Experts predict new airport security debate

04 Nov

Friday’s shooting at Los Angeles International Airport will likely generate another conversation about increased security at transportation hubs while spurring another debate over the balance of safety, convenience and civil liberties, security experts said.

Jeffrey Simon, a security expert at UCLA and author of a book released this year that studied the phenomenon of “lone wolf” terrorist attacks, said LAX presents a series of challenges to make it completely secure – namely that it’s the sixth busiest airport in the world and saw more than 63.6 million passengers pass through it in 2012.

“The only solution is to only allow people with a ticket into the lobby area and doing all the security checks prior to the first point of entry,” Simon said. “That wouldn’t be practical in terms of the sheer volume of people that go through there.”

He also said the time and cost of putting in electronic detectors at the doors prior to entering the ticketing area would “create incredible delays” for traffic at the airport and raise the ire of passengers. He also said it would cost a significant amount of money to put something like that in place.

Simon said that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, airports have regularly reviewed security measures. But over time as tragic events are spread out, things get relaxed and people want to be less inconvenienced.

This year, for example, U.S. Transportation Security Administration agents stopped requiring children 12 and under from removing their shoes at checkpoints and the agency has moved some passengers to a speed pass option to get through security faster. There was even a serious move earlier this year to allow people to bring small knives and scissors aboard planes again – an effort that ultimately failed. And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., proposed two bills in 2012 that sought to reduce the level of screening TSA does on passengers.

Security appeared to have changed at LAX as well, according to Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association.

He said earlier this year, a decision was made to remove two armed officers from permanent posts outside TSA checkpoints and they were instead moved to roving status. He said he didn’t know why the change happened and said he didn’t “want to Monday morning quarterback” the situation if officers had been posted in front of the checkpoint at issue on Friday. He also said there are fewer airport police officers due to staffing cuts.

“Our officers did an outstanding job today despite our staffing being lower,” McClain said.

U.S Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles and whose district encompasses LAX, noted in a statement that the TSA checkpoints are “the public’s first line of defense against weapons” and said “the safety and security of the people who work in and pass through LAX is of paramount importance.”

Jenny Wedge, spokeswoman at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, said officials there are “always evaluating” security measures but said there were no plans to put additional screening at terminal entrances.

“For active-shooter incidents, plane crashes, other threats to security, natural disasters, we have operational procedures for response following these types of events,” Wedge said. “We exercise this on a full-scale every three years, and hold tabletop exercises twice per year with the emergency response parties.”

Jonathan Tal, president and chief executive officer of San Jose-based security consultation firm TalGlobal, said there is always room for improvement in security but offered a sobering caveat.

“TSA is a law enforcement agency. As such, it will be targeted just like other agencies are by crazed and vindictive subjects,” he said. “The relationship between this attack and airport screening is incidental: we do need to improve the experience at airports while doing a better job at securing our airports, but this type of attack will happen no mater what we do.”



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