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Human and Technology Driven US Airport Security Improvements Since 9/11

By Kelly Hoggan

Facial recognition technology is changing the security surveillance dynamic.

According to a 2018 report issued by the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, the US has spent at least $2.8 trillion on counterterrorism efforts since 9/11. As of 2017, the nation’s agencies charged with counterterror duties – including the State, Defense and Homeland Security Departments – spend about $175 billion annually on the effort. No doubt, there are other highly classified counterterror activities that contribute additional costs to the US effort against terror, especially terrorism against airlines and airports. So what is all that money buying us?

TSA and Human-Driven Security

Since 2001, a great deal of time and effort has been spent on improving human-driven and technology driven airport security. For example, the US Transportation Security Administration, under the Department of Homeland Security, quickly became the exclusive air travel security force at more than 450 US airports upon its formation in late 2001. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are currently nearly 43,000 TSA security agents, known as screeners, staffing airport security checkpoints and performing a wide variety of related duties.

In looking at TSA and what it does, it’s helpful to know that the theory of increased visible security plays a role in just why the agency does what it does. In a nutshell, highly apparent security activities and requirements such as passing through screening checkpoints and random ID checks and screening of airport employees means safer air travel for everyone involved.

In a way, TSA’s activities are akin to those of a police department which pushes officers out onto patrols or beats and into squad cars to protect their assigned populations such as cities or towns. A professional and well-trained police presence helps to deter criminal activity, and TSA’s presence also acts in much the same way, as terrorists and terror groups might seek out softer or less-difficult targets to penetrate.

Technology Driven Security

The increased use of technology to fight terror since 9/11 has also contributed to the safety of US air travel, both domestically and abroad. Facial recognition technology has become increasingly more common at airports, helping security personnel identify terrorists and other bad actors before they approach a ticket counter or security checkpoint. Behavioral experts are also a common presence at airports these days, studying air travelers and looking for signs of suspicious behavior.

Human, Machine and Animal

Air travel security also benefits from undercover security agents, both in the airport and on airliners, as well as police officers, bomb-sniffing dogs and highly advanced baggage screening devices like computed tomography (CT) machines. These devices and their skilled operators can effectively screen a great deal of passenger luggage as well as cargo hourly without interruption to airline flight schedules. Bomb-sniffing dogs and their handlers add yet another security layer helping safeguard travelers.

Passengers, Pilots and Flight Attendants

Without a doubt, the behavior of airline passengers has also helped improve security since 9/11. Air travelers today are keener and more aware as well as quicker to point out a suspicious package or individual, for one. Stories also abound about passengers quickly moving to subdue or detain unruly or outright dangerous fellow passengers attempting to break into cockpits or otherwise threaten flight safety. Reinforced cockpit doors and pilots and flight attendants trained to take aggressive action against would-be terrorists are now the norm in the US as well as in much of the rest of the world.

Safe Skies Becoming Even Safer

Air travel is, far and away, the safest way to travel. Incidents at airports and against airlines are exceedingly rare, especially as new security technologies and improvements to current practices come online. Since the 9/11 terror attacks, airlines have also consistently trained their pilots and flight attendants to take more aggressive actions in the event of an emergency. Airports haven’t lagged in instituting new security measures, either.

All these security improvements, both human as well as technology driven, have combined to make already safe US skies more secure than ever. In fact, there has probably never been a better time to fly in the US as well as abroad.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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