Firearm discharge at Atlanta Hartsfield exposes weak belly of airport security

David Goldman / Associated Press

The accidental firearm discharge at the Atlanta Hartsfield airport created confusion and flight delays on Saturday. It also exposed the most vulnerable area at airports.

Once passengers pass through airport security, they are in the most protected and secure part of airports. This planeside area, often referred to as the sterile side, admits passengers only after being screened through airport security checkpoints. 

In spite of widespread announcements, passengers still bring firearms and other contraband to airport security checkpoints, where the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners detect and confiscate many such items. Some of these items likely pass undetected, yet there have been no reports of incidents on the sterile side or on flights resulting from such items since the TSA took over airport security after 9/11. 

What occurred at Atlanta Hartsfield was an accident. There is no evidence that the owner of the firearm had malicious intent. His reaction to flee was likely due to fear of being caught with an item that he likely forgot to remove from his carry-on bag.

The TSA reports many firearms detected at airport security checkpoints are loaded. The firearm at Atlanta Hartsfield clearly was loaded, and unfortunately, it discharged, resulting in three people being injured.

What this incident exposed is that the check-in and baggage claims areas, the so-called landside (or non-sterile side) of the airport, remain the most vulnerable parts of airports. Anyone can enter such areas, including people with malicious intent, and wreak havoc using firearms or explosives. This has occurred several times in the past, such as the 2013 shooting at Los Angeles International and the 2017 shooting at Fort Lauderdale International

What the past 20 years has taught is that TSA-manned airport security checkpoints provide ample deterrence and sufficient detection capabilities to keep the riskiest people off flights. Programs like TSA PreCheck also create additional security benefits, by funneling passengers who have voluntarily permitted themselves to undergo a background check, to receive expedited airport screening so TSA officers can focus their attention on the remaining passengers, those of unknown risk. It also keeps screening times down, reducing security risk on the landside of the airport. The Atlanta firearm-toting passenger would likely not have qualified for PreCheck status. 

Unfortunately, the landside areas at airports are vulnerable, leaving millions of travelers at risk. With the holiday season fast approaching, airports will be filled with a higher percentage of leisure travelers, many of which travel just a few times per years. Many of these travelers will not be PreCheck qualified, and far less facile in maneuvering around airports and through airport security checkpoints. They will also be less familiar with what can and cannot be brought through airport security checkpoints, creating the potential for more chaos and confusion throughout airports.

The best way to make airports more secure, both the sterile and landside areas, is to facilitate more travelers becoming PreCheck vetted. The current cost of $85 ($70 for online applications) for five years is too much for leisure travelers to pay for what they would use once or twice per year. However, the benefit to the air system and the flying public to have such people PreCheck vetted is immeasurable. 

Making PreCheck available at no cost to any travelers willing to be vetted would reduce the number of unknown travelers significantly. Once a person becomes a known traveler, the deterrence effect on them from bringing contraband to airports would lead to a safer environment for all.

What happened at Atlanta Hartsfield should be a wake-up call that the best way to make airports more secure is to increase the number of known travelers who are PreCheck vetted.  

Everyone can get a COVID-19 vaccine at no cost because it makes them and everyone else safer.

Announcing PreCheck for anyone who wants it, at no cost, would be a holiday gift that would make airports more secure for all.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has researched aviation security since 1996 and provided the technical foundations that led to the development of TSA PreCheck.  

Tags 9/11 Airport security National security Sheldon H. Jacobson TSA PreCheck

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