New gear or better info for air safety?

A TSA officer screens an airline passenger at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

TEXT OF STORY

(CORRECTION: The story originally identified the Libertarian Reason Foundation, Transportation Policy Director as Richard Poole. His name is corrected below as Robert Poole.)

Kai Ryssdal: There are two kinds of security in aviation: the kind you see, and the kind you don't. In the wake of that Christmas Day air scare in Detroit, there is a lot more visible security out there right now.

President Obama said in a statement today the government did mishandle information it had received about the man who tried to blow up that flight. A systemic failure, the President called it. So what's the systemic return on investment for checkpoint-screeners and expensive high-tech scanners versus money spent on behind the scenes intelligence?

That is the question we put to our senior business correspondent Bob Moon.


BOB MOON: At a relatively quiet Los Angeles International Airport today, traveler Howard Warman was reassured by the show of extra security.

HOWARD WARMAN: It's not going to affect my travel plans. In fact, I'm happy about the restrictions.

The Transportation Security Administration has already spent $40 billion on aviation security. So if that's not enough to stop a lone "crotch bomber," what is?

Richard Bloom is a professor of Terrorism and Security Studies at Arizona's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He doubts that focusing more on high-tech body scanners and explosive detectors will stand in the way of the most-determined terrorists.

RICHARD BLOOM: For the sophisticated ones, which have capabilities for surveillance, planning, intelligence collection, I am not optimistic technology would be a fix. The technical parameters of any particular piece of machinery are easy enough to plan against.

The TSA has long promised to focus its dollars in the direction of the biggest risk. But at the Libertarian Reason Foundation, Transportation Policy Director Richard Poole complains that's just lip service, as long as the agency keeps treating all passengers the same.

ROBERT POOLE: Everybody is not equally likely to be a threat, and if we spend a huge amount of resources equally distributed across all travelers, we're going to waste a lot of money, and we're not going to do enough on the guys that are really likely to be the bad guys.

Poole and other critics say the real waste comes from theatrics that just inconvenience travelers and harm the industry.

Privacy advocate Bill Scannell:

BILL SCANNELL: Whenever we have a security incident, my first thought is not, "Oh my God, what happened." It's always, "Oh, Lord, what are they going to do to us next." Because security "theater" is easy to impose. Actually stopping bad guys is very, very hard.

Which may explain why, back at LAX, the Reverend Roosevelt Miles was leaving his fate to a higher authority.

ROOSEVELT MILES: When it's my time, ain't nothing I can do to stop that. But I have faith in my God.

In Los Angeles, I'm Bob Moon for Marketplace.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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