Homeland Security Changes Airline Passenger Screening Protocols

On Friday, April 2nd, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a revision to the agency’s passenger screening standards for international flights to the United States. This comes three months after emergency measures were put in place following the Christmas Day bombing attempt by a Nigerian man on an international flight bound for Detroit. The emergency measures were sharply criticized because they called for more intensive secondary inspections of passengers traveling from or through 14 “countries of concern,” including Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Passengers traveling from these countries were subject to full-body pat-down searches and inspection of carryon luggage before they were allowed to board a plane headed for the United States.

Critics noted that all of the countries subject to these measures, with the exception of Cuba, are majority-Muslim, and voiced concern about systematic racial and religious profiling in the name of national security. Organizations such as South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) decried the emergency measures for their disproportionate impact on members of the Arab, Muslim, and Asian communities.

According to a DHS press release (See: Secretary Napolitano Announces New Measures to Strengthen Aviation Security, 02.Apr.2010) and Q&A document (See: TSA Guidance for Passengers on New Security Measures for International Flights to the U.S., 02.Apr.2010), the new security protocols will be dynamic and threat-based, and more generalized and random than before. Instead of targeting travelers from specific countries the new security measures will apply to all passengers traveling to the United States from foreign airports worldwide. Throughout the check-in and boarding process, passengers may be subject to random screenings, “including the use of explosive trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, or pat downs, among other security measures,” the DHS press release noted.

As the New York Times reports, the new security system is intelligence-based, and “is devised to raise flags about travelers whose names do not appear on no-fly watch lists, but whose travel patterns or personal traits create suspicions.” The new approach is designed to be more flexible and up-to-the-moment, and, according to the Times, “is intended to pick up fragments of information – family name, nationality, age or even partial passport number – and match them against intelligence reports to sound alarm bells before a passenger boards a plane.” (See: Security Checks on Flights to U.S. to be Revamped, by Jeff Zelezny, New York Times, 01.Apr.2010)

According to DHS, passengers will not need to do anything differently at the security gate, although they may notice “enhanced security measures” being implemented at international airports. All of this added security takes additional time, though, and international passengers are well advised to get to the airport earlier to allow extra time to clear the security checkpoint.

To the extent that the new airport security rules no longer target particular groups for one-size-fits-all, broad-brush discrimination, this counts as progress. Everyone will be equally inconvenienced now, but this is far preferable to the emergency measures that cast the harsh gaze of suspicion upon thousands of innocent people from the Muslim world, simply because they came from the “wrong” country. The new approach is more likely to keep us safe, because it acknowledges that terrorist threats can emerge from virtually anywhere. The British “shoe bomber” should have been reason enough for us to reexamine the profiling approach long ago.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.