The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is considering a new plan that would eliminate security screening at 150 small US airports. Under the plan, passengers would instead be screened when they arrive at a bigger airport to connect to another destination.

“I find that unbelievable, totally beyond comprehension,” said Glen Winn, the former United airlines Chief Security Officer. “[Terrorists] will just begin their plans immediately.”

The idea was first mentioned over two years ago. At that time, many critics saw the move as an effort to get Congress to spend more money on the agency (the logic being that, if the agency needs to cut screening at certain airports, Congress should provide additional funds to keep the screening areas open).

The announcement comes as the TSA has been increasing security practices across the US. The Trump administration has stepped up screening for items such as laptops on certain incoming international flights, and the TSA has recently increased its screening of tablets, laptops, cameras, and more. It is also almost two decades after the TSA was first created following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“This is completely nuts,” said Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Perhaps they want an outcry from the public to say ‘Oh, no, no, no, Congress, give them the additional $115 million that they say this would save.’ ”

Many safety experts are concerned that would-be terrorists could penetrate the United States’ airways at the airports without TSA checkpoints and use small shuttle aircraft to damage buildings or other infrastructure.

This concern can be linked to past aviation safety issues in the United States. On September 11, Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari, two hijackers, flew from Portland to Boston because, by flying out of Portland first, they were more easily able to escape notice. Though Portland’s airport wouldn’t be included in the TSA’s proposal, the two hijackers perceived it as less secure because of its small size at the time. In Boston, the hijackers boarded an American Airlines 767 (American flight 11) and crashed it into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

The TSA says that no decision has been finalized on the plan. A spokesman said, rather, that discussions are “predecisional discussions and deliberations and would not take place without a risk assessment to ensure the security of the aviation system.”

“There has been no decision to eliminate passenger screening at any federalized U.S. airport,” TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said. “Every year as part of the federal budget process TSA is asked to discuss potential operational efficiencies – this year is no different. The regulations which established TSA does not require screening below a certain level, so every year is ‘the year’ that TSA will reconsider screening.”

Closing TSA checkpoints at 150 unspecific airports could affect about 10,000 passengers daily, or about 0.5% of passengers flying out of a US airport every day.

The TSA has proposed cutting security checkpoints from 150 airports across the country. Supports of the plan say that small planes can’t reasonably be used as weapons, while critics of the plan say that it gives potential terrorists easy access to large planes at major airports.
Image by Andrew Hunt via airliners.net; Image found via Aviation Stock Exchange

“They say that only 0.5 flights would be affected, but on any given day that’s a lot of flights,” Schiavo said. “At each one of those [airports] you could have everything from a 19-seater to a 50-seater aircraft. Imagine if [terrorists] took out 10 regional flights in one day? You’ve had the largest loss of life, other than 9/11, in an aviation accident in decades.”

“Not only will this destroy any reasonable security over American skies, it will destroy small towns and cities across the country because they will virtually have no air service,” Schiavo continued, saying that a loss of security could make some passengers too scared to fly. “We’re not going to do any security for you. Would anyone fly from Toledo? Absolutely not. What does it do to Toledo, Ohio? Destroys it. You’ll have no air service. No one’s going to get on a plane without security. It’s not only terrorists, it’s nut cases.

“It’s not like hijackers and terrorists and people with bad ideas will forget that we have smaller airports in America, and now with no security? It’s just bonkers. It’s so crazy. It’s confoundedly stupid.”

“Al Qaeda and ISIS still regard aviation as a priority target — that includes aircraft where you have fewer than 60 people on board,” said CNN analyst Paul Cruickshank. “They would see that as a way to hit the headlines. They would see that as a way to inflict severe economic damage on the United States. If you have an aircraft of 50 or so people being blown out of the sky there is going to be a great amount of panic and there will indeed be significant economic reverberations, and of course significant loss of life.”

Analysts aren’t the only people concerned over this proposal. Two unidentified senior TSA officials have expressed serious national security concerns over the proposal. A TSA field leader at a major airport called the idea “dangerous”.

The TSA says that a proposal that would cut screening at some small and medium-sized airports serving aircraft with 60 seats or fewer brings a “small (non-zero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity.” The agency says that it would use the $115 million that it would save by cutting security at small airports to bolster security at larger airports.

Small airports, according to the TSA, aren’t very “attractive” to terrorists; the small planes, according to the TSA, would not be as attractive since the “potential for loss of life” would be lower than an attack with larger planes.

“People, weapons, dangerous goods and what’s boarding the plane are all potential risks,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration. She argues that small planes are just as easy to weaponize as larger jets are. “TSA is falling into the trap that this is just about terror. A gun could be brought on board too.”

The TSA argues that cutting security checkpoints at 150 small airports could save it $115 million per year. The agency has proposed using the extra money to improve security at other airports.
Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

About 2500 weapons are confiscated at TSA checkpoints from people who would otherwise have carried them onboard an aircraft.

“Terrorists want to bring down aircraft to instill fear, disrupt our economies and undermine our way of life. And it works, which is why they still see aviation as the crown jewel target,” said former DHS Secretary John Kelly when announcing a cabin laptop on international flights coming into the United States. “The threat has not diminished. In fact, I am concerned that we are seeing renewed interest on the part of terrorist groups to go after the aviation sector — from bombing aircraft to attacking airports on the ground.”

Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has Senate jurisdiction over the TSA, said that a proposal similar to this has “been a recurring idea for many years” at the TSA.

“But they have not made any decision about moving forward,” he said. “Chairman [John] Thune (R-S.D.), would expect TSA to engage with the Senate and House committees of jurisdiction if consideration of such a significant change to security advances beyond a preliminary discussion.”

Yet, despite all the criticism for the move, there is some, some support for it. Jeffrey Price, an aviation security expert at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said that the TSA could save money by shutting down certain security checkpoints. Price says that the TSA could move screeners with a lot of time between flights at small airports to larger airports where there is more traffic.

Price also argues that small planes are less dangerous as weapons since they are smaller and carry less fuel than larger planes like those used in the September 11 attacks.

Price does acknowledge, though, that a potential terrorist could fly from a small, unprotected airport to a bigger one and carry out an attack from there, where they would be beyond the current ring of security checkpoints in the terminals.

Though multiple sources say that such a proposal happens often, the previously mentioned senior TSA officials say that the TSA is working on forming a working group to conduct a risk and cost analysis of the proposal, meaning that it could be more than just an “annual exercise”.

The TSA is currently responsible for security at close to 440 airports, and over 2 million passengers are screened every day. The agency scans 1.3 million checked bags and 4.9 million carry-on bags per day. The TSA provides security for 23,000 domestic flights and 2,800 outbound international flights every day.

Featured image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images