6 Shocking Flaws In Airline Security You Never Knew Existed
These days, air travel is roughly as pleasant as getting unanesthetized oral surgery from a sliding heap of moray eels hellbent on conquering land/dentistry. This is because airport security sucks balls. Somehow, the act of simultaneously emptying your pockets, taking off your belt, and untying your shoes before the withering gaze of dozens of irritable strangers has yet to enthrall millions. The government has added new machines and measures designed to streamline the process -- but they're not just shockingly inefficient; in some cases they're actually making things worse. For example:
Most Airport Employees Aren't Screened
If you've ever worked in a moderately large company, you've probably had to get an ID badge and go through security checkpoints just to get to your tiny cube every day. You accept this because it's part of the job and, well, some people really like stealing staplers. But we have good news; if you want a job that doesn't make you go through all that tedious security every day, look no further than your local airport!
It turns out that, while mere ticket-buying riff-raff like you have to get interrogated and irradiated just so you can go visit your Aunt Gertie in Steubenville, the behind-the-scenes Morlocks that actually run the joint get a free pass. In some major airports, as long as you don't have a letter of recommendation from ISIS in your resume or something, you apparently get to waltz through security without so much as a jaunty, "Top o' the morning, fuckwads," to the TSA agents.
"What the ...? Oh, it's Joe. Come on in."
Of course, this has the potential to backfire drastically ... as it did in Atlanta, where Delta Airlines employee Eugene Harvey was found to have smuggled 129 guns on to flights bound for New York. He wasn't even in security or any sector where being spotted with a gun every once in a while might not be so weird -- the dude was a baggage handler who expanded the "baggage" part to firearms, including an AK-47 and an AR-15. Oh, and some of them were loaded. Why risk getting caught with bullets when a little assault rifle is so inconspicuous?
And the money he saved on checked-baggage fees can go straight to his bail. Win-win!
It's unclear why Harvey chose to smuggle those guns this way instead of just renting a nondescript minivan and driving them up to NYC in one trip, but the fact remains that if you can pass a cursory background check, it is shockingly easy to get weapons onto a plane. And this is on top of the growing number of other assholes trying to sneak guns into airports, as if brandishing a weapon got you a discount on overpriced coffee and week-old croissants.
We say "assholes" because we assume most of these were found in sphincters.
Airports like Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International are reluctant to mandate daily screenings for their thousands of employees, because, they say, it would bog down the security lines (never mind that Orlando and Miami airports both do it and that a quarter-million passengers go through the Atlanta airport every day). But hey, at least the TSA's background checks are pretty solid. It's not like we've ever let one or 73 possible terrorists slip through just because they passed it, right? Uh, right?
This is like hiring a pack of leopards to watch over your bird shop.
The Old Technology Was Working Fine (But The Agents Weren't)
It's incredible the advances that have been made in legally-seeing-you-naked technology since 9/11, especially considering that for 30 years before that, we never got more complicated than X-ray machines and metal detectors. The reason for that? It turns out those two relatively simple items are actually very effective. In fact, the 9/11 Commission found that one of the hijackers had previously tested security by carrying a box cutter in his shaving kit. The metal detector caught it right away, so obviously it was confiscated and Al Qaeda aborted the ...
Uh, wait, no. Wrong timeline. When the box cutter was hand-checked by security, they inexplicably failed to confiscate it and the terrorist just went on his merry way.
"Look what the poor bastard uses to shave. He's got enough troubles."
You might think, "Well, things were different before 9/11," but nope -- this is still a depressingly common scenario. A recent test of airport security involved 70 undercover agents trying to sneak potential weapons past TSA agents ... and 67 made it through. One guy had a fake explosive device taped to his back, and it set off an alarm and everything, but it was still completely missed during a pat-down (presumably the agents thought he had very bad acne on his back). In other words, you could get weapons through 95 percent of the time and, even if the machines go off, the agent probably won't find them while groping you. And then they'll just ... assume you're Wolverine and let you go, apparently?
