Aviation Security

Airport security screening is where the public encounters the machinery of anti-terrorism, and while I may be misunderstanding something security experts know about, it impresses me as embodying an infuriating sort of incompetence: pointless rules, lots of sirring with no real courtesy, and idiotic intransigence, all having minimal visible security advantage. The inference one might draw about the larger system is not encouraging.

Among the most ill-conceived policies has been the aggressive rooting out of pocket knives, scissors, and other pointy things, including amputation of the nailfiles that fold out of a fingernail clipper. The 9/11 hijackings were, as far as we know, carried out with mat knives, and Swiss Army Knives would have done as well, but now we have locking cockpit doors and pilots under instructions not to go back to deal with tumult, so these small weapons are not really hijacking tools any more.

It’s important that the one plane that didn’t get to its target on 9/11 was diverted by its passengers, who overpowered the hijackers. It’s also important that system tests of airport screening have repeatedly passed guns and really scary stuff, so we should assume airplanes are still at some risk of hijacking. This being true, why did we think it a good idea to carefully disarm the passengers of the small knives that might give them, in a group, a good go at a hijacker or even a few, especially as this program inflicted small costs and deprivations on hundreds of thousands of passengers who forget to put their pocket knives in their checked bags, or who can’t travel with a useful small accessory at all because they aren’t checking a bag?

How hard would it have been at least to have a bag, under TSA control, labeled for each departing flight at the security point in which passengers could drop their small contraband with no guarantees or liability, that would be carried to the departure gate and travel to the destination in the cockpit or under flight attendant control? Then passengers could pick up their little knives and scissors and lighters on a table at baggage claim. Some would be stolen or lost, but most would get to their owners.

The TSA is apparently having some stirrings of common sense at least about these sharp doodads, and not a moment too soon.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.