TSA Multi-Layered Approach to Airport Security



Airport security is crucial, not only for the safety of the airport and the passengers but also for the protection of the entire country. Without the necessary precautions, an airport has the potential to become a crime hotspot as it serves as a gateway into and out of the country. This fact has been well confirmed by past events such as the infamous September 11th attack involving the hijacking of four planes which culminated in the killing of thousands. Following this unfortunate incident, the US government formed the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) ensures that any threats to the traveling public are thwarted. To accomplish this task effectively, the TSA has adopted a multi-layered approach that is multidisciplinary as well.

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Science and Technology

One of the disciplines that the TSA has applied is Science and Technology. Current technological advancements provide high efficiency in the security of an airport. It is not only a matter of keeping up with the times but rather a necessary application. Traditional and time-consuming methods such as pat-downs are now only used when required. The technology incorporated includes metal detectors, Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT), X-ray Scanners, and Video Surveillance.

Metal Detectors

The TSA prohibits certain metallic objects that may be used to bring harm to other passengers on the plane. To assist in the detection of such objects, the agency has deployed metal detectors at the airports. As their name suggests, their function is to simply detect metal. To understand the working of a metal detector, one must grasp the principle of electromagnetism. According to this principle, electricity and magnetism are closely related (Nayfeh & Brussel, 2015). When an electric current flows through a conductor, it generates a magnetic field around the wire. The reverse is also true, whereby if a conductor is moved through a magnetic field, then a current is induced in it as established by James Clerk Maxwell. A metal detector consists of two coils. An alternating current is applied to the first coil generating a magnetic field. If this magnetic field comes across a metal object, it induces a current in the metal. As per electromagnetism, the current, in turn, generates its own magnetic field in the metal which is picked up by the second coil of the metal detector. It induces a current in this second coil leading to the beeping of the microphone attached which is heard (Yamazaki, Nakane, & Tanaka, 2002). This is the technical aspect of the device. It, therefore, makes it difficult for a person with metal objects to pass through the check hence ensuring safety.


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Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT)

While metal detectors are effective in detecting metallic objects, they fail to detect prohibited non-metallic objects. It is this shortcoming that warranted the introduction of full body scanners by the TSA. They, therefore, introduced AIT scanners. These devices utilize millimeter waves which range from 30GHz to 300GHz in the spectrum (Laviada, Arboleya-Arboleya, Álvarez, González-Valdés, & Las-Heras, 2017). The waves are bounced on the person being scanned and the reflected waves detected. These reflections are then used to create a 3-D image of the person. Through this image, the security can have a view of any objects hidden beneath the clothes. AIT is more efficient than a pat-down as the hands might miss detecting some objects (Laviada et al., 2017). This technology has, however, come under criticism as a violation of privacy and the perceived health risks. After much inquiry into the issue, it was found that Millimeter waves are actually not harmful to a human being and besides, one is only exposed for a very short time enough to take a photo. Regarding the privacy and the view of the naked body, the operator is not allowed to see the faces of the person being scanned and besides the image only gives an outline of the person. Additionally, such a concern is outweighed by the benefits of ensuring security.

X-ray Scanner

The TSA does not only search the person but also their luggage, since there is a possibility of contraband being hidden in the bags. This is where X-ray plays a big role. The radiation associated with X-rays is harmful to people at high doses but fine for inspecting luggage. The working of this technology is as follows: the X-rays are directed through the luggage towards a photographic plate. The very dense objects do not allow the rays to pass through while the less-dense ones allow the rays to pass through to the plate, appearing as a dark image. The patches where the x-ray does not hit appear white (Uroukov & Speller, 2015). This forms an image that shows the respective items in the luggage without necessarily opening it. This makes it hard for criminals to get weapons and other harmful contraband through airports to the planes.

Video Surveillance

A person’s eyes can only see so much. Due to this limitation, the TSA has video surveillance on all airports which not only permits viewing of the airports from all points but also storage of the feed for future reference. Closed-Circuit television (CCTV), allows for a real-time video of the airport to be broadcasted on a screen, which a security officer can then monitor closely from a control room. Security can identify and thwart potential security threats before they occur. Furthermore, the presence of the cameras also discourages criminals once they realize that they are under surveillance. Another advantage offered by this technology is that past video feed can be revisited to identify past security breaches and amend the weak-points.

