Former TSA Chief: Allow Weapons on Planes

Posted: Apr 14, 2012 4:13 PM

In a Wall Street Journal op/ed today, Kip Hawley, former head of the Transportation Security Administration from 2005-2009, has some radical suggestions for how to increase airport safety -- and they're in direct opposition to everything we do now.

He argues that the TSA needs to embrace two basic principles before it can make any significant improvements in both travel security and convenience.

First, the TSA's mission is to prevent a catastrophic attack on the transportation system, not to ensure that every single passenger can avoid harm while traveling. Much of the friction in the system today results from rules that are direct responses to how we were attacked on 9/11. But it's simply no longer the case that killing a few people on board a plane could lead to a hijacking. Never again will a terrorist be able to breach the cockpit simply with a box cutter or a knife. The cockpit doors have been reinforced, and passengers, flight crews and air marshals would intervene.

Second, the TSA's job is to manage risk, not to enforce regulations. Terrorists are adaptive, and we need to be adaptive, too. Regulations are always playing catch-up, because terrorists design their plots around the loopholes.

In short, the TSA has become so rules-bound that its agents are incapable of seeing the forest for the trees. For example, one common test for new agents is to place bomb materials close to a lighter in a bag. Most often, the agents see the lighter, but ignore the bomb materials -- and that's not exactly a reassuring conclusion.

The agency is known for being a bureaucratic tangle, and he acknowledges that one of its biggest struggles is finding an ally in passengers. The antagonistic relationship between the TSA and travelers isn't exactly conducive to security. Passengers don't feel safer knowing that the agency tasked with weeding out terrorists is mostly in the headlines for patting down toddlers or grandmothers.

In order to streamline the security process, reduce the possibility of a future attack, and keep customers happier, Hawley offers five unconventional suggestions for improvement:

1. No more banned items: Aside from obvious weapons capable of fast, multiple killings—such as guns, toxins and explosive devices—it is time to end the TSA's use of well-trained security officers as kindergarten teachers to millions of passengers a day. The list of banned items has created an "Easter-egg hunt" mentality at the TSA. Worse, banning certain items gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack. Lighters are banned? The next attack will use an electric trigger.

2. Allow all liquids: Simple checkpoint signage, a small software update and some traffic management are all that stand between you and bringing all your liquids on every U.S. flight. Really.

3. Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable: No security agency on earth has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers. We need to leverage that ability. TSA officers should have more discretion to interact with passengers and to work in looser teams throughout airports. And TSA's leaders must be prepared to support initiative even when officers make mistakes. Currently, independence on the ground is more likely to lead to discipline than reward.

4. Eliminate baggage fees: Much of the pain at TSA checkpoints these days can be attributed to passengers overstuffing their carry-on luggage to avoid baggage fees. The airlines had their reasons for implementing these fees, but the result has been a checkpoint nightmare. Airlines might increase ticket prices slightly to compensate for the lost revenue, but the main impact would be that checkpoint screening for everybody will be faster and safer.

5. Randomize security: Predictability is deadly. Banned-item lists, rigid protocols—if terrorists know what to expect at the airport, they have a greater chance of evading our system.

Gotta say, I might feel safer on a plane knowing a fellow, non-terrorist passenger was equipped to take down anyone with malicious intentions. It does seem highly unlikely that we'll ever adopt these measures, though -- especially with the increase in gun- and knife-unfriendly politicians out there. Would planes really be safer if they were more free? Or is our current restrictive system the best way to prevent a future attack?