Over the past few weeks the media has been reporting a story about airport security screening that has captured our interest and started us talking. It’s the story of toddlers being stopped from getting on airplanes because they have the same name as someone who’s on a no-fly list.
The toddlers eventually do fly, but not before security agents make phone calls, send emails, and do whatever else they have to do, to reassure everyone that the six-year-old in front of them isn’t a terrorist. It’s ludicrous of course, and mind-bogglingly frustrating for the parents of these kids because there seems to be nothing they can do to solve the problem permanently.
But I have the uneasy feeling that paying attention to this story is the equivalent to watching a magician’s left hand, while his right hand stuffs four aces up his sleeve.
I was watching an American network newscast the other day when the reporter casually mentioned that in recent tests at US airports, screeners failed to stop prohibited items 95 per cent of the time. I thought I had misheard. Surely that couldn’t be right.
But it is right. In June of last year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) sent phony passengers with phony bombs and phony guns through 70 screenings at various airports, and they were caught just three times. The TSA said, “The numbers never look good out of context.” Whatever that means, the results were bad enough for the government to “reassign” the head of the agency.
Naturally, I wondered what the Canadian experience is. Do our screeners do better at finding weapons and explosives when they’re tested? The annual report of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) is readily available online.
The 2014 report told me that 53.9 million passengers were screened by 5,570 officers at 89 airports. It told me 92 per cent of passengers waited 15 minutes or less to be screened. And it told me that CATSA is committed to improving the customer experience by carrying out its duties “effectively and efficiently.”
How effectively? That’s a secret. The one number most of us would consider most important is not in the report. “Given the sensitivity of this performance category and its associated results, this data cannot be included in a public document.”
So we’re left to guess. CATSA apparently does surveys of people who use airports, and it says that 73.8 per cent of us have confidence in security screening. Why that is remains a mystery. It’s certainly easier to get onto an airplane with your family when you believe guns and bombs aren’t getting through checkpoints. But unless the Americans are doing everything horribly wrong and we aren’t doing the exact same things, our confidence is based on faith or wishful thinking, not fact.
The United States spends about $7 billion a year on airport security. We spend a touch under $700 million. That should be enough to allow security agents to use their common sense to determine a kid in short pants isn’t going to blow up an airplane. Whether any amount of money is enough to stop real terrorists is an open question.
– Mark Bulgutch worked at CBC News for 40 years and teaches journalism at Ryerson University. His new book is That's Why I'm a Journalist