"We're not paid enough to check up your butt, so you can go."
You can see the problem here. We can get super-advanced computer imaging and have devices that detect the smallest traces of illicit materials ... but ultimately, a plain old human being still has to do the last step and actually find the damn thing, because computers can never be trusted with opposable thumbs. Not that it matters, because ...
We Still Rely On The Agents' Gut Feelings
Machines are great for a lot of jobs. Their cold, unbiased logic and ability to make choices free of emotion, compassion, or arousal is exactly why we put them in charge of things like nuclear weapons and life-support machines. Unfortunately, when it comes to airport security, we still have to rely on good ol' boner-getting humans going with their gut. It's hard to explain to a computer why the sweaty, shifty-looking guy who keeps asking if they're going to open his bags is an obvious security threat.
That's why the TSA spent $900 million training agents to scan crowds and spot suspicious behaviors. Under the cleverly named SPOT Program, agents assign point values to certain behaviors. For instance, signs of stress earns you one point, signs of fear or tightly gripping your bag can earn you two points, while appearing disoriented and confused gets you three. Yawning too much is also a sign that you want to blow up an airplane, because there's no other reason why anyone would be tired at the airport after a 10-hour flight.
And now you just yawned from reading that word, and a TSA agent burst through your window.
If you get six or more points, you unlock the exciting ability to be selected for additional screening. These behaviors might well be legitimate indicators of suspicious people, but they also happen to be the symptoms of a stressed, jet-lagged traveler who just wants to get the fuck home. There's also the fact that the ones looking for these signs are human and not Terminators -- in a poll of 25 TSA agents, 21 admitted that some of these indicators are subjective. What counts as "excessive" throat-clearing, for instance? Do you get an extension if you're eating peanuts? Are American flag pants "improper" attire for the airport and, if so, what exactly did our ancestors fight and die for? And how are screeners supposed to notice that someone's face is "pale from recent shaving of beard" if they're pale to begin with?
"That's a weird fucking beard, ma'am. Please step over here."
So far, no evidence indicates that the SPOT Program is more effective than pulling numbers out of a hat. Both Congress and the ACLU have lambasted the program for being utterly absurd, and trust us, those guys know absurd. The TSA has insisted that the program is a legitimate and effective way of rooting out terrorists and that these behaviors are indeed suspicious as shit. So keep that in mind at all times during your next airport visit, socially anxious people!
Hey, instead of doing all this roundabout nonsense, has anyone tried, you know, just talking to people? Actually, yes they have, and ...
It's Way More Effective To Just Talk To People
As we've mentioned before, if there's one thing Israel knows, it's airport security. Something about being a tiny country that multiple nations have openly stated they want to wipe off the map really makes you get on the ball when it comes to sussing out people who want to do harm. And, somehow, they achieve this without looking at your junk or even asking you to take off your shoes.
"Can I at least describe my junk to you? This is all very strange."
If you visit Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, you can be approached by security personnel at any point -- not to grope you or verify how many times you've cleared your throat but simply to talk and "gauge your intentions and mood." Even when you're driving through the obligatory security checkpoint, you'll have to exchange a few words with another human being (as opposed to a parking-ticket machine) so the guards can get a read on you. Passengers then go through plain old metal detectors on their way to the gate, but they also are questioned by highly trained security personnel. These questioning sessions typically last a few minutes but can go on for as long as an hour until they're satisfied that you're not going to do something heinous on the plane, like try to blow it up or smash your seatback into someone's kneecaps.
"Captain, one slipped through!"
"The bastard. Initiate 'child screaming in his ear' procedure."
Now, relying entirely on people to make these decisions can obviously lead to problems like profiling, because medicine has yet to invent a pill to make humans less awful. However, this can be mitigated by implementing technology like check-in kiosks that select passengers at random -- and we mean actually at random, not "whoever looks closer to historical Jesus," as the TSA likes to do.
