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Why more airport security doesn't stop terrorist attacks

Airport security measures change in response to every plot, and the Christmas Day terrorist attack is no different. But use of screening technologies hasn't kept up with new terrorist methods.

An airline passenger walks towards a screening station as a US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official looks on at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, on Tuesday.

Mike Segar/Reuters

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Just as with previous terror attacks, the failed Christmas Day bombing is already changing air travel security, from more pat downs – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hid explosives in his underpants – to in-flight restrictions on laptops.

The changes follow a post-9/11 pattern of introducing new screening methods in response to new kinds of attack – scanning shoes after the 2001 shoe bomber attack and insisting on 3 oz. plastic bottles after a foiled 2006 plot to blow up British airlines. But aviation experts say there are limits to throwing hardware at the problem, even if high-tech fixes could be developed quickly.

“We’re still focusing on keeping prohibited items off planes, but that calculus is working against us,” says Andrew Thomas, an aviation security expert at the University of Akron in Ohio. “The terrorists are constantly developing more sophisticated attacks. They are hyper-motivated, they’re not going to stop, and they have a fetish for aviation security.”

Screening technology can’t keep up

Since the 9/11 attacks, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Department of Homeland Security have spent nearly $800 million trying to deploy higher-tech checkpoint screening technologies. These range from an explosives trace-detection portal, halted in 2006 after cost overruns, to scanners for bottled liquids, shoes, casts, and prostheses, as well as a Whole Body Imager. None of these systems have been deployed yet, according to an October 2009 report to Congress by the Government Accountability Office.


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