Blue Line

Transportation security in crisis

June 18, 2012  By Matt Sheehy

– Wendell Phillips (1811-1884)

In the face of a growing body of evidence indicating the present approach to transportation security is ineffective, wasteful and makes air travel unbearable, there are surprisingly few voices calling for reform.

Hardly a week goes by without a headline about the latest airport security gaffe. Children are molested, amputees forced to remove artificial limbs, colostomy bags inspected, 80-year-old vets patted down and kids in wheelchairs frisked. Let’s not forget the ever intrusive naked body scanners – banned in Europe as next to useless and challenged by medical experts as exposing the travelling public to possibly damaging doses of radiation.

Instead of looking for the real threat – the tiny subset of people with evil intent – the present system targets the mass of innocent travelers, aiming to interdict tweezers, cork screws, nail cutters, scissors, dangerous shampoos, etc. Success is measured by the number of items intercepted. The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported confiscating seven million items in 2009… but not one terrorist.

When something doesn’t work in the normal world you try something else but in transportation security, you just crank up the threat level and ask for more money. For example, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) 2009 budget was $57 billion, including $8 billion for the TSA. Overall Canadian costs would be about 10 per cent of that. Much of our security charge is imbedded in the Air Travellers Security Charge (ATSC), which the airlines collect and remit to Ottawa – $654 million for 2011-12.

The source of the problem is surprisingly simple; a flawed premise that every traveler represents an equal potential threat. This makes the entire travelling public a target and is also very conveniently politically correct. A system targeting hundreds of millions or even billions of people must by definition be enormous… and expensive. We now know with statistical certainty that 99 per cent of the public can be trusted to travel without blowing up anything other than, possibly, their blood pressure. In fact, alert travelers and crews, not the bloated multibillion dollar security complex, have interdicted every subsequent terrorist attack since 9/11.

Canada has generally followed the US lead in the security area, hoping to avoid increased border security, but there is growing evidence the US is headed in the wrong direction with little intention of changing course. Recent studies indicate the DHS and TSA have overstated the risk of a terrorist attack to sway public opinion and cow law-makers into boosting their already enormous budgets. Other studies state openly that much of the money spent on security since 9/11 has been wasted. Congressman John Mica helped author the legislation which gave birth to the TSA. He is deeply disappointed by the agency’s engorged bureaucracy and associated waste and has called for the dismantling of his brainchild.

The way out is to change the fundamental assumption about the threat. The travelling public is not an enemy but an ally. Adopt smart systems and technologies to identify as many “can fly” people as possible and get them out of the queue. We need to move to a TRUST and THREAT based doctrine. The technologies already exist using biometrics, background checks and behavioral profiling to identify trusted travelers. The Nexus and Global Pass programs are living examples of using information and smart systems to identify trusted travellers and move them through the line quickly.

It is time Canadians ask whether we should continue to follow America’s lead in pursuing increasingly intrusive policies that can impact on the freedom and liberties we all cherish and take for granted. We have been friends, neighbors and allies for many generations and are in this together; lets solve the issues and win this fight like we did on the beaches of Normandy. Failure is not an option.

Perhaps the greatest contribution Canada can make to cross border security and “Beyond the Border” initiatives is to champion smarter, more effective and efficient approaches to transportation security. A robust and fully supported cross border system of trust and verify would have an enormous positive impact on industry and the travelling public, not to mention a much needed financial gain.

Canada can and should take global leadership on this critical and vital component of our safety and security.


A retired airline pilot with 37 years experience and more than 20,000 hours in his log book, Captain Matt Sheehy has extensive experience and expertise in aviation security. A former OPP auxiliary constable, he continues to lend his security expertise to the aviation and transportation industry.

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