After 13 years of post-9/11 airport security—the rituals of removing shoes and belts, unpacking electronics, putting tiny bottles of liquid in clear plastic bags—most travelers are still frustrated with it. Over 90% think queuing for more than 10 minutes at security is unacceptable (pdf, page 23). The American entity tasked with keeping travelers safe, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), is cutting back pre-flight security for the young, the old, and travelers willing to pay $85 and undergo a background check. More than 740,000 travelers are now enrolled in the TSA’s “Precheck” program, and the agency claims that over the Thanksgiving holiday, “99.6 percent of passengers waited in a line for less than 20 minutes.”
And that worries me. Why? Well, probably because I’m a millennial.
On a recent flight from New York to Los Angeles, what I took to be the normal level of screening had been abandoned altogether. Passengers were told to leave their jackets, belts and shoes on, and leave laptops and liquids in the bag. I looked at security agents with unease, eyed my fellow passengers suspiciously. When I told my parents and older family members, they laughed at me. People my age, though, said they too felt unsettled when they saw reduced security at airports. A survey carried out in March by the Nielsen-owned research company Harris Interactive found that of all the age groups, millennials (which usually means people born between 1982-2004) were most worried about the safety ramifications of Precheck.
Overall, Americans seem to recognize that terrorism is a threat, but that other issues are more pressing. A New York Times poll in April 2013—right after the Boston Marathon bombing—showed 90% of Americans believe they will always have to live with the risk of terrorism. But a recent Gallup poll found that only 4% think it’s the most important problem facing America. Right after 9/11, that number jumped to 46%; before then, it had been less than 0.5%.
Of course, there are many more immediate and tangible problems than terrorism facing America’s youth. But I grew up in a privileged household with no other adverse circumstances, and traveled often. So my first understanding of real danger came when I thought I could die in a terrorist attack.
Here’s how: On August 9, 2006, 24 men were arrested in the UK for plotting to blow up several transatlantic flights to the US. They were going to disguise explosives in liquid bottles and bring them aboard, potentially killing thousands of people.
The next morning, my family and I were supposed to board a flight from London to Los Angeles. My parents decided the airport was the safest place to be, and we got on the flight.
We now know that the Virgin Atlantic flights—which we were on—didn’t seem to be targeted. But at the time, I knew none of this. I was 15 years old.
The only reason I was even a little bit reassured was the extreme security measures at the airport. We traded in our carry-ons, purses and electronics for small, transparent plastic bags. At security, absolutely no electronics or liquids were let through, other than baby formula, and only if parents tasted it first. Inside the terminal, you could buy liquids but none were allowed on the flight. Right before boarding, everyone’s little plastic baggies were checked one more time, and we could not bring food or drinks—even water—on the plane. It was an inconvenience, but I felt safe.
My experience was an unusual one, to be sure. But the feeling of increased airport security as necessary—that’s something I and my generation grew up with. And scaling it back feels unnerving.
I really have nothing to worry about, says Ohio State University professor John Mueller, who researches airport and airline security. It’s more dangerous to drive a car or be in a bathtub than to fly in a plane, he tells me. Because 9/11 had such terrible consequences, people have been asking “are we safer?” But instead, he suggests, ask “how safe are we?” and then improve from there as necessary. Shorter waiting times could even be a sign that security is getting better, Mueller says. For example, allowing passengers, even some random ones, to go through the Precheck line allows for more time to be spent on others who have not already been deemed safe. The TSA told me most travelers have expressed satisfaction with Precheck for precisely that reason.
So maybe this is what airline security is going to look like—less hassle on the way to the gate, as security experts try to keep the efficient parts of post-9/11 security and upgrade the rest. And no matter how much security we have, dangerous items can always pass through unnoticed. Plus, different airports have different standards; in the US I almost always forget to separate my liquids, and someone I know accidentally got through security with pepper spray in her purse. Security staff at London’s Heathrow, by contrast, often let travelers keep their shoes on, yet are sticklers about liquids.
Realistically, we’re going to keep flying. Maybe I just need to join the rest of the generations, and accept that I’m safe enough.