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New book by TSA head offers insight on airport security

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In his new book, former TSA head Kip Hawley critiques the current airport security system and offers ways to improve it.

Taking off shoes, removing liquids and laptops from backpacks, possible full body pat downs—no one likes going to the airport these days. Not even former TSA head Kip Hawley. In his new book, Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security, he argues that our approach to risk is misguided. “In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple,” Hawley said in a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.

His book sheds new light on the airport security problem and offers suggestions on how to fix it. In an interview with Steven Cherry of IEEE Spectrum, Hawley outlined some of the things he would do.

Create “liquid lines” at security checkpoints: Liquids remain a problem because of the potential for liquid explosives. But Hawley says technology is available to detect that sort of threat. Of course, with current technology there are still too many false positives. But Hawley has a solution: “My argument is, rather than wait x number of years to get the machine that allows you to keep everything in the bag, let’s give the choice to the public now that if they want to bring in liquids, they can go to what would be known as a liquid lane, and it might take a little bit longer. And if you don’t want to wait you just use the baggie and keep on going.”

Eliminate bans on carrying sharp objects: According to Hawley, sharp objects are no longer a threat to take down a plane. He says that the threat has changed and TSA needs to get rid of some of the old security items that are just a waste of time. “It’s that it could happen—but it’s not going to happen—that there’d be a plane taken over any more. So my argument is that if you’re going to talk about risk management, we should say that we’re willing to accept the risk that there could be violence on a plane because you can kill somebody with your hands, basically.”

Eliminate fees for checking bags: When liquids were banned on carry-on luggage in 2006, more people checked baggage and that overburdened the baggage system. When TSA started to allow small bottles on carry-ons, many people were still checking bags so airlines instituted fees. But now carry-on luggage is slowing down checkpoints and making the job of security more difficult. (Just imagine how hard it is to look for a threat in thousands of carry-on luggages packed to the brin with clothes, laptops, makeup and batteries.) Hawley suggests it is worth it for TSA to encourage people to check bags to even out the balance of checked and unchecked luggage. He suggests that “the TSA essentially trade off other fees they get from the airlines in exchange for the airlines’ not charging the passengers extra for baggage.” This will do two things: speed up the process of going through checkpoints and make it easier for security personnel to do their job. Hawley says “with a cleaner bag, where you’re only looking for the really harmful things, you can do a much better security job.”

What do you think about Hawley's suggestions? Could they make air travel safe and efficient?

Airport Security: Everything You Know Is Wrong  [IEEE Spectrum]

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Amy Kraft

Weekend Editor

Contributing Editor Amy Kraft is a freelance writer based in New York. She has written for New Scientist and DNAinfo and has produced podcasts for Scientific American's 60-Second-Science. She holds degrees from CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure