It isn’t often you hear someone making an argument against requiring all airport workers to pass through security screening, but Bob Poole offers one that makes enough sense to merit reposting:
- At most airports, the secure area begins just behind the ticket counter, and agents go back and forth between secure and non-secure areas a dozen or more times a day. At smaller airports, the same people who work the ticket counters often do double-duty as gate agents, and may even load and unload baggage. To be meaningful, the 100% screening policy would have to screen these people every time they went back into the secure area, all day long. And what about mechanics and carpenters and electricians, bringing tools to work? None of those tools could get through passenger checkpoints, but people can’t work without their tools.
The TSA recognizes the access-control vulnerability. It has made two policy changes to improve things. First, last fall it required everyone working at airports—not just those going into secure areas—to undergo a background check. Second, it has begun a program that uses roving teams of security officers to do random checks of employees in secure areas. It’s in place at many larger airports and plans call for extending it to all airports where TSA operates.
Those are sensible measures, and combined with continued intelligence and police work, they should make a meaningful difference, without imposing the huge burdens on airports of 100% screening of all secure-area staff. But two other steps would further reduce risk. At one smaller airport I know of, the background check requirement goes beyond what TSA mandates. Having a criminal record of any sort disqualifies one from working anywhere on the airport, even if the job is outside the secure area. Second, we need better employee badges. They should be biometrically encoded, so that only the person who was cleared can use the badge to get into secured areas. And companies with on-airport employees should be required (with severe penalties) to promptly turn in the badges of anyone whose job at the airport terminates.
I’m not sure it’s right to say that the ‘secure’ area begins right behind checkin desks at most airports, but I do recognize the burden of screening folks several times a day. And though they might not be unduly delayed (at least compared to the rest of us), using crew lines for instance, extra time will be required to process any special rules such as determining what materials can pass through the checkpoint that a standard passenger couldn’t bring.
And diverting TSA agents from screening passengers to handle airport staff will certainly ramp up delays.
Meanwhile, since checkpoints don’t perform especially well to begin with, alternatives are likely to make us safer. And since using checkpoints serves as a panacea, we don’t take other more important security steps when we subject folks to ever more onerous checkpoint screenings.