Saturday, May 28, 2016

'Soft target’ airports: World’s terrorists continuing to display fixation with aviation

Kathryn's Report:


Words like “outrageous” and “unacceptable” get thrown around a lot in Washington for things that usually merit a lesser form of indignation, but the mess in airport security lines deserves all that and more.

Even before this weekend’s traditional start of the summer travel season, airline passengers have had to wait 90 minutes or longer, and tens of thousands have missed flights, before they could get through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.

This isn’t just maddening; it’s dangerous. Herding hundreds or thousands of travelers into slow-moving lines in enclosed spaces is an invitation to the sort of “soft target” terrorism that happened at the Brussels airport in March, when jihadists walked into a crowded terminal and set off explosives.

What makes it even more outrageous and unacceptable is that everybody who should have seen this coming — Congress, TSA and the airlines — not only ignored or couldn’t grasp the impending catastrophe, they made it worse. The number of airline travelers went up. The number of screeners went down. Voila! Endless lines.

Congress, which now has the nerve to act huffy and point fingers, foolishly cut funding for the TSA. In 2011, TSA’s budget was $7.7 billion. Just keeping the agency even with inflation — never mind the predictable increase in airline passengers in an improving economy — would have required $8.2 billion this year. Instead, Congress provided $7.4 billion.

But the TSA also had a hand in its own woes. TSA officials overestimated how many people would sign up for its PreCheck trusted-traveler program, and it stopped diverting some non-PreCheck passengers into the speedier lines after an inspector general report found that screeners weren’t catching weapons and other contraband.

Meanwhile, airlines have persisted in charging hefty checked-baggage fees that make them pots of money but shift the bag burden to security lines and airplane cabins. When more and more people try to avoid the fees by dragging overstuffed, oversized suitcases through the checkpoints, is it any wonder that the checkpoint lines grow longer and longer?

Most airlines also deserve special shame for refusing to enforce their own baggage-size rules, as well as the “one plus one” rules that limit passengers to one carry-on bag and one personal item. TSA Adminstrator Peter Neffenger told USA TODAY’s Editorial Board this week that only two airlines do a good job, though he declined to name them or the laggards.

Adding to the problem: clueless passengers who do dumb things such as “forgetting” they have guns in their carry-on bags. In just one week in April, TSA screeners found a record 73 guns, 68 of which were loaded. And it’s not only guns; even a “forgotten” water bottle can stop the line.

What to do? Belatedly, everyone is in crisis mode, scrambling to find more money, hire more screeners, shift bomb-sniffing dogs to the biggest airports, and promote PreCheck enrollment. The airlines could help be part of the solution by agreeing to Homeland Security chief Jeh Johnson’s suggestion that they waive fees for the first checked bag during the summer travel crush. But the carriers have refused, just the way they initially refused to cut fares when the price of fuel, their biggest single expense, dropped dramatically.

The bad news for frustrated fliers this Memorial Day weekend is that the crisis took a long time to build, and it won’t go away overnight — especially with the world’s terrorists continuing to display a fixation with aviation.


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