The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is considering eliminating passenger screening at small and mid-size airports across the country, sparking security concerns among terrorism experts.
The Department of Homeland Security agency, which was created in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, is looking at a proposal to cut screening at more than 150 airports serving aircraft with 60 seats or fewer, according to agency officials and documents cited by CNN.
Travelers and luggage would instead be screened when their flights connect to higher-volume airports.
In a statement reacting to the report, TSA’s assistant administrator for public affairs, Michael Bilello, said Wednesday, “there has been no decision to eliminate passenger screening at any federalized U.S. airport,” but did not say the issue was not under consideration.“Every year as part of the federal budget process TSA is asked to discuss potential operational efficiencies — this year is no different,” the statement said.
“Any potential operational changes to better allocate limited taxpayer resources are simply part of predecisional discussions and deliberations and would not take place without a risk assessment to ensure the security of the aviation system.”
Internal memos reported by CNN suggest the move could save $115 million annually, which could be used to boost security at bigger airports, where risks are deemed to be much greater.
However, the move would also carry a “small (non-zero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity,” according to documents.
Terrorism analyst Paul Cruikshank said militant groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group “still regard aviation as a priority target — that includes aircraft where you have fewer than 60 people on board.”
“They would see that as a way to hit the headlines,” the analyst added. “They would see that as a way to inflict severe economic damage on the United States. If you have an aircraft of 50 or so people being blown out of the sky there is going to be a great amount of panic and there will indeed be significant economic reverberations, and of course significant loss of life.”
The network also cited TSA officials who asked to remain anonymous as expressing serious concern. “This is so dangerous,” said one TSA field leader who asked to remain anonymous.
If the proposal were to become reality, former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs, Juliette Kayyem, worries small aircraft could be hijacked and turned into killing machines.
“People, weapons, dangerous goods and what’s boarding the plane are all potential risks,” the former official said. “TSA is falling into the trap that this is just about terror. A gun could be brought on board too.”
In April, the agency announced travelers would be asked to remove material from their bags that made it hard to read X-rays, including food items. The U.S. in 2017 banned laptops and larger electronics from cabins on flights from certain Middle East hubs.
The United Press International contributed to this report.