Aviation Security: Why I Will Be Scared This Year

  Catchy title?

Yes, I am more afraid in 2015 than I have been in years.  But afraid of what?  Am I afraid of ISIS/ISIL?  AQAP?  Al Shabaab?  Al Qaeda?  Al Nusra?  Lone wolf terrorists?

No.  Not afraid of any of them. That does not mean I do not consider them dangerous, they are. That does not mean I do not consider them evil, they are. That does not mean that I think we ought to ease up on any of them, we should not.

What I fear is this:  In America, certainly, and in many other places too, we have developed a level of obsession with terrorism that can spawn (and is spawning) an overreaction.  Our media is obsessed.  Many of our political leaders are obsessed (and often attack others who are less obsessed).  And our people are obsessed.

Several writers over the years have said that terrorism only works if we allow ourselves to become, and act, terrorized.  Once we do that, we are giving the terrorists exactly what they want.  Well, in America and elsewhere, that has long since happened.  Even as all those groups I listed above have faced setbacks and had leaders killed, they are succeeding in the only thing that really matters:  terrorizing people.  Even when they fail, as they do far more often than not, they succeed in scaring us.

It seems one can’t go more than two days without some sort of CNN “Breaking News” item saying, essentially, that bad guys still want to attack aviation.  I don’t know about you, but I doubt we will see any Breaking News stories about terrorists retiring to the Riviera.  Of course they still want to attack aviation.  That will never end, will never go away.

I am amazed at how many interviews I have seen regarding the topic of whether ISIS is going to attack in the United States.  (And I saw another within two hours of typing that sentence).  They are clearly hoping to inspire someone here to do something awful, much as Anwar Al Awlaki did.  I am sure they aspire to attack the homeland themselves.  Heck, they aspire to a global caliphate, so of course they’d kinda like to attack here.

So every time an interview like that airs, usually right after some mention of the barbarous nature of ISIS, we are immediately tempted to believe we are in imminent personal danger of a similar fate.  Then we have public officials, or former public officials, willing to go on television and say we are not as safe as we can and should be.  And, in the absence of any contrary narrative, the fear level increases.

In and of itself, this wouldn't be so bad.  But added to that, we have the intense coverage of every security “breach”, whether some kid who wandered through a hole in a fence or even an old lady who likes to try to stow away (both real life examples).  The inevitable result is indignant public officials and “experts” talking about how unsafe the aviation system is, and then proposing all sorts of ideas designed to make it “safer.”

In the United States recently, some idiots who work at the airport were found smuggling firearms on a flight from Atlanta to New York.  This, naturally, led to congressional hearings and calls for all sorts of “security measures” that would actually make us less safe, rather than more.  (What amuses me about this particular story more than anything is the fact that moving firearms this way is probably the riskiest method from the point of view of the smuggler.  If they put them in a truck, or on a bus they would have had a far better chance of success.  Getting caught, eventually, doing it the way they did it is almost guaranteed).

For years, when I was President of Airports Council International – North America, my members and I called for more of a risk-based approach to security.  Rather than treating everyone and everything as a potential threat, let’s try to narrow it down and focus more on those people and things that might actually pose a problem.  The challenge always was the fact that all the political pressure goes in the other direction.  There is no real political or public pressure for what some would see, or define, as “less security” or “doing” less – even when the result is a MORE secure system.  Moves that seemed to make perfect sense to us were resisted because of this countervailing political pressure.

Luckily, though, for the aviation system and for travelers everywhere, we had leadership at the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security that was willing to move in this direction.  The resulting initiatives, such as PreCheck, Global Entry and Automated Passport Control, have been a great success in facilitating legitimate travel while focusing resources where they are most needed.

Another example of such an effort predates all of those:  the U.S. Visa Waiver program.  Visitors from certain countries, including many NATO allies, can come to the United States without a visa, though they need to provide certain information about themselves so they can be checked.  With documented cases of Canadians and Western Europeans and others traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS, there are growing calls to reconsider this initiative.  And I am concerned that those calls will extend to the very popular and effective programs mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

That is what scares me.  If we back away from these kinds of initiatives we will not only restrict travel but we will create logjams at and near airports that will provide target rich environments for anyone with a gun for a crude explosive device.

I fear that we in the United States are about to take a step back from what makes sense, and what has largely worked, in order to react (overreact) to sensational stories.  I fear it will happen, because it is happening.  And lest you think this is just an American story, remember that in the security realm almost everything we do here gets exported in some way, if only because other gateways want to preserve their access to the U.S. market.

So, yes, I am very afraid.  I am afraid that we have lost the ability to avoid being terrorized by every incident.  I am afraid we will be unable to resist calls for “more security” that will in the end make us less safe and make far less efficient use of scarce resources.  I am afraid that we will make some really bad choices this year, choices that will be exported around the world.  I am afraid our media and our public leaders have lost the ability to tell what should truly be breaking news and what should be a threat calling for new measures and new policies, and what should not.

One of my closest friends in the airport world, Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI Europe, once said that if we wait till the bad guys get to the airport to try to catch them it is likely too late.  The real hard work happens far from the front door of the airport, it happens in intelligence agencies around the world whose agents risk life and limb to get good information and then share it.  We can cripple an airport operationally by intrusive procedures, we can travel scared of something that is far less likely to happen to any of us than is winning an Olympic medal or even being struck by lightning.

When we do those things, ISIS, AQAP, Al Shabaab, Al Nusra, Al Qaeda and potential lone wolves everywhere smile and become energized.  Our fear, and the fear mongering we often see on television and hear from too many public leaders, is the oxygen that sustains them.

Let’s refuse to let them breathe.