News is breaking today about a nine-year-old boy who slipped through security and made it on a flight from Minneapolis to Las Vegas.
You will soon hear that the individual slipped through “airport” security but that is not entirely accurate. I am careful to use the word “aviation” security rather than airport security as apparently it seems that the boy managed to get through the screening checkpoint and onto the aircraft. Screening checkpoints are predominantly managed by TSA, and aircraft security is managed by the aircraft operator. The airport itself manages other access doors to the airfield, but not the screening checkpoints.
Since a nine-year-old kid can get through billions of dollars of layers of security I’m sure the question on many people’s minds is whether the system works. Well let’s look at a couple of things.
First, aviation security is kind of like holding a bird in your hand. You have to hold the bird tightly enough so that it does not get away but if you hold it too tight, you’ll kill it. Aviation security measures are designed to hold the bird tight enough to keep it from escaping but not so tight that it stops aviation entirely. This means there is some wiggle room and gaps in the system.
TSA has already said the children 12 and under do not have to take off the shoes at the checkpoint so under the risk-based security concept, they are not considered a higher threat to begin with. A nine-year-old moving through the airport is not really seen as a security threat. And before you start explaining to me how you can somehow convince a nine-year-old to carry a bomb or gun on a plane, you need to let me know how you can get a nine-year-old to even listen to you in the first place. I’m sure it can happen though – kids have been recruited to commit attacks in many conflicts throughout the world so we can’t completely ignore them as a security concern.
If the kid is savvy enough to tagalong with other adults and kids, thereby mixing in with the family. I can see where he could slip through the system. I don’t think we really want to go down a road where we have to prove the identification of our own children as we go through checkpoints, particularly since many of them will not have drivers license or even ID cards.
You could also argue that screeners and aircraft operator personnel are looking for more serious threats than a nine-year-old who likely looked like he was traveling with a family anyway.
That said, what actually bothers me about this is the unaccompanied minor issue. In my college days I worked as a contractor for a major airline, and part of my job was to oversee unaccompanied minors traveling through the airport. Many of us to took our jobs very seriously as we did not want to lose anyone, and in my case I had frequently traveled as an unaccompanied minor in my youth and wanted to make sure that the kids felt safe and well taken care of.
As always, there is good news. Screeners and airline gate agents will not be taking a closer look at whose boarding an aircraft, and this serves as a reminder that we may be 12 years after 9/11 but we still need to pay attention to gaps in the system.Without spilling into child custody case issues, which really moves beyond the domain of aviation security, there is another issue here and that is human trafficking. Airline security should include some basic measures, such as training to watch for unaccompanied minors or those who appear to be under duress and under the control of another, to reduce the potential of an individual trying to smuggle kids who are not their own, through the airport.