It seems like the best solution is going with a mix between technology and human beings' intuition, but you might have noticed the problem with that: As much as it might hurt the TSA's feelings to hear (especially coming from the world's premiere dick-joke site), it appears that the quality of their current agents isn't the best. And that's why ...
We Need To Pay Our TSA Agents Actual Money
Catching bad guys is an expensive endeavor, which is why we dump billions into the TSA each year. A good chunk of that is invested into security equipment, like scanners, which definitely aren't then put into storage and forgotten about. Just kidding; they totally are. A House Oversight report found that the TSA had thousands of pieces of equipment worth a paltry $184 million stashed in an Indiana Jones warehouse somewhere, probably because the body scanners lose their value if you take them out of the packaging.
But they also found a crate of Crystal Pepsi, so it was worth it.
The TSA, quite simply, blows at efficiently buying and distributing equipment, preferring to squirrel it away among their towering stacks of newspapers and old National Geographics, at an annual storage cost of $3.5 million. But while they throw money at equipment like a parolee in a strip club, they are very good at keeping costs down elsewhere -- specifically, by paying their employees shit.
Despite being given the rather weighty task of catching terrorists, TSA employees are among the lowest-paid federal employees. Even the surly mailman gets paid more for pushing letters into boxes than the people we've entrusted with our airborne safety. To add injury to insult, TSA agents also have one of the highest rates of injuries for all federal employees. Evidently, slinging luggage that weighs exactly 49 pounds, 15 ounces all day can take quite a toll on your legs and back, on top of just the general stress that comes with having a job where screwing up can mean partly cloudy with a chance of flaming debris and body parts.
This explains why the agents keep asking us to explain those "strange green papers" in our wallets.
But instead of hiring more and better people (which will come with offering more money), we choose to spend our cash on new machines, and if you've been paying attention, you've probably caught on to a running theme here ...
Oh Shit, The Machines Simply Don't Work
From the moment they were introduced, the full-body scanners have been controversial. Sure, they produce an image that gives the viewer a nice heaping eyeful of your anatomy (which, of course, has never been used in a privacy-violating way), but at least they allow agents to easily see if you're carrying weapons ... as long as that weapon is metal and you're not holding it on your side.
On the Snapchat-esque photo that the examining agent sees, weapons show up as black objects, while you appear as a pasty white mannequin, like so:
On the other hand, if you put a mannequin in this thing, it looks like Kim Cattrall.
But, as you may have noticed, the background on the scanner is also black, which results in security nightmares like this:
The Watchmen remake is going with a much more realistic Dr. Manhattan.
Don't see the difference? In the two pictures on the right, the guy has a .380 handgun on the side of his leg. And this is when the person is carrying something hard enough to be picked up on the scanner -- if it's something softer like, say, plastic explosives, it looks like this:
And you can barely distinguish the AK-47 being clenched between his butt cheeks.
Could you tell that the guy on the right has a hunk of C4 molded to his stomach with the detonator stowed in his belly-button? We've been staring at this picture for hours and still can't see the bomb or the sailboat, so how the hell is an agent who gives it a five-second once-over going to catch it?
So, with the inability to pick up on anything other than metal, the scanners are actually worse than the far cheaper metal detectors, because at least those will go off no matter where you have it hidden on your body. Luckily, this might turn out to not be a problem for much longer -- someone at the Department Of Homeland Security finally bothered to flip through the owner's manual and discovered the scanners require routine maintenance, which nobody has done, nor do they have a plan in place to start.
Betcha feel a lot safer now!
When he's not yelling "balm" on an airplane, Chris writes for his website and tweets.
Be sure to follow us on Facebook and YouTube, where you can catch all our video content, such as 10 Weirdly Conservative Hidden Messages in 'Con Air' and other videos you won't see on the site!
Also check out The 6 Most Hilarious Ways People Breached Airport Security and 6 Shockingly Childish Abuses Of Power By Airport Employees.