How safe are U.S. airports?

Story highlights

  • Jeff Price: There are huge differences in airport security systems around the world
  • Security personnel must be allowed to make common-sense decisions, he says

Jeff Price is professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and lead author of "Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The crash of EgyptAir Flight 804 early Thursday and the recovery of some wreckage Friday was a tragic end to a week that had begun with viral video of huge lines at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints in the United States. These two developments have understandably raised two related questions about aviation security: Are we doing the right things, and are we doing the right things right?

There is a common misconception that aviation security systems throughout the world are essentially the same. However, while commercial airports and airlines share commonalities in certain practices and procedures, there are huge differences in many important areas. And while the International Civil Aviation Organization establishes the standards and recommended practices for all areas of aviation, including airport and airline security, the standards are often overly generalized and can be broadly applied.
    Jeff Price
    For example, the aviation organization requires that passengers, baggage and cargo be screened, but the methods run the gamut from full body imagers down to a physical pat-down search. X-ray machine functionality and detection capabilities are different throughout the world. Metal detectors remain the predominant form of passenger screening technology, but they still don't detect explosives. And checked baggage screening can also vary from CT scan-grade technology to the traditional passenger bag-match process.
    How does the United States stack up in all of this?
    Israel has the tightest airport security, but there are other countries that also do things better than the United States. Indeed, many international airports are good at applying both automation and innovation -- without hiring thousands of people and without spending trillions of dollars. With that in mind, perhaps we all need to set aside egos, begin to learn from each other and establish a new international standard that would benefit every country.
    Take automated bag bin diversion and return systems. Even as the TSA has continued to study these, Italy was -- back in 2008 -- using a simplified bag bin system at its checkpoints. A long angled table with rollers was mounted over the top of the X-ray unit and extended the full length of the machine. A passenger reclaimed his or her bag, put the bin up on the rollers, and gravity took care of the rest, sliding the bin back to other side. This all but eliminates the need for a person to haul bins continuously through the checkpoint, while decreasing screening wait times and reducing workplace injuries.
    I just saw another low-cost innovation here at one U.S. airport. The TSA had installed a simple table next to the X-ray operator, adjacent to the X-ray belt. This allows the screener to pull aside a questionable bag and then continue to screen other bags while waiting for someone to come inspect the suspect bag. Wait times are decreased as the screening process doesn't have to stop for just one bag. Brilliant solution, but why did it take nearly 15 years to implement it?
    Another way to reduce lines is to bring back the security questioning process, and allow those who pose a lesser risk to receive expedited screening. The TSA tried this for a period of time -- it was called managed inclusion -- but got rid of it after its record of screening failures was made public last year.
    Many international airports also still ask passengers a few security questions. In the late 1980s, El Al security agents were using the process and stopped an individual at London's Heathrow Airport from carrying a bomb onto a plane. The Federal Aviation Administration adopted the idea, but unfortunately modified it to the point that it was completely useless. (The questions were standardized, then asked by a ticket agent -- not a security officer -- who was more concerned with getting you on a plane than with security.)
    In contrast, the security questioning process used at many international airports relies on the use of highly trained security professionals who do not have a conflict of interest and are less concerned with whether you board the flight than with whether you intend on blowing it up or hijacking it. The questions aren't standardized, and the agents are trained to follow up on suspicious answers until they are satisfied you're not a risk. I've seen it used quickly and effectively at several airports.
    All this suggests that it's time to assess the best systems used throughout the world, and to revisit international standards, so we all have a reasonable expectation of security. But even if we can find a set of standard operating procedures that we agree on, there is one more thing required for any system to work, here or abroad.
    Whether it be at the checkpoint or at the highest reaches of the government agencies, personnel must be allowed to make common-sense decisions. Freeing them up to do this will make the difference between doing the right things, and doing the right things right. That's something we can't mandate, but it will make our journeys more pleasant -- and safer.