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The Year in Airport Security

Let’s travel back in time one year to December 29, 2009, four days after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried and failed to bring down Delta Flight 253 with a bomb concealed in his underpants. The Today in Travel headlines that day? TSA Relaxes New Security Measures, and What Are You Willing to Give Up for Security? The former talked about a brief TSA policy restricting passengers from having blankets over their laps, and the latter asked Smarter Travel readers what sacrifices they’d make to ensure tighter security following our Christmas Day close call with Abdulmutallab.

Funny thing is, a year later, we’re still having more or less the same conversation. Airport security is as big a question as ever, thanks to recent TSA policies and the ever-present threat against our skies. Let’s take a look at the major airport security developments of the past 12 months, and gaze ahead to see what might be in our future.

Full-body Scanners Hit the Big Time

Following the Christmas attack, the government went all-in on whole body imaging. The government promised to accelerate delivery of the equipment, and in the past 12 months, several hundred have been deployed. President Obama’s 2010 budget included funding for over 700 machines. The U.S. also pushed for adoption of the technology abroad. Following the Christmas attack, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said, “We have to do all that we can do to encourage foreign authorities to utilize the same enhanced technologies for aviation security. After all, there were passengers from 17 countries aboard Flight 253. This is an international issue, not just one about the United States.”

However, while the machines are effective at identifying non-metallic items beneath clothing, many were skeptical that whole-body imaging really added much to airport security. The machines were also seen as a major violation of passengers’ privacy, because they produce detailed images of passengers’ naked bodies.

Who’s Watching the Watchlist?

One of the major criticisms following the Christmas attack was that the government’s various watchlists were not being, well, watched. “The bottom line is this,” President Obama said days after the attack, “The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list.” The government immediately lowered the threshold for placement on the no-fly list or terrorist watchlist, making it easier to ban people from flying. “We dodged a bullet, but just barely,” Obama said. “It was averted by brave individuals not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable.”

14 Nations Get Extra Scrutiny

As details emerged about Abdulmutallab’s past, the government zeroed on on countries it considered a threat to airline safety. Passengers from 14 nations, all of them known supporters of terrorism or, in the U.S.’ words, “countries of interest,” were singled out for extra screening. Predictably, the list included Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, and travelers from those countries were subjected to full-body pat downs and additional baggage searches. The initial policy was replaced with a less comprehensive “targeted screening” approach for those 14 nations.

Oops … The TSA Did it Again

A series of blunders and incidents over the course of the year has done little to enhance the public’s confidence in the TSA. In January, a man slipped past security in Newark to kiss his girlfriend goodbye, resulting in the shutdown of an entire terminal at the airport. Turns out the exit from the secure area had been left unattended, allowing the man to walk right through. And all of this barely two weeks after the Christmas attack. No wonder the TSA was developing an image problem.

Perhaps the pinnacle of TSA awfulness came in October when a supervisor, again at Newark, was arrested for stealing from passengers, specifically Indian women traveling home. The supervisor would select women for bogus additional screening, and steal cash from their carry-ons.

John Pistole

In May, President Obama made his third nomination for TSA chief, after two previous nominees withdrew. Pistole was seen as a strong candidate, with extensive counterterrorism experience during his long career at the FBI. One of Pistole’s first moves was to extend “secret” clearance to 10,000 TSA workers as a way to improve intelligence gathering and sharing. “A key lesson I took from my 26 years at the FBI,” Pistole said, “is that one of the best tools we possess in our effort to combat terrorism is accurate and timely intelligence. Our enemies constantly evolve their methods and their tools … and it’s our job to stay ahead of them.” The move was generally seen as a positive one, pushing the TSA toward a more proactive, rather than reactionary, mindset.

Secure Flight

In November, the TSA finally launched Secure Flight, a program designed to cut down on false watchlist matches. Passengers must now supply their full name, birth date, and gender when booking a ticket, and cannot receive a boarding pass without doing so. The TSA had phased in the program over the previous year, but November 1 was the date when all airlines and passengers had to be in compliance.

Pat Downs and Other Violations of Privacy

The real security story in November, however, stemmed from the TSA’s new enhanced pat downs. The “enhanced pat downs” were far more invasive than traditional pat downs—screeners used the front of their hands instead of the back, and ran their hands firmly over sensitive areas. The new pat downs were used whenever someone set off a metal detector or opted out of the full-body scanner.

The backlash against these new pat downs was fast and passionate, culminating in an ultimately underwhelming airport protest against the procedure the day before Thanksgiving. Still, airport security and privacy rights dominated the news throughout November, and Pistole was called to Capitol Hill multiple times to explain and defend his agency’s policy. Pilots and flight attendants were exempted from the procedure, but when all was said and done, little changed for passengers.

What Lies Ahead

Three aspects of airport security bear watching in 2011. Pistole has said his agency is working on software for full-body scanners that protect passengers’ privacy, and that he hopes to roll out the new program soon. Instead of displaying x-ray images of passengers’ bodies, the software shows the location of anomalies, such as concealed items, on a generic stick figure. Pistole said the software is still showing too many false positives to be rolled out, but it is ostensibly a priority for him and his agency.

The TSA will also look to reform cargo security, following an attempt to bring down a passenger plane using bombs hidden in cargo. The TSA has already banned ink cartridges, which were used to conceal the bombs, but expect more developments as the agency tries to strengthen what is perhaps the weakest link in air travel security.

Lastly, will 2011 be the year the TSA finally commits to phasing out the 3-1-1 liquid rules? The U.K. will begin eliminating the policy in April, in keeping with Europe’s pledged to end it in 2013, and the TSA has been exploring liquid scanning technology. The rule likely couldn’t be removed for a few more years—perhaps in 2013 as well—but at this point many travelers would settle for a plan.

Your Take

Readers, what do you think was the most important development in airport security this year?

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