TSA: Quasi-Protection

Ryan Heshmati

September 01, 2023

Despite general support for it, images of airport security rarely conjure up intensely positive images for American travelers, but rather those of long lines and thorough searches. Since the September 11th, 2001, attacks on U.S. soil using commercial airliners, the United States has seriously stepped up airport security to protect travelers, or at least that is how it may seem. U.S. News reports that in the first 10-year period following 9/11, over $62 billion was spent on airport security. Further, the Transportation Security Agency has over 50,000 employees in its arsenal. With all this investment, how safe does TSA really make air travel in the United States? 

Since the attacks, there have certainly been changes to airport security. Namely, under President Bush, legislation was passed to create and fund the Transportation Security Agency. By late 2006, aerosols, liquids, and gels over a 3.4-ounce limit were banned. Restrictions can certainly have positive impacts, but, with airport security, that occurs only when TSA successfully enforces them, which is not their strong suit.

In 2017, a report on TSA operations drew wide attention for its shockingly embarrassing fail rate at detecting potential threats through its screening process. Homeland Security investigators tested the screening process by attempting to smuggle through fake knives, explosives, and guns, finding that in over 70% of cases, TSA failed to stop them. Even more embarrassing, in 2015, that number was around 95%. Some defenders of the TSA might point out the improvement, but that is hardly substantial considering the vast majority of cases still, as of the 2017 study, resulted in failures to take action.

On a topic like airport security, however, there have yet to really be any viable solutions offered. Rather, Americans are continuing to be sold the illusion of protection. In December of 2021, YouGov commissioned a poll that found that over three-quarters of Americans find the current airport security model as either very or somewhat likely to successfully stop someone attempting to smuggle a weapon onto a plane. 

United States airports and airlines, and most importantly, the American people, deserve protection from terrorist threats and therein lies the major issue with ineffective airport security: just that, a failure to catch bad actors before they reach the plane. Americans cannot afford to have an agency slacking on protecting the vital infrastructure that makes up U.S. airports, yet they remain confident in an agency that has faced some serious issues.

As a result of increased fear following September 11th, airport security underwent some changes, but ultimately, those changes are only as good as TSA’s enforcement, which has had some serious shortcomings in recent years. Despite the issues with it, the American public remains largely supportive of the agency, with the belief that they do a very good job of catching bad actors. TSA has some work to do if it seeks to meet the reputation it has built for efficacy, but it certainly does provide a sense of security (justified or not), which might be all the public demands of it.