During testimony given by TSA official John Pistole to a Committee of the U.S. Senate, the TSA intends to make repeated attempts to screen young children instead of resorting to intrusive pat-down searches. See this article from ABC News for more details.
Pat-downs of children who present “screening anomalies” is a delicate subject for many, but the TSA contends that terrorists have used children as suicide bombers in the past and may do so again. The new policy will allow parents to request a re-screening and other alternatives before a pat-down is initiated.
The U. S. State Department has issued a Worldwide Travel Alert based on the potential for terrorists to react to the death of Osama Bin Laden, as the result of what is described in the document as “…recent counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan.”
Partial text of the report includes this extended quote:
“The U.S. Department of State alerts U.S. citizens traveling and residing abroad to the enhanced potential for anti-American violence given recent counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan. Given the uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, U.S. citizens in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence are strongly urged to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations. U.S. citizens should stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times. This Travel Alert expires August 1, 2011.
U.S. Embassy operations in affected areas will continue to the extent possible under the constraints of any evolving security situation. U.S. government facilities worldwide remain at a heightened state of alert. These facilities may temporarily close or periodically suspend public services to assess their security posture. In those instances, U.S. Embassies and Consulates will make every effort to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens abroad are urged to monitor the local news and maintain contact with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.”
You can find the full text of the document here at the website of the U.S. State Department.
In addition, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration issued this statement on its website regarding airport security following the death of Osama bin Laden:
May 2, 2011
“TSA continually evaluates the latest threats and screening measures which are implemented based on the latest intelligence. As always, passengers may notice a variety of security measures at U.S. airports to include the use of physical bag checks, random gate screening, explosives detection technology, canine teams and behavior detection officers. We ask the traveling public to remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the authorities.”
Note that the State Department Travel warning will be in effect until the end of August. The TSA announcement, as is usual, did not mention a specific term, but was used to inform the traveling public that they may experience additional security during the future months.
During the last three weeks we have noticed several unusual trends. First, for the week ending 2/20/2011 the number of firearms found on passengers or in their luggage at TSA checkpoints increased to 19 from the 7 reported the previous week. Since that time, the results from the weeks ending 2/27, 3/6 and 3/13 have been 25, 23 and 22 firearms intercepted, up from the weekly average of approximately 13 (based on the date we started tracking these number starting in May, 2010).
In addition, items that the TSA describe as “Artfully concealed prohibited items found at checkpoints”, jumped to 9 the week ending 3/06/2011, up from 1 the previous week and well above the weekly average of approximately 3 items confiscated. However, the number declined to 2 the week ending 3/13/2011.
Next, for the week ending 3/13/2011 the action defined by the TSA as “Passengers arrested after investigation of suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents” rose to 15 from the 7 recorded for the week before, above the weekly average of approximately 6 passengers arrested .
While taken alone, these numbers are suggestive, it should be noted that around 15 million passengers pass through security every week in the United States. In essence, the numbers in the TSA reports and the variances we noted are not statistically significant, but , at least from our point of view, are troubling. Just who is it that doesn’t know that you not allowed to take firearms aboard an airplane? Since you can buy whatever you need almost anywhere you go, what could you possibly want to smuggle onto an airplane in the United States, except something you wanted to be able to use on the flight that regarded as dangerous to carry in the cabin of an airliner? Finally, is it news to people that they need to have to have bullet-proof credentials to pass through TSA security? Hard to figure, isn’t it?
Since the TSA does not reveal details on their website related to the “TSA Week At A Glance” reporting categories, it may be that the modest fluctuations reported by ThereArePlaces in this blog are related to wild and crazy college students departing for “Spring Break”. Or, it could be an early start to summer travel. It could be a lot of things, but it could also be terrorists probing our security systems.
We are not excited about the security surrounding today’s air travel, but we would rather have than not . Yes, the TSA might be able to improve the security process, but as the numbers show, some folks just don’t seem to get the message, while others might have ulterior motives. Such is the price of vigilance.
