Airport Security Still A Reminder of 9/11

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(Host) We conclude our 9/11 series today with a look at transportation.   These days, going through security at the airport is probably the most obvious reminder, for most of us, of what happened on 9/11.  And the changes those events brought to our daily lives.

VPR’s Samantha Fields reports.

(John Yustin) "The terminal in the airport is closed today.  There are no flights going in and out of here. Whether they open tomorrow, it’s still not sure."

(Samantha Fields) When the airports shut down on 9/11, no one knew quite what security would look like when they re-opened. But even reports from the next day noted that going to the airport would never be quite the same again.

(John Dillon) "Because of the new rules, passengers and their vehicles will be searched, and no cars will be allowed to park within 300 feet of an airport terminal."

(Fields) That parking rule was eventually relaxed.  But you still can’t idle in front of the airport, waiting to pick someone up. And most other aspects of security have only gotten tighter.

Today, Bruce McDonald is the federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration in Vermont. His job didn’t exist before September 11th. Neither did the TSA.

(Bruce McDonald) "The biggest change in my opinion is we’re screening 100% of all the air cargo. That never used to happen. We’re screening 100% of the passengers. We’re also checking every passenger’s name up against a terror watch list. That’s critical. So we know pretty much who to watch out for. We’re much more dynamic."

(Fields) Before, airport security was a private enterprise. The federal government created the TSA in November of 2001. Since then, McDonald says security has become more standardized across the country, and more all-encompassing and nuanced.

(McDonald) "We’re looking at behavior.  We’re looking at canines.  We’re looking at explosives.  We’re looking at cargo.  We’re looking at vendors.  We’re looking at who comes on to the airport.  We’re looking at the timing.  We’re looking at where they go."

(Sounds of an airport)

(Fields)  After a decade of heightened security, seasoned passengers at Burlington International Airport know the drill. 

Mike Carity is from Milwaukee.

(Mike Carity)  "I’m taking my shoes off.  I have a little bag full of my ordinary items here, my liquids and everything which need to be less than three ounces."

"It really doesn’t bother me. I’m glad for the security. I have no problem or hassle with that. If they ramped it up a little more, no big deal. The people who should be questioned are the ones who have a problem with the security." 

(Fields) Still, Carity admits going through airport security is a production.

(Fields) "Seems like you made it through!"

(Mike Carity) "Yeah.  The most difficult part is just putting it all back together again. And making sure, if you take a laptop out, and everything, you’ve got to put it back in and reassemble it. Getting jammed up here with everybody, with the other passengers that are doing the same thing. So this is where the slowdown is.

(Fields) Another passenger, Katia Lamanna, says she hates that flying has become such a hassle, even though she feels all the security is necessary.

(Katia Lamanna) "Resentful, kind of bittersweet that we have to go through all this. But we have to."

(Fields) "And how has the experience for you of flying changed in the past 10 years?"

(Lamanna) "Oh. When I don’t have to, I’m thankful."

(Fields)  Not all of the security measures that passengers go through at the airport today were put into place immediately after 9/11. Some came later, after other attempted attacks, like the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, and the 2006 plot to bring down 10 trans-Atlantic flights using liquid explosives.

Marcia Briquer has been a TSA agent in Burlington since 2005. Even since then, airport security has become much more stringent.

(Marcia Briquer) "There’s been so many changes, the pat-downs, the equipment that we have today. So it’s just been a challenge after another."

(Fields) And then there is all the security passengers don’t see, from plain-clothed federal air marshals, to passenger watch lists, to the kinds of measures that TSA officials say they are not at liberty to discuss.

Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles says those are the most important.

(Searles) "In a country like ours, the best security will have the effect that you want of keeping people safe and be as unobtrusive as possible. Certainly not intrusive. So it’ll be effective but not noticeable."              

(Fields) It is primarily that unobtrusive security that has been added on other forms of transportation such as Amtrak trains, buses and ferries.

For the most part, riding a train or a bus today doesn’t feel particularly different than it did 10 years ago. In Vermont at least, and in most places around the country, there are no baggage checks or pat downs, no visible security most of the time.

McDonald says that TSA will sometimes send officers to places outside the airport.

(Bruce McDonald) "We spend a lot of time trying to figure out what is the most vulnerable area.  Where can we help?  Where can we through a potential terrorist off track? So we’ll go to rail whenever needed.  We’ll do it over the road.  Sometimes we even help border patrol. Wherever the need is greatest or there seems to be a likelihood, we will go there and help wherever we can."

(Fields) Random searches are also legal now, on trains, buses and ferries. And there is a lot more scrutiny at the border.

All of this increased security has come at a price. 

(Searles) "We’ve had to spend so much more on issues that are 9/11 related. But we haven’t raised any additional revenues to take care of the needs that existed before 9/11. And I’m just afraid out into the future that’s really going to hurt us."

(Fields) Brian Searles was also Vermont’s transportation secretary on 9/11.

Then, the Department of Homeland Security didn’t even exist. Now, it’s the country’s third largest department, with a budget of more than $55 billion.

While Searles thinks this needs to be given a hard look, he doesn’t question the necessity of the improvements that have been made.

(Searles) "Given the realities of this world, I think that the changes we’ve made have been for the better and made people safer."

(Fields) But some passengers like David Blanding, repacking his carry-on after going through security in Burlington wonder if all the hassle is really making them safer.

(David Blandin) "I don’t really think it’s logical or rational."

(Fields) "What do you think isn’t logical or rational?"

(Blandin) "Having to separate quantity of liquids. Somebody could easily bring ten things that accumulate to the same amount. And rather than throwing away one tube of toothpaste. It’s rather ridiculous. But I guess that’s how it goes. It’s all part of the flying experience."

(Fields) Covert TSA testing still finds lapses in security.  And no matter what changes might be on the horizon, it’s likely that today’s "flying experience" is here to stay.

For VPR News, I’m Samantha Fields.

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