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How safe is air travel? Who knows? TSA doesn’t

Who knows how safe air travel is in the United States? The TSA doesn’t. Airport security is impossible to judge based on the agency’s haphazard data.

First Published Jan 20 2013 12:36 am • Last Updated May 05 2013 11:33 pm

After airport security blunders enabled the 9/11 terrorists to kill nearly 3,000 people, Congress created the Transportation Security Administration to protect against attack in U.S. skies. To help analyze its progress, TSA says it decided to track how many potential weapons travelers surrender at each U.S. airport.

But The Salt Lake Tribune found huge holes in that TSA data that raise questions about the information’s value in charting the effectiveness of airport security.

At a glance

TSA provided data two years after request

In October 2010, The Salt Lake Tribune made a Freedom of Information Act request for TSA data about numbers of prohibited items, by type, surrendered at security checkpoints at each U.S. airport. Almost exactly two years later, the TSA provided data for 2005-2010. While The Tribune requested data in electronic format, TSA provided paper printouts, which required entering it by hand into computers for analysis. The newspaper combined this information with data for 2002-04, which was obtained earlier.

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For example, TSA stopped counting confiscated firearms for three years. In 2008, it quit counting eight of 13 major categories of banned items, including knives, ammunition and box cutters (the weapon used by 9/11 terrorists).

The hit-and-miss data show TSA does not know how many total prohibited items are surrendered, so it cannot accurately track rates of such activity nationwide or at specific airports.

"If TSA is continually changing the parameters of how they test, truly they have no idea of how they are doing," said Douglas Laird, head of an aviation-security consulting firm. He is the former security director of Northwest Airlines and a former Secret Service agent.

But TSA says the data variations are not a big deal.

"TSA continues to be responsive to the threats that it knows are out there," said TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers. "Data collection has been fluid over time" as different threats required changes in prohibited items and focus — leading to frequent changes in data collection.

TSA has no explanation » At its creation, TSA decided, in its own words, to track surrendered items in a database "as a tool through which TSA captures and analyzes daily operational information to achieve performance goals."

The record for items surrendered came in 2005, when the agency recorded collecting 15.7 million potential weapons nationwide. That amounts to one for every 46 passengers that year — enough to provide a banned item to everyone on a fleet of nearly 38,000 full Boeing 747s.


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But in 2010, the last year for which TSA data were released, records show TSA collected a mere 109,270 banned items — a 99 percent decrease from five years earlier and a record low. That amounts to one item for about every 6,700 passengers.

The vast difference comes not from a dramatic increase in travelers leaving banned items at home but mostly from changes in what TSA counted.

For example, in 2005, TSA was in the middle of a three-year period — from July 26, 2004, to June 29, 2007 — when it did not include firearms in its data. The agency confirmed that it left firearms out of the count during this period, but it did not say why. Dankers said in an interview that she also had no explanation.

An even bigger reason for variations in the data is that, beginning in 2008, TSA discontinued counting most types of banned items — including sharp objects, knives and blades, tools, ammunition and gunpowder, replica weapons, dangerous objects, clubs, bats and bludgeons, box cutters and lighters.

"It became very labor intensive to document these items," Dankers said. "Over the course of time, not every prohibited item was logged for the sake of efficiency. ... TSA screens between 1.7 [million] and 1.8 million people per day. We’re dealing with large numbers of people at 450 federalized airports nationwide."

TSA decided it made sense to track only the "most significant items," she said, including guns, explosives, fireworks and "flammables/irritants."

Changing lists » Some items also disappeared from tracking because they were once banned in the wake of 9/11 but later allowed. Others were added to the banned list because of emerging threats, but they were not always counted.

One example of an item dropped from prohibited lists are cigarette lighters. In 2005, while they were still prohibited, TSA recorded collecting 9.3 million of them — about two-thirds of all items surrendered that year. The next year it seized 11.5 million of them. By 2010, that dropped to zero.

An example of an item added to the banned list based on an emerging risk assessment are liquids ­ — which were prohibited abruptly on Aug. 10, 2006, when intelligence showed imminent threats of terrorists aiming to blow up aircraft traveling between Great Britain and the United States.

Eventually, TSA allowed small amounts of liquids that fit in 3.4-ounce containers placed in a 1-quart clear, zip-top bag, with one bag allowed per passenger.

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Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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