Jun 29, 2023 - News

TSA protocols create security risks, experts say

Dozens of people standing just outside the TSA checkpoint at Terminal E at DFW Airport

Travelers waited a long time to get back inside DFW Airport's Terminal E on June 16. Photo: Courtesy of Cormac West

The TSA's policy of evacuating airport terminals after security breaches could potentially create additional safety risks in the areas outside screening stations.

Driving the news: An entire terminal at DFW International Airport was evacuated on June 16 after airport officials said a "technical error" led to a pre-recorded message asking passengers to leave the terminal.

  • As a result, hundreds of people gathered outside of security checkpoints while TSA officers waited to re-screen passengers and airport employees.

Why it matters: Gathering a large number of people outside the secured part of an airport terminal presents obvious security risks.

  • Re-screening all of those people also leads to flight delays and missed flights.

The big picture: Evacuating a terminal and then re-screening every passenger is official TSA policy, a TSA spokesperson tells Axios. It happens several times a year at airports across the country, according to security experts.

  • "The security protocol ensures that each person who is allowed into the secure area has undergone a security screening of their person and property," Patricia Mancha, a TSA spokesperson, tells Axios.

Zoom in: At DFW, which has five terminals, most of the airport continued to function as usual despite the chaos at Terminal E. When similar events happen at Dallas Love Field, which has only one terminal, the entire airport has to be evacuated — and thousands of people gather outside the security checkpoint.

Reality check: Despite the security risks created by gathering a large number of people in an unsecured area, a total evacuation of the terminal might be the best option available, Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researcher who helped develop the TSA PreCheck program, tells Axios.

  • "You have to just get people out because you don't want to end up having someone bring a device onto an airplane which can cause an explosion and bring the airplane down. That's the biggest threat that the TSA is interested in right now," Jacobson says.

Context: The TSA doesn't have the technology or training in place to fix a focused breach, Jacobson says. The long-term solution is biometric security — including facial recognition — because once the screening agencies know who they're dealing with, there's less need for physical screening.

  • "The TSA's vast reach means that any upgrade in technology or increase in staffing to mitigate evacuations is likely to require cutting spending in other areas that can't absorb cuts," Justin Oberman, a founding member and former executive at TSA and a consultant and entrepreneur in aviation, tells Axios.
  • "The downsides associated with loosening current standards are material and, if adjusted, could open up new, quite undesirable vulnerabilities."

What's next: Many airports are quickly moving toward touchless technology using facial recognition, AI, automation and biometric scanners to smooth check-in and security or immigration clearances, per Axios' Joann Muller.

  • By 2040, touchless digital ID cards could replace paper passports to confirm a passenger's identity, travel information and immigration status.
  • Combined with biometric technology, passengers could pass through security and immigration "tunnels" at a walking pace in a completely uninterrupted journey.

Yes, but: Lawmakers from both political parties have opposed advancing biometric technology development.

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