Security experts says quality airport security difficult to gaugeby Martin Moylan, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — As security agencies increase their efforts to pick out potential terrorists and bomb threats, you might wonder how good security is at the Twin Cities airport.
Airport security is a hot topic lately, with the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines' flight on Christmas -- and the false alarm that partially shut down the Twin Cities airport on Tuesday.
A decade or so ago, there would be occasional tests of security at airports around the country. Someone would try to sneak fake bombs, for instance, past security checkpoints. And the results of the probes would be made public.
But aviation security expert Douglas Laird said such disclosures ended after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in which four passenger jets were hijacked.
"After 9-11, they formed the TSA," Laird said. "And, of course, that is a government entity and they don't publish anything."
Laird said you really can't tell how well or bad security is at the Twin Cities airport or any other domestic airport.
"When it comes right back to where we rank Minneapolis as to 'security,' it's pretty difficult to do," he said. "The data is not public. It is really difficult."
And there's a good reason for that -- at least in the view of Richard Bloom, an aviation security expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
"If you really had a transparent rating of the top 430 airports; well if I'm a terrorist I'm going to go after number 430, whatever that might be," Bloom said.
The TSA doesn't disclose much, if anything, about its budgets, staffing and effectiveness for specific airports. A TSA spokeswoman declined to be interviewed for this story. But, she provided some background information about the agency's efforts at the Twin Cities airport.
Last year, the TSA screened about 10.5 million passengers at the airport. Millions of passengers, of course, switch planes at the airport and never go through local security checkpoints. That's typical for hub airports such as the one in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
But Douglas Laird and some other security experts say that points to a serious vulnerability in aviation security. Simply put, Laird said terrorists could have a better chance of slipping a bomb past security checks at smaller airports where they get on planes to bigger airports and connecting flights.
Laird said big airports have much better technology to detect bombs.
"The TSA at the larger airports has the technology to have [about] a 99 percent chance of finding what they are looking for," Laird said. "At the smaller airports, where they don't use EDS, explosive detection system, their chance of finding the device are much more limited."
At the Twin Cities airport, the TSA said the average wait time to get through security is about 15 minutes. A 2005 government study said the Twin Cities had the sixth shortest waits among 20 international U.S. airports.
In an average month, screeners at the airport take about 630 prohibited items from travelers. That excludes all those bottles of soda, shampoo and other liquids.
The agency said the airport's screening system for checked bags is "state of the art." And it touts advanced X-ray technology deployed to screen carry-on bags. The Twin Cities airport, however, does not currently have the scanners that allow screeners to see through passengers' clothes.
Those units are deployed at 19 airports and it's unclear if the Twin Cities will get one or more of the devices when more are deployed.
The devices pass electromagnetic waves over the human body to create a three-dimensional image that, the TSA said, looks like a fuzzy photo negative with facial features blurred for privacy. Privacy advocates have protested the scans are an invasion of privacy.
But the TSA said the officer viewing the image is located elsewhere and cannot see the passenger. In addition, the, the image cannot be stored, transmitted or printed and is deleted immediately after being viewed.
Despite the lack of information about the effectiveness of the TSA and its security screeners at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, Laird suspects security is good there. He said that while acknowledging he once headed up security efforts for Northwest Airlines.
"Minneapolis, I think is a pretty well-run well-managed airport," he said. "But my reaction is not based on a scientific study or investigation by the TSA or anything like that."
So, typical travelers these days are left with their own experience and observations to evaluate how good security is at a given airport.
- All Things Considered, 01/06/2010, 5:20 p.m.