Human Nature

How To Fix Airport Security

The results of Slate’s reader contest.

Security at Baltimore Washington International Airport

On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab succeeded in boarding an airplane with explosive-laden underwear and came frighteningly close to killing hundreds of people. While we can all agree that Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack was an enormous security breach, there’s yet to be a consensus on how to make our airports safer.

Last week, we asked Slate readers for their ideas on how to improve the Transportation Security Administration. We received more than 375 submissions, which were evaluated by Slate associate editor Chris Wilson and our all-star panel of judges: Frank Cilluffo, the former special assistant to the president for homeland security; Clark Ervin, the first inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Douglas R. Laird, the former security director for Northwest Airlines; and renowned security expert Bruce Schneier. (Read the judges’ full bios here.)

The ideas our panel looked over ranged from the invasive (make everyone put on government-issued pajamas and take a tranquillizer) to the uncomfortable (passengers must fly commando). A surprising number of people suggested strapping passengers down and stuffing them sardine-style into the plane, which makes us wonder whether they ever plan to fly themselves. One reader advocated crowdsourcing the problem: getting bored passengers to watch security footage and flag anyone who looks suspicious. We also liked the elegance of Esfandyar Batmanghelidj’s proposal: Realize that total security is impossible and eliminate it altogether. *

After sifting through all of the submissions, our panel selected four winning entries, which you can read below. We will forward all four to the TSA, Congress, and the White House. Thanks to everyone who participated.

Fourth place: Redesign our airports. Joyce Hackett of New York believes that America’s airports should take their cues from Berlin. “Tegel Airport is built like a big ring—planes on the outside, drivers and parking in the middle,” she writes. “Its individually secured gates make it both the most efficient and the most security-effective airport I’ve experienced.” The judges liked Hackett’s proposal to build a separate security area for each gate and screen passengers before they enter the airport. Bulldozing all airports and starting from scratch appealed to one judge in particular, who wanted to start with JFK. (Read the full text of Joyce Hackett’s entry.)

Third place: Link the no-fly list with airlines’ ticketing systems. Marianne Nassef of Abilene, Texas, proposes stopping potential terrorists before they even get to the airport. “Nothing gets denied faster than a credit card,” Nassef reasons. Going by her plan, anyone on a no-fly list would be denied the right to purchase a ticket. Judges pointed out that the bad guys are likely to catch on and work around the system, but at least this would throw up a stumbling block. (Read the full text of Marianne Nassef’s entry.)

Second place: Rotate FBI trainees into the TSA. Neil Stelzner of Santa Monica, Calif., and Phil Nettl of South Brunswick, N.J., would like to see G-men manning our airports. “They are dedicated, educated, and trained in law enforcement and have a desire to excel at their jobs,” Stelzner and Nettl explain. The judges agreed that TSA agents are the last line of defense against would-be terrorists, and employing actual law-enforcement agents would mean having a security force that’s committed to law enforcement. Added bonus: FBI trainees would get invaluable experience working with the public. (Read the full text of Neil Stelz and Phil Nettl’s entry.)

First place: Live drills for TSA employees. Benton Love of Houston received top marks from the judges for proposing a system of constant tests for TSA workers. Love advocates a carrot/stick approach: Screeners would be paid a bonus for each federal agent they caught trying to sneak a dummy bomb through security and docked for each one they let through. Judges liked the competitive spirit of the idea (TSA vs. the feds!) and the incentive factor, which would inject some needed energy into screeners. One judge pointed out that drills are a part of our airport security today, but efforts along these lines need to be doubled. (Read the full text of Benton Love’s entry.)

Correction, Jan. 15, 2010:
This piece originally misspelled Esfandyar Batmanghelidj’s last name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)