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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.

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But TSA never tracked in its database how many oversize liquids were surrendered — which Dankers says is one of the most commonly barred items now seen.

"The prohibited-items list was implemented, evaluated and adjusted as necessary," Dankers said, as focus and threats changed.

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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"We look at those items that pose a threat," Dankers said. "We look at a metric to determine at what rate people are bringing those through a checkpoint. We continue to evaluate that. It is a dynamic process."

Stopping terrorists: "It’s impossible" » Frequent changes in what is counted render any year-to-year comparison meaningless.

Some security experts say such holes and variances make the database a poor tool to gauge TSA performance.

"It says that they’re very sloppy about figuring out if what they’re doing is any good," said Bruce Schneier, a security-technology consultant and author.

Laird, the former security director for Northwest Airlines, says it shows TSA keeps changing its mind about what is important to track, and that makes it difficult to measure progress.

Both experts say that even if the data were more consistently collected, that information still might not be a great way to measure air-travel security.

"Think about it this way: The goal of the TSA is to prevent terrorist plots on airplanes. The way to do that is to stop terrorists with viable plots from getting on airplanes. They can’t do that; it’s impossible," Schneier said. "There’s no comprehensive lists of terrorists, and there’s no comprehensive list of terrorist plots."

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So, he added, "Instead, they invent another goal and hope it’s close to the real goal. The new goal is to prevent a list of banned items from getting on airplanes. … Even if they ban 100 percent of guns and bombs, is there any evidence that’s a worthwhile goal? I have no idea and neither do they."

Laird said "99.9999" percent of what is surrendered at airports is not from terrorists "but from people who forgot what was in their luggage" and likely doesn’t say much about discouraging terrorists.

Ultimately, passenger checkpoints are just one of many layers of TSA security, said Dankers. "We have air marshals, we have canine teams, we have inspectors, we have intelligence gathering," and even "behavior detection" officers who watch body language for anything amiss — and items surrendered at airports are just one part of a mosaic of protection measures.

Mark Lewis, deputy federal security director for Utah, said maybe the best measurement "is when nothing bad happens" — and no terrorists have killed anyone on U.S. planes since 9/11. "Regardless of the reporting, the fact that we are focused on the real threat allows us to keep the traveling public safe."

Big numbers at small airports » One surprise from the data is that small airports have much higher rates of surrendered items per boardings than do large airports during the entire 2002-10 period.

Small general aviation airports with some passenger service had 143.67 prohibited items per 10,000 boardings during that time, double the rate for large hub airports. Similarly, non-hub airports primarily serving passenger flights had a rate of 149.3 items, compared with 131.97 for small hubs and 73.8 for large hubs.

Dankers didn’t want to venture an explanation for the pattern of much lower rates of confiscation at larger, busier airports.

Asked whether higher rates at smaller airports could be a result of less harried, more thorough screenings, Dankers said: "The standard at every one of the federalized airports is the same. Our officers undergo the same training at a very small airport or one of the largest airports in the country."

Among all airports nationally, Vernal Regional Airport had the second-highest rate of surrendered items in the period: 515.6 per 10,000 boardings. The only airport with a higher rate was Moses Lake, Wash., at 553.53.

Kelly Harvey, manager of the Vernal airport, which offers daily flights to Denver, said he has no idea why it has such a high rate. But a factor might be that passengers at such small airports fly less often and may not be as familiar with what is banned in baggage.

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