing breaches to airport security. For American policymakers, the “implications of having groups risk-profiled […] creates new problems for their members, as it now [confirmed] that they are risks, regardless of whether, individually, members turn out to be harmful” (O'Malley 417). Thus, the importance of racial discrimination and the legal aspect of airport security plays a major role in determining viable policy options. 

Stemming from the ineffectiveness and inefficiency associated with invasive and lengthy pat-downs and body scans, the time delays that result from these policies are significant to both the targeted individuals as well as the passenger demographic as a whole. Weinberger (2010) states that partaking in the commercial flight industry is stressful as it is, and increasing the wait times, lines, and technical difficulties of airplane travel with ineffective and unproven security measures only increases the likelihood of further stress and damage to the passengers (Weinberger 414). Unlike other systems of airport security, the American style focuses heavily on the technical aspect and statistical analytics of terrorism and different types of terrorism, which runs contrary to more proven methods of ensuring passenger safety. By not allowing low-risk passengers quicker processing times with less hassle, airport security systems in the United States target a much broader range of groups with equal scrutiny. This approach, unfortunately, results in delays and an inefficient system of security operation. The pat-downs and body scans cause only excessive and frequent delays and is it not unknown for individuals to have greatly reduced desires to return to air travel to reach their destinations. The elimination of as many stressors as possible reduces the strain on passengers, most of whom are already frazzled from the nature of airport security. Adding additional ineffective procedures on top of what is already in place causes further strain. 

Allowing for TSA agents and airport security personnel to openly bear arms is a method adopted by the Israelis and had been shown to positively increase airport security without causing the undue delays that invasive searches and scans create. The intimidation factor alone is significant in the psychology of crime, as the open presence of lethal weaponry on behalf of officials is a strong display of security that metal detectors and body scanners lack. Moreover, as physical searches only ensure that the individual is not carrying prohibited items, the presence of armed guards serves to intimidate and neutralize the intent to cause harm. Wearing weapons only would not increase the public perception of airport security away from ineffective searches and more towards an open display of power, but also expedite the system of processing passengers from airports overall. By preventing life-threatening situations through open display of effective force, airport security will thus be enhanced. 

The use of invasive pat-downs and body scans is an ineffective method to ensure passenger safety in airports. Not only is there little statistical evidence to prove their efficacy, but minority and ethnic groups are often unduly targeted for the searches, despite federal policies prohibiting such action. Moreover, the interruption of travel for other passengers increases stress levels in airports and slows the processing time for all involved. By openly wearing firearms, the Transportation Security Administration can greatly expedite processing times while simultaneously increased the level of practical security offered to passengers. 

Works Cited

Cave, Kyle R. et al. "Costs in Searching for Two Targets: Dividing Search Across Target Types Could Improve Airport Security Screening." Applied Cognitive Psychology 21.7 (2007): 915-932. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 May 2013.

Hasisi, Badi, and David Weisburd. "Going Beyond Ascribed Identities: The Importance of Procedural Justice in Airport Security Screening in Israel." Law & Society Review 45.4 (2011): 867-892. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 June 2013. 

O'Malley, Pat. "Risks, Ethics, And Airport Security." Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice 48.3 (2006): 413-421. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 May 2013.

Satchell, Michael. "Everyone Empty Your Pockets?" U.S. News & World Report 132.10 (2002): 18-19. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 June 2013. 

Weinberger, Sharon. "Airport Security: Intent to Deceive?" Nature 465.7297 (2010): 412-415. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 May 2013.