With certain exceptions – and we’ll discuss those later in this article – most U.S. air travelers going through an airport security checkpoint must remove their shoes. Those shoes are typically run through an x-ray machine or otherwise examined by TSA screeners. After travelers “clear security,” they’re allowed to put their shoes back on (provided everything checks out, that is). Of course, the question here is just why flyers are taking their shoes off in the first place.
The simplest answer to the shoe-security issue in the U.S. comes down to one man: Richard Reid. On December 22, 2001 the British-born Reid boarded an American Airlines flight between Paris, France and Miami, Florida after successfully passing through security (he’d been turned away the day before because he’d appeared “suspicious”).
Reid had been a lifelong petty criminal who’d converted to Islam while in prison. He subsequently became radicalized and spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, training to become a terrorist and pledging fealty to Al-Qaeda, which was looking to follow up on its successful 9/11 attacks.
During the flight, Reid attempted to detonate his shoes, which were packed with explosives. He was carrying out the attack on orders of, and in coordination with, Al-Qaeda. A flight attendant and several passengers managed to subdue Reid before he could succeed in igniting his shoes. Authorities believe the British bomber failed due to a delay in his flight’s takeoff along with his bomb’s fuse being too damp to ignite, owing perhaps to Reid’s foot perspiration. Never in the annals of airline attacks has a terrorist’s sweaty feet foiled a bombing, but they apparently did so in this case.
It’s a safe bet to say that hundreds of millions of U.S. flyers since Reid’s attempted attack have had to remove their shoes while passing through a TSA security checkpoint. Conservatively estimated, the federal security agency has also probably examined 10 BILLION (with a ‘B’) of them since shoe screening was initiated shortly after Reid's bombing attempt.
This is where we must ask ourselves why we’re still taking our shoes off, given there’s never been a shoe bomb-style attack that’s originated on U.S. soil. Indeed, Reid as well as the infamous Underwear Bomber (Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) boarded flights which came from Europe, not the U.S. Their terrorist bosses had identified key security weaknesses in the system that transported international travelers to America and then took advantage of them.
The simplest answer to why the U.S. still requires most air travelers to submit their shoes for security inspection after all these years boils down to caution on the part of TSA and the government. And such caution owes its existence to several factors, starting with the fact that Reid’s attack nearly succeeded and that the terrorist world never lacks for copycats. Sooner or later, the thinking goes, some terror group will try again to insert a shoe-style bomber onto a flight, preferably one originating in the U.S., if only to prove that our aviation security practices aren’t terror-proof.
Also, and as former Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano observed several years ago, there will probably come a day when no U.S. air traveler must remove their shoes. Unfortunately, security technology which can daily effectively and efficiently scan countless travelers’ footwear for explosives just isn’t there yet, though it might be right around the corner. And won’t U.S. travelers sing hosannas to the heavens when that day arrives? At present, though, TSA worries about what it calls “concealment,” meaning the ability to hide an explosive or bomb within a shoe or shoes.
In the meantime, what can the general mass of air travelers boarding U.S. flights do to avoid having to take their shoes off? The most effective and assured way is to enroll in TSA’s PreCheck program. Once you submit an online application you can schedule a PreCheck in-person appointment for a background check and fingerprinting. After you’re vetted and approved for PreCheck you usually won’t have to take off your shoes or jacket, or remove your laptop from your bag, whenever you go through a U.S. airport security checkpoint.
If you travel internationally, you should consider taking the additional step of applying for Global Entry, which is also part of DHS’s suite of “Trusted Traveler” programs. The fee for Global Entry status (which requires additional vetting and an in-person security interview) is $100, but it also includes the TSA PreCheck benefit and is good for five years. Together, the two programs enable U.S. air travelers flying within the country or re-entering it from an approved international destination to quickly make their way through security. (PreCheck as a standalone program costs $85 for membership and lasts for five years as well.)
The only other exemptions to TSA’s “shoe rule” apply to children under 12 years of age, adults 75 years of age and older, and members of the U.S. military. If you don’t fall into one of those categories or aren’t a DHS Trusted Traveler you should count on having to remove your shoes and submitting them for TSA inspection whenever you travel in the U.S., irritating as that may be to most of us.
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.