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Airplane Passenger Screening Fails

From (June 2000)

In 1978, screeners failed to detect 13 percent of the objects during compliance tests, and in 1987, screeners were missing 20 percent of the objects during the same type of test. Since 1997, FAA has designated data on test results as sensitive security information. (September 2001)

... in one series of tests, the Inspector General’s staff successfully gained access to secure areas 68 percent of the time.
In 1987, screeners missed 20 percent of the potentially dangerous objects used by FAA in its tests. At that time, FAA characterized this level of performance as unsatisfactory. More recent results have shown that as testing gets more realistic—that is, as tests more closely approximate how a terrorist might attempt to penetrate a checkpoint—screeners’ performance declines significantly. (September 2003)

FAA tests conducted between 1991 and 1999 showed that screeners’ ability to detect objects was not improving, and in some cases was worsening. (November 2003)

Our recent work on passenger screening found that little testing or other data exist that measure the performance of screeners in detecting threat objects.
The passenger and baggage screening functions alone account for most of this funding, with about $1.8 billion appropriated for passenger screening...

There is even a new threat that our screeners aren't even being tested on (February 2004):

Islamic militants have conducted dry runs of a devastating new style of bombing on aircraft flying to Europe, intelligence sources believe.

The tactics, which aim to evade aviation security systems by placing only components of explosive devices on passenger jets, allowing militants to assemble them in the air, have been tried out on planes flying between the Middle East, North Africa and Western Europe, security sources say.

Concerns that militants might assemble a bomb or another weapon on board were a key factor in the series of recent cancellations of transatlantic flights. Last weekend British Airways stopped flights from London to Washington and Miami for fear of an attack and Air France also cancelled scheduled flights.

So... we are spending $1.8 billion on an activity whose performance is "little tested" and in the past has been "unsatisfactory".  In fact the results are so unsatisfactory they are classified.  However we are assured that significantly more than 20 percent of the dangerous objects make it past airport screeners if the person is deliberately trying to deceive them.  If my tests (done with the permission of the security guard) are any indication the likelihood of deliberately getting a firearm past the screeners is very close to 100%.  Furthermore the people we are trying to defend against have come up with another means to bypass security.

What about the thousands of dangerous objects being detected every year during passenger screening?  Nearly all of those are innocent mistakes, not deliberate attempts to breach security.

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Last update: Tuesday December 07, 2004