Similar to most travelers, we have an interest in the activities of the Transportation Security Administration. We subscribe to their newsletter so we can find out when new items are published on the TSA websitehere. One item that we look at each week is the titled “TSA Week At A Glance” that reports three statistics of interest to us (because our team is composed of frequent flyers who spend a lot of time going through security checkpoints, just like the rest of you). These reports by the TSA cover travel during previous week and include the following categories of information reported from the TSA Security Checkpoints at airports around the nation:
1) Number of artfully concealed prohibited items found at checkpoints
2) Number of firearms found at Checkpoints
3) Number of passengers who were arrested after investigation of suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents
We tracked these data from the first week in May, 2010 to the second week in September, 2010 in an attempt of measure the number of “problems” encountered by the TSA during a time period that reflects the “summer travel season. During May, 2010, a total of approximately 62 million flyers passed through the TSA security checkpoints at the airports scattered throughout the United States. We were unable to find a report on the actual passenger totals for each of these months and, instead, made the assumption that if we could use the May total as a reasonable average for the number of passengers flying each month of the summer, then we could conclude that approximately 280 million travelers passed through the TSA checkpoints for the period.
During that 140 day period, 322 firearms were found at checkpoints, 139 passengers were arrested at checkpoints for suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents and 71 travelers were arrested for artfully concealed prohibited items. The good news is that only 0.00000115 percent of the travelers were carrying firearms when they entered the security checkpoints. Of course, the number of guns is also the bad news. The distribution of the categories, by week, is shown in the graph below.
We did not attempt to subject the data to a statistical analysis, but it appears that firearms and the number of flyers are linearly related. In other words, you will find more guns at airports when more people are flying. So, if you look at the chart you will see that firearm carrying at airports peaks during the holidays associated with Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. Somewhat curiously, the data seems to show that an unusual number of people were apprehended for attempting to carry firearms through the TSA security checkpoints during the week that included … Mother’s Day. What a nice present!
Our graph is the stuff of further conversation. Just how many people are there in the United States who have not yet heard that there are security checkpoints at airports? Were the people attempting to carry firearms through security checkpoints terrorists or just plain forgetful? What prohibited items are we talking about here – bombs or bottles of water? And who doesn’t know their travel documents are fraudulent? Next, what about geography? We like to think of things geographically and wonder about the geographical distribution of these statistics? Which airports? What regions? Hopefully someone is paying attention the “where” of these numbers. However, we doubt that the spatial aspects of these numbers will ever see the light of day, since we had such difficulty in gathering the simple data presented.
How These Data Were Obtained
We think it is important that you know that these data are published weekly by the TSA on their website. When we first became interested in these reports earlier this spring, we contacted TSA to see if they would provide us the statistics that they had openly published over the last calendar year. To be honest, we did not know where to start and were directed to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request Page at the TSA website and filed a simple request for the last year of the statistics published on the TSA website for the TSA Week At A Glance section. We received a speedy reply telling us that we had failed to reasonably describe the information and our request was denied.
Not to be deterred, on May 24, we tried sending an email to the “contact us” section of the TSA website requesting that they provide us the last year’s data that appeared in the TSA Week At A Glance section of their website. After all, why would you need a Freedom Of Information Act request for information that is published on the TSA website every week? We added that we published the blog that you are reading and that we thought these data would help the public appreciate the need for security checkpoints at airports.
Almost a month later on June 23, we received a note indicating that our request had been forwarded to the appropriate group for a response. On July 7, we received a note sent to us on behalf of Sterling Payne (how appropriate, and we are not making up the name) Deputy Assistant Administrator, Office of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs, indicating that he felt that the best way for us to receive the most accurate information would be by filling out (you guessed it) a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Come on guys, this is information published on your citizen-facing website! There is nothing secret about it, or if there is, we suggest you stop publishing it each week. And anyway, if you don’t have the data, just who does?
As you might have guessed by now, we went the TSA website every week during the summer travel period and faithfully recorded the data in an Excel spreadsheet that allowed us to create the graph displayed above. Don’t ever say we are not determined to find the facts on your behalf.
Be sure to visit ThereArePlaces for information on the Best Places to visit around the world, as well as for information on travel planning, including travel safety.