A well worn complaint about the Transportation Security Administration is its inability or unwillingness to profile potential threats or practice other forms of risk-based screening. This is compounded by what appear to be a strong preference for doing things that enhance the appearance of safety, practices that appear to be gratuitous abuses of authority, and bureaucratic risk-aversion. Risk-based screening would allow TSA to focus its resources where they have the greatest payoff.
Typically, opponents complain that risk-based screening is discriminatory. This objection confuses discrimination and discernment. Discrimination means giving disproportionate attention to persons based on factors that are uncorrelated with risk. Thus, discriminatory screening cannot be risk-based screening, which uses risk analysis to discern greater from lesser threats and allocates more resources toward the former than the latter.
A new counter argument has been presented, this time by a retired flight attendant who says she represents 9/11 family members. It is an appeal to authority, not to reason.
Alice Hoagland objects to the TSA’s recent decision to allow penknives and other previously prohibited items to be brought on board. She writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that her son, Mark Bingham, “died fighting knife-wielding thugs aboard United Airlines Flight 93.” This may be true, but only in part. The proximate cause of the crash of Flight 93 was the hijackers were able to breach the cockpit door. This occurred four minutes after the flight crew had been notified to beware of cockpit intrusion. (9-11 Report, p. 11). Given the mandatory design standards the Federal Aviation Administration had long imposed on cockpit door design, there may not have been anything that Captain Jason Dahl or First Officer Leroy Homer could have done.
Indeed, one of the first regulatory actions taken subsequent to 9/11 was a rule promulgated on October 9 allowing airlines to temporarily modify aircraft cockpit doors to delay or deter unauthorized entry. The FAA employs risk-based regulation, but this risk was not one the agency had anticipated:
The September 11, 2001, hijacking events have demonstrated that some persons are willing to hijack airplanes and use them as weapons against the citizens of the United States. This is a safety and security threat that was not anticipated and, therefore, not considered in the design of transport airplanes. The recent hijackings make it clear that there is a critical need to improve the security of the flightcrew compartment. These improvements should deter terrorist activities and, if they are attempted, delay or deny access to the cockpit.
Flightcrew compartment doors on transport category airplanes have been designed principally to ensure privacy, so pilots could focus their entire attention to their normal and emergency flight duties. The doors have not been designed to provide an impenetrable barrier between the cabin and the flightcrew compartment. Doors have not been required to meet any significant security threat, such as small arms fire or shrapnel, or the exercise of brute force to enter the flightcrew compartment.
The hijackers did not breach the cockpit door with knives. They used brute force. This action suspended existing FAA regulations governing cockpit door design to allow airlines to act immediately to protect flight crews from cockpit intrusion. Had the FAA not acted, flight crews would have remained helpless to defend themselves because airlines would have been forbidden to protect them:
To evaluate what could be done to improve flightcrew compartment security, the Secretary of Transportation formed a Rapid Response Team for Aircraft Security. The Team included representatives of airplane designers, airline operators, airline pilots, and flight attendants. There was a clear consensus from this group, and agreement by the FAA, that immediate actions must be taken to strengthen the flightcrew compartment door. The short-term options, though, in one way or another could conflict with regulatory design requirements such as those discussed above.
TSA has relaxed its rules on penknives in order to reallocate resources to greater risks elsewhere. This is an essential feature of risk-based decision-making. Hoagland’s argument in opposition consists of appeals to the authority of persons and groups who disagree but have no expertise in aircraft safety, including “130 members of Congress.” She derides TSA Administrator John Pistole’s decision as “unconscionable”:
Mr. Pistole is concerned about the amount of time spent searching for small knives when personnel would do better to focus on looking for explosives.
It’s not clear why the choice now is suddenly to look for one or the other but not both.
Actually, this trade-off is quite clear. Resources spent by TSA chasing low risks cannot be used to detect and prevent high risks. Failing to allocate resources toward the greatest threats puts air travelers at higher risk.