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Monday, August 01, 2016

Could implementing Israeli airport security actually save Americans money?

I've been arguing for years that Americans would be safer at a lower cost if they adopted Israeli style airport security. Now, in a scathing indictment of the TSA and its creators (Congress with enhancements by the Obama administration), the same argument is being made by John Tierny.
It was the federal government, not the private screeners, that set the policy allowing small knives and box cutters to be brought onto planes. Federal guidelines prevented airlines from arming pilots and reinforcing cockpit doors. The feds also stopped the private security firms from using an existing system to identify high-risk passengers, which would have singled out some of the hijackers for special screening.
Instead of learning from those mistakes, the Senate doubled down on central planning, voting unanimously to turn airport screening into a federal monopoly. The only intelligent deliberation occurred in the House of Representatives, where Republicans actually listened to experts from countries with considerable experience in aviation terrorism. Israel and European nations had learned the hard way that good security requires a division of responsibility. An independent watchdog is essential to ensure that screeners are doing their job, and the obvious candidate for that role is the federal government. But that means that someone else has to do the screening. The watchdog can’t watch itself.
House Republicans heeded the experts’ advice, and they had the votes to trump House Democrats yearning for more federal workers. The House passed a bill to establish a system modeled on the one used in Israel, Canada, and Europe: each airport would run its own screening system, and the feds would have wide authority to set standards, monitor performance, and mandate improvements. When it came time to reconcile the competing bills, however, Senate Democrats stood firm, and the House Republicans were denounced for putting ideology above national security. One of the loudest critics was New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who was such an ardent cheerleader for the TSA that he deserves to have the line at Newark Airport named after him. “The right’s fanatical distrust of government is the central fact of American politics, even in a time of terror,” Krugman wrote. Exploiting the public affection for firefighters after September 11, Krugman argued that the Republicans’ anti-TSA ideology would logically call for the elimination of the New York City Fire Department because fire protection should be a purely private responsibility.
I actually part company with Tierny over the Europeans. In many ways, their security is worse than the Americans. First, like the Americans, they don't profile. Second, they don't screen their screeners well enough, with the result that their airport security is staffed by people who have gone on to commit terrorist attacks. Third, they don't take advantage of the possibility of keeping people with connecting flights in sterile areas, so they don't have to be re-screened. Instead, they throw you out of the sterile area (in many instances, even if you're changing planes in the same terminal), requiring you to go through security again.

Last month, I was 'randomly selected' at Paris-DeGaulle (despite only connecting there, and despite being an elite flyer and old enough not to fit anyone's terrorist profile) for 'extra screening' on my way to board a flight to Philadelphia. I was practically strip searched, and the idiot went through every one of the nearly 20 pockets in my backpack with obviously no clue of what it was he was supposed to look for.

So, no, I don't want a European system. I want an Israeli one where people who have training in psychology profile passengers instead of randomly picking people out of a line like me or like the lady at the top of this post.
Like all government monopolies, the TSA blames its failures on lack of funding. But it’s already spending way too much, as demonstrated in a congressional study comparing TSA screeners in Los Angeles with non-TSA screeners in San Francisco, one of the few airports allowed to run its own system, contracting with a private company. If LAX switched to the San Francisco model, the study concluded, it could cut its screening costs by more than 40 percent.
The San Francisco private company’s screeners received the same salary and benefits as TSA screeners, but they were so much better trained and deployed that each one processed 65 percent more passengers than a TSA screener in Los Angeles. They apparently enjoyed better working conditions, too, because they were much less likely to quit their jobs. And in tests by federal investigators, they were three times better at detecting contraband.
As far as I am aware, Israel's system is all government run (although, come to think of it, I don't recall ever hearing that they went on strike, which all government unions do from time to time). But the key (other than the profiling) is that Israel's system has redundancy. They have more than one shot at catching terrorists. There's security before you ever get near the airport. If you arrive in a taxi, the security guard nearly always rolls down the window and asks where you're coming from - to hear your accent. If they're suspicious, the car is pulled over and searched. There's a security guard standing outside each door to the terminal, randomly pulling people over. You wait in a long line that moves VERY quickly to screen your checked baggage. Before they screen your checked baggage, they ask who packed it and where was it, and do you know why they're asking that question (Anne Murphy). They're looking for your manner (because they're trained in psychology) more than your answers. They always ask you if anyone gave you something to take with you. Usually, I just say no. A few months ago, I brought back a Torah scroll for someone and I spilled the beans to El Al (not Heathrow) security in London. They asked me who gave it to me and how well I knew the person. They were satisfied with my answers and let it go.

And then there's the security screening you're all used to abroad, which splits into 15-20 lines, most of which are not more than 10 minutes long. I usually get through all the security screening in 30-45 minutes and I have no priority status in Ben Gurion. That's no longer than anyplace else (one of the frequent excuses I hear why the Israeli system cannot be implemented elsewhere).

In Europe, when I'm not checking a bag, it takes about the same time (although in London that's only because I'm fast-tracked as an elite flyer with a British Airways partner - Heathrow is one of the worst airports in which to transfer if you have no privileges).

In the US, they don't screen checked bags until after they get them, and I get through security more quickly in most airports because (a) I'm an elite flyer (exception - Philadelphia where there's no such thing) or (b) I get TSA pre-cleared (always happens in Boston, usually in Chicago, rarely in Philadelphia).

TSA clearly needs to be reformed. It won't happen with Obama in power (he allowed them to unionize in 2011, which is what's preventing more airports from opting out) and it won't happen if Hillary Clinton wins the election either.

Read it all.

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