A Hardened Cockpit Door

One of the worst things that could possibly occur is a terrorist taking control of a plane. This is actually what happened during the September 11 attacks, whereby the terrorists hijacked the planes and ended up crashing one into the World Trade Center, and yet another into the Pentagon. Following these grave attacks, the TSA realized that there was yet another layer of security that was necessary to thwart any attack. It would serve as a last resort to protect the passengers and US citizens at large. This layer of security is a hardened cockpit door that makes it difficult for terrorists to gain entry to the cockpit. The design of this door is in such a way that it is hardened to make intrusion very difficult by being reinforced (Stewart & Mueller, 2017). In addition, the door is automated to lock itself once an individual attempts a forceful entry. Despite this step appearing effective, it has come under heavy criticism as being a security threat as itself. Suppose a polarized pilot decides to crash a plane, then in such a case, it might be impossible to stop such a threat. In spite of such a possibility, a hardened cockpit door provides a security layer for airports and passengers as well.

Sociological and psychology

The Behavior detection officer (BDO)

In addition to technological equipment, the TSA also applies other disciplines in its effort to improve security. One of such methods is behavioral observation which falls under sociology and psychology. The role is assigned to the behavioral detection officers (BDO). This screening process is informed by the fact that people tend to behave in a certain manner when under stress or while in deception. After all, we are able to observe when one is happy or even when another is stressed. The same case applies to other behaviors. BDOs closely interact with passengers to identify suspicious behavior. The TSA has highlighted these suspicious behaviors such as trembling, which is obvious, and gazing down. Others include clearing the throat excessively, an excessive airing of complaints about the screening process, whistling while approaching the screening, Rubbing of hands, looking pale, wearing improper attire, too much yawning, excessive clearing the throat, and widely open staring eyes. These are all behaviors that indicate malicious intent (Denault & Jupe, 2018).  Although the observation is effective, it has been found to be stereotyping at times with some going as far as labeling it racist. Additionally, some behaviors such as arriving late for a flight and grooming may not necessarily have anything to do with terrorism. Despite this criticism, behavioral detection is an effective practice in ensuring security at the airports.

Political Science

The success of the TSA heavily relies on close collaboration with the government and other security agencies. This teamwork allows the sharing of intelligence between the TSA and other bodies such as the Joint Terrorism Task Force and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP). In many cases, intelligence allows early detection and frustration of any threats.

The Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)

JTTF is a partnership between many federal, state, and local agencies. Its objective is to counter terrorism activities. Given that it consists of reputable agencies such as the FBI and the DEA among many others, it is a great source of intelligence for the TSA. The task force originally consisted of FBI agents and New York City Police Department (NYPD) detectives, before it was expanded to include multi-agencies and other local authorities. JTTF is now spread all over the US, leaving no room for any terrorist activity.

The Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

Another layer of airport security is CBP. TSA realizes very well the importance of this agency. The reason for this is that CBP functions are closely related to those of the TSA. It is the largest agency of the DHS charged with the protection of the border, enforcement of customs, and immigration issues. CBP agents, therefore, closely monitor who and what gets in or out of the country. Hence, the agency may possess crucial information on possible threats at the airport. The formation of the CBP occurred in 2003 following increased external threats to the US (Longo, 2016). Such threats include terrorist attacks from extremist groups and the increased smuggling of drugs across the Mexican border by drug cartels. Since its creation, the CBP has continued to protect the US making it a very valuable asset for the TSA.

The Federal air marshal Service

The TSA has yet another layer of airport security. Although highly unlikely, suppose that an individual who poses a security threat is able to enter into the plane in one way or the other. It can present a very dangerous situation. It is for this reason that the TSA introduced yet another layer, which is the Federal Air Marshal Service. It is a law enforcement agency under the TSA. Air marshals are specially trained to work on a plane (Szyliowicz, 2018). They carry a weapon onboard the plane and in addition work undercover to ensure the security of all the passengers.

Law Enforcement Officers

Back at the airport, police officers are also deployed to ensure that hostile individuals are apprehended. These officers offer an extra layer of security to the airport. It is significant to note that the airport constitutes not only the plane boarding area but also a large compound that requires traffic flow management, patrol, and attendance to other emergencies. The enforcement officers are therefore very important to airport security.

