Esteban Santiago followed Transportation Security Administration regulations for transporting a 9mm pistol in his checked baggage last week. He successfully passed TSA security at Anchorage International Airport. And then he killed five people and injured six at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The aviation security system worked as designed, and that system was unable to prevent the mass shooting. What does this mean for improvements to U.S. aviation security?
The hard fact is that there is no such thing as total security. There are multiple layers of screening before a passenger ever reaches a TSA checkpoint. Roving behavioral detection teams, advanced passenger data screening against “No Fly” lists, perimeter fencing, CCTV coverage, visible law enforcement presences in pick-up and drop-off areas — each of these security layers creates an opportunity to interdict an individual targeting the aviation system. While they are highly effective in keeping dangerous people and items off of airplanes, they do little to prevent the kind of attack we saw in Fort Lauderdale.
In the months ahead, there are sure to be calls to revisit rules for transporting weapons in checked baggage. There are steps TSA and airports might consider. Passengers who declare a firearm could be required to retrieve the bag containing the weapon from airport or law enforcement personnel, such as at a customer service area. That would give law enforcement an opportunity to assess a traveler’s state of mind, to ensure there was no tampering with the hard-sided containers in which the weapon and ammunition were secured, and to flag an individual known to be carrying a weapon within the confines of the airport. It may also be prudent to give new consideration to who can transport ammunition with a weapon. Perhaps people enrolled in PreCheck, who have already been vetted and entered into the system, will be deemed eligible to travel with a weapon and its ammunition.
While these steps could help mitigate the risk of an attack like the one in Fort Lauderdale, baggage areas (as well as departure terminals) will remain vulnerable. We saw this with Paul Anthony Ciancia’s attack on a TSA checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport in 2013, as well as with the Brussels Airport bombing in 2016. Santiago could have just as easily launched his attack at the unsecure areas of the Anchorage airport, and no adjustments to checked baggage rules would have prevented it.
Calls for greater airport security may highlight a desire to further extend airport sterile areas to include baggage pick-up and departure terminals, but the perimeter of a secure area will always be the new target. No matter what measures are implemented, absolute security is unobtainable. Recognizing inevitable vulnerabilities, we need to focus on improving resilience in the aviation system.
Any attack should prompt discussions on how to mitigate the consequences of it. Santiago surrendered after a matter of minutes, but the disruption to the aviation system nationwide lasted for hours. Erroneous reports of a second shooter (which can happen, given heightened responses to perceived sounds of gunfire or spontaneous rumor) triggered a shutdown of the entire airport.
The images of thousands of people running in terror out of terminals and onto the tarmac were exactly the kind of response to an attack that we do not want to see. And you can be sure that terrorists around the world were watching — and learning.
Terrorists weigh something called “attack utility” in their planning. This is the notion of maximizing visibility and disruption from an attack, and it is why we see a persistent threat to the aviation system. Attacking an airport yields outsized consequences. It frequently shuts down the airport and causes cascading disruption to the global aviation system, delaying the transportation of travelers and cargo, as well as sowing uncertainty and fear. In Fort Lauderdale, the police were right to take reports of a second shooter seriously, but we need to assess how we would respond to a coordinated attack that evidently could cause enormous disruption.
After a threat is addressed, the immediate priority is restoring normal operations. It limits the impact and the utility to the attacker. One lesson from these incidents is that we need to find ways to better communicate with the public after an attack and contain its reaction. Procedures for using public announcement systems and wireless public alerts (such as through text messaging) are critical.
There should also be training for all airport employees so they know how to respond during an attack, not just to support passenger safety but to contain panic and preserve order. We are only as strong as our weakest link, and strength comes from education and awareness gleaned during routine, regular training. These are essential to enhancing the resilience of our aviation system.
Another attack on the U.S. aviation system is not a matter of if but when, and given the current threats from homegrown and foreign terrorists, we will likely see another attempted attack sooner than later. We will not be able to prevent every threat, but we can prepare for it. That means enhancing our readiness and resilience need to be ongoing priorities.
This article was originally published by USA Today.