Pilot: Is TSA security a complete failure?

Story highlights

  • Les Abend: Airline crew members say they're the last defense against terror, and TSA failures confirm their skepticism about screeners
  • He says good security watches passengers throughout airports, but recent lapses call for a tough assessment of where processes failed

Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 31 years of flying experience. He is also a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Shortly after the Transportation Security Administration was created in November 2001, and the federal government assumed all responsibility for screening at U.S. airports, airline crews were scratching their heads. Weren't these people with the new blue uniforms just refugees from the ranks of the now-unemployed private screening companies? Other than pilots having their toenail clippers confiscated even while dressed in full uniform and carrying appropriate ID, had anything really changed?

Les Abend
Honestly, with no disrespect to the thousands of TSA professionals performing their thankless job well, airline crews almost 14 years later still maintain the same skeptical attitude -- particularly when we hear recent news like the stunning failure of TSA agents to detect explosives and weapons in an undercover test of their screening. This is disturbing but should be deemed positive: A serious lapse in our protections has been discovered and must be corrected.
And it may help you understand why flight crews' skepticism is a good thing. Why? Because pilots and flight attendants already consider themselves the last line of defense. We don't assume that others have done the job of eliminating a terrorist threat on our flight.
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    Airport security has many moving parts. Beyond the endless lines, and the seemingly unnecessary wanding of Grandma and her walker, more is involved behind the scenes. The process starts when a traveler makes a reservation and is checked against the no-fly list. At check-in, as bags are screened, ticket agents and law enforcement are watching passengers.
    The process we all have come to know and love involves technology like magnetometers and full body scanners. But while it seems that the process starts with the smashing of your roller bag onto the security belt, trained personnel are observing behaviors.
    Profiling is politically incorrect, but all aspects of passenger dress and demeanor are considered part of threat assessment. If a nervous twenty-something male is wearing a winter coat in Miami rather than carrying it, an alert TSA agent will most likely apply extra scrutiny.
    During boarding, flight attendants perform their own screening. Over my 31 years with the airline, I have found no better people watchers than flight attendants. Passengers are their captive audience. All flight attendants are trained in defensive tactics, too, with the ability to use creative resources you could never imagine.
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    And finally, the buck stops in the cockpit. Pilots are also trained in defensive tactics. In some cases, an unknowing terrorist who breaks into the flight deck may find himself facing the business end of a very loud and lethal semiautomatic weapon.
    So what's up with the Grandma screening or the child-in-the-stroller wanding? A lot of security procedures involve deterrent logic. In other words, an individual with nefarious intentions might conclude that his evil plot carries a high risk of detection, especially if everyone is a suspect. And don't underestimate the evil sickness of terrorists. It is indeed possible that Grandma or a toddler could be used to transport something threatening.
    Another aspect of deterrence is randomness: not maintaining a routine during the security process, or not having the same routine at every airport. That said, my experiences at various airports around the world make me question the rationale behind procedures.
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    At one very civilized and busy international destination, crew members are corralled through specifically designated screening areas away from passenger traffic. Almost every other crew member sets off the magnetometer alarm and then receives a thorough wanding and pat-down. In other countries, it's the opposite -- screeners are just going through the motions. Although crew members pass through the same magnetometers as passengers, everyone appears to receive the same indifferent treatment, uniform or not.
    Unfortunately, all of the positive security measures are forgotten in light of the TSA screeners' abysmal failures to discover threatening items during a campaign of testing. Quite frankly, publicly releasing the data from these tests does not seem like a wise decision. Are we not painting a target on our airplanes for radical Islam to once again take aim?
    Now the task is to correct the lapses. Were they caused by the quality of the screeners? Is the government offering enough of a compensatory incentive to attract the best people, or should we reprivatize the system with knowledgeable experts that can manage appropriately? Has the training program suffered a breakdown? Is the technology sufficient to handle the creativity of current evildoers? Or has the entire security system completely failed?
    These are questions that I hope greater minds are considering. As an airline pilot, I want the best tools at my disposal. Is "TSA airline security" an oxymoron? I hope not. In the meantime, have faith that my colleagues and I will do our part of the job of protecting our customers.