Bomb Appraisal Officers

There are many weapons that can bring about the devastation in an airport. However, most people can agree that some of the most catastrophic weapons are explosives. A single detonation has the potential of bringing down the whole plane or cause terror within the airport grounds. It is for this reason that the TSA found it appropriate to introduce yet another layer of security in the airport consisting of bomb appraisal officers. These are professionals merited in bomb disposal. Given that these officers have had a lot of field-experience under the military, they are in a position to share their vast knowledge with the workforce (Szyliowicz, 2018). The workforce is then in a position to understand how explosives work and how to handle situations involving explosives. Such skills further strengthen airport security.

Federal Flight Deck officers

As earlier mentioned, most of the security changes within the TSA were informed or rather triggered by the attacks in 2001. One of these included the training of pilots and other crew such as the plane engineer to be able to handle a terrorist attack. This would ensure that the plane and especially the cockpit is well-protected from any attacks. The air marshals are charged with the responsibility of training the crew on such security issues (Winter, Rice, Friedenreich, Mehta, & Kaiser, 2017). This training also includes the use of firearms as such a pilot is expected to carry a gun while in flight. These trained crew members are the federal flight deck officers and are authorized by the TSA to handle weapons to ensure that no criminal takes control of the plane.

International Relations

No Fly list and Passenger Pre Screening

There are certain people who are already known to be security threats, whereby their information is in the possession of intelligence bodies such as the FBI and the CIA. Following the terrorist attacks in 2001, the Bush administration found it good to create a list of such people, who would not be allowed to board any plane (Rudner, 2015). This list came to be known as the no-fly-list. If during the pre-screening process, one is found to be in this list, then the system immediately notifies the airport officials who can then act accordingly. This ensures known potential threats are not allowed onboard any plane. This extra layer of security, therefore, comes in very handy for the TSA. It is perhaps important to mention that similar to several other security layers, the no-fly-list has also come under criticism. Critics are concerned that a false-positive might get one on this list. In addition, an alarm has been raised over possible discrimination and racial profiling (Robertson & Manta, 2015). For instance, recently President Trump had announced a travel ban over seven nations. The most striking thing about this ban is that it involved Muslim or Muslim-majority countries. The move was, therefore, as being a Muslim-bias. The caution has to be taken to ensure that the no-fly list does not become an avenue for discrimination. Regardless, it provides an effective layer of protection for the airport.



A different layer of security deployed by the TSA neither consists of technology nor humans but instead, an animal. Highly trained Sniffer dogs can easily sniff out explosives. In case an individual manages to pass explosives through the scanners, they still have to deal with the canines which are very hard to get by given their highly sensitive noses. The canines are deployed around the airport to check even the vehicles entering the airport to ensure that they carry no explosives.




Travel Document Checker

In order to depart from an airport, the TSA requires that one presents their boarding pass as well as their ID. Furthermore, these respective documents must be valid or else one is not allowed to go through. This is yet another layer of security at the airport. Although it might not appear to do much in comparison to other layers, it plays its own unique role in security improvement at the airport.

Random Employee Screening

There is a sector that is so easy to ignore yet poses a security threat although minimal. Airport employees enforce the regulations and secure the airport. But what if one goes rogue? Imagine that a security officer who is mandated with inspecting luggage allows a weapon through the scanner perhaps after being bribed or even polarized. The consequences could be deadly. To avoid such unfortunate incidences, TSA deployed yet another layer of security. In this case, the security would check itself internally in what is referred to as random employee screening (Greco, 2017).  Upon request, an employee is expected to submit to a screening which might perhaps include a pat-down. This ensures that the airport employees are not used to smuggle in goods that might place passengers in danger. Such incidences have been recorded in the past. This layer of security was not warmly received by most of the airport employees as they feel unfairly treated as suspects and some have even gone ahead to report complaints. Despite such criticism, random employee screening further tightens the security at the airports.

Trained Flight Crew

The TSA extends security training beyond the Federal Flight Deck Officers to other flight crew such as the flight attendants who work in close relations with the passengers. The TSA offers a self-defense course whereby the flight crew can obtain valuable skills which they can apply in protecting themselves as well as thwarting any potential attacks. A trained flight crew offers an extra layer of security.


Security within airports is crucial. The TSA, which is the agency charged with this important role, applies a multi-layered approach to ensure all loop-holes are covered. The different layers of security are drawn from multiple disciplines such as science and technology, sociology and psychology, and even political science. All these work together to ensure that all airports are heavily secured.


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