A Sense of Security

America's airports and airplanes may still be vulnerable to terrorist activity.

For the first time since the September 11th attacks, passenger volumes at America's airports have exceeded pre-attack levels. But just because people are comfortable enough to travel doesn't mean the threat of terrorism is any less.

“I do very much believe there are still people out there looking at aviation as a possible place to strike,” Mark Moberly with the Transportation Security Administration said.

Moberly says the events of 9/11 ushered in a wave of changes at America's airports, most noticeably, the screening of ticketed passengers.

“Screening has changed a lot in the past five years, meaning there's a lot of technology in play that wasn't in existance five years ago,” Moberly said.

Carry on baggage is scanned and searched for weapons and other prohibited items; it's also tested for traces of explosive material. And in August, nearly all liquids were banned from being carried on because of the fear someone would try to sneak explosives on board disguised in an everyday container.

“Would it be safer to fly if there was no carry on at all? Possibly,” Moberly said.

But a recent article published in Time Magazine points to several areas where weaknesses in airport security may still exist.

The concerns start with the screeners themselves. Sioux Falls is one of six airports in the country that uses privately-hired security screeners. TSA officials argue the affect on security is minimal.

“The procedures are identical. They do through the same training TSA screeners go through. There's no real difference from the passengers point of view,” Moberly said.

But the Time article argues that passing passenger security off to a private company increases vulnerability by distancing TSA from the screening process.

They point to reports, available from the Government Accountability Office, that cite insufficient training at some checkpoints and the need for better technology.

Another potential weakness involves connecting passengers.

The website www.airsafe.com lists criticism of security procedures at smaller airports, claiming passengers there may undergo less rigorous security screening. TSA officials say that's not the case.

“Someone getting on a plane in Brookings, South Dakota can travel extensively without going back through any security anywhere so its important to have each link in that chain be equally strong,” Moberly said.

But even beyond security, there's still a potential weakness. Boarding-area restaurants can pose a serious threat. For example, a passenger could steal a piece of silverware used during a pre-flight meal and smuggle it onto a plane to use as a weapon.

“We're always trying to work ahead of that, plan ahead and try to deter that activity,” Moberly said.

The last potential threat the Time article outlines involves a place where passengers are rarely allowed - the tarmac.

Many workers, including baggage handlers, cleaners, mechanics, and re-fuelers, all have access to planes parked at the gate.

While the process of obtaining worker credentials has been tightened since 9/11, its still hard to secure all of an airports open area.

And someone with access to the tarmac could do something to sabotage a flight.

But just how big of a risk are you taking when you board a plane? Moberly says traveling by air is safer than it's ever been, and there's risk in everything people do.

“Our job is to minimize that risk as much as possible,” Moberly said.

And because the threat of a terrorist attack remains very real, security officials are working to stay one step ahead of any terrorist plot that may target aviation in America.

Another perceived weak spot in the airport system identified by Time is electronic ticketing.

The increased use of electronic tickets means passengers without bags don't have to see an agent at the ticket counter - eliminating one layer of scrutiny.

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