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TSA Reportedly Considers Ending Screening At Small Airports

August 02, 2018 - 3:43 pm
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WASHINGTON (WCBS 880/AP) -- There were reports Thursday that the Transportation Security Administration may eliminate screeners at smaller airports across the country.

The TSA would focus security efforts on the largest airports.

CNN reported that the Transportation Security Administration is considering whether to end passenger screening at about 150 airports that serve planes with 60 seats or fewer. The report cited senior agency officials and internal documents from June and July.

CBS News Transportation Safety Analyst and former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Mark Rosenker said he does not expect that the move will happen at all, but he explained the reasoning behind it.

“Well certainly, it’s something that needs to be looked at, and this is part of the budget exercise, where the TSA examines alternatives that in worst-case situations,” Rosenker said. “Do I believe that’s going to happen? I certainly don’t. But certainly, it is prudent to plan for any type of reduction in budget for next year.”

Still, aviation-security experts reacted with alarm, saying that dropping security at smaller airports could make those flights an inviting target for terrorists.

In a statement, TSA said no decision has been made. The agency said that any changes "to better allocate limited taxpayer resources" would be preceded by "a risk assessment to ensure the security of the aviation system."

Rosenker emphasized that even if the TSA does remove screeners from smaller airports, that would not mean passengers could just walk right onto a plane as was the case decades ago.

“Those days are gone. There will be some form of security. It’s just it may not be that you will see the TSA uniform there. It may well be that a commercial service is replacing them,” he said. “But again, that’s just part of the budget exercise where you have to take a look at if, in fact, they don’t get the appropriations they thought they were going to get. Do I believe it’s going to happen? I do not.”

But security experts said that while passengers would still be screened before boarding the largest jets — the types used in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that brought down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon — terrorists could still target regional planes at small airports. Those flights still carry dozens of passengers.

"I find that unbelievable, totally beyond comprehension," said Glen Winn, who spent more than 30 years in airline security, retiring as United's chief security officer, and now teaches security at the University of Southern California.

Terrorists, he said, "will just begin their plans immediately."

Jeffrey Price, an aviation-security expert at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said TSA would save money by shutting down screening at smaller airports. The agency could take screeners who have a lot of time on their hands between flights at small airports and move them to bigger ones where there is more passenger traffic.

Price said smaller planes that would go unscreened are lighter and carry less fuel, making them less dangerous as weapons in the hands of terrorists like those who crashed four planes on Sept. 11, 2001.

But, Price added, a crash involving a smaller regional jet could still kill dozens of passengers. He said terrorists could also fly from an unprotected small airport and attack after reaching a bigger airport, where they would already be beyond the current ring of security checkpoints in terminals.

Ending screening at smaller airports would reverse a trend of tighter security measures under the Trump administration. Since last year, the TSA has introduced new procedures to help screeners examine laptops and tablets that might contain bombs.

TSA has backed away from controversial plans before. In 2013, the agency dropped a plan to let passengers carry small knives — something that was allowed before 9/11 — after an outcry from the public and flight attendants.

Broaching the idea of cutting back screening could also help TSA argue for more money from Congress.

The TSA said in its statement that as part of its yearly budget process, it is asked to discuss "potential operational efficiencies — this year is no different."

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)