15 Years Since 9/11: why are we still vulnerable to this type of attack?

By Capt. Tom Walsh

The United States Transportation Security Administration has been in the news again lately, at least here in the USA. Unfortunately it’s not good news. Recent reports indicate that the wait times to clear security at many airports are becoming very excessive, in some cases more than two hours. Photos are appearing on the internet of lines snaking through terminals and out of sight. I’ve seen it myself in New York and Los Angeles recently. This is all before the busy summer travel season even begins and TSA officials are warning that the problem may get worse. By way of explanation, the TSA say they lost a few thousand employees in 2014 and have only replaced a few hundred of them. Emergency hiring plans and funding have been put in place but personally, I don’t believe it will make enough of a difference at this point. One would think that after 15 years, the TSA would know how to staff correctly.

Much more disturbing are other reports on the effectiveness of TSA screeners. In routine tests undercover federal agents at some major airports used prohibited items and simulated bomb components to test the effectiveness of TSA screeners. The ‘failure to detect’ rate in some of the tests was in the vicinity of an astounding 90%! I’m sure everyone would agree that with the amount of money we spend on aviation security, that number is totally unacceptable.

These statistics have led me to question if aviation security systems in the rest of the world are significantly better than the TSA. If the TSA can get it so wrong with all of the resources of the US government behind them, are airports outside the US significantly better in detecting prohibited items? In my job I travel all over the world and personally experience and observe aviation security systems in many countries. In general, I believe that aviation security is better outside the US, particularly in Europe and Asia and worse in some other areas. While aviation security outside of the US may be more effective, however, we cannot assume that it is of no concern. I’m convinced that prohibited or dangerous items are getting through the world’s screening checkpoints, with limited exception, and that the focus on liquids is one of the main reasons. When screening systems all over the world are focused on detecting ‘things’ instead of ‘intent’, failures such as we are seeing with the TSA must be expected.

It’s now been 15 years since the 9/11 attacks forever changed the face of aviation security. How many billions of dollars have been spent worldwide in the name of aviation security since then? How many more billions are spent each year? How many tonnes of perfectly harmless liquids are confiscated and destroyed in the name of a threat that was never going to happen according to intelligence services? Huge numbers to be sure.

As a pilot, what is perhaps most frustrating is that we spend so much money on methods offering very little protection, and we still have not yet fully mitigated the risk of a 9/11-style attack. We seem to have forgotten that the basic concept of those attacks was to gain access to the cockpit, kill the pilots and use the aircraft as a weapon of mass destruction. If you believe that style of attack could never happen again, you’re wrong.

Most people believe that reinforced cockpit doors have made the threat of a 9/11-style attack impossible. Unfortunately, that’s not true. The door is extremely effective but only when it is closed! On longer flights such as transcontinental or international flights, the door must be opened a significant number of times, for meal delivery, crew changes, lavatory breaks, etc. The flight deck door on a typical international flight opens between 9 and 20 times during each flight. When the door is opened, it is an access, not a barrier. It would take virtually no time to rush the cockpit, enter and possibly subdue or kill the crew. An attacker or attackers would not even need prohibited items. Effective weapons can be made from permitted items brought through security or acquired on board.