The Transportation Security Administration is considering removing passenger screening at up to 150 small and medium-size airports in the U.S.
The move, the risks of which are currently being researched by the agency, drastically diverts from its 17-year record of increasing protections for flyers.
According to TSA officials and documents obtained by CNN, the proposal affects airports whose planes usually seat 60 or fewer passengers. Travelers leaving from these airports — an estimated 10,000 people daily — would be screened along with their luggage when they arrive at a major airport. The documents do not mention the names of affected airports.
This change could save the agency $115 million annually, the report says. While the documents note this money would be put towards advancing security measures at larger airports, they also acknowledge the change would create a “small (non-zero) undesirable increase in risk” leading to more “opportunity” for an attack. TSA currently screens passengers at 440 airports nationwide.
Experts in the terrorism field and members of the TSA alike have voiced serious concerns about the harm this change might yield.
It’s “stunning that this is even seriously being considered,” said CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank in the initial report, published on the news network’s website on Wednesday. “Al Qaeda and ISIS still regard aviation as a priority target. That includes aircraft where you have fewer than 60 people on board … If you have an aircraft of 50 or so people being blown out of the sky there is going to be a great amount of panic and there will indeed be significant economic reverberations, and of course significant loss of life.”
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Another expert, Juliette Kayyem, who was an assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the Department of Homeland Security under Obama, also reminded CNN of the dangers that can fit on small planes: “People, weapons, dangerous goods and what’s boarding the plane are all potential risks … TSA is falling into the trap that this is just about terror. A gun could be brought on board too.”
An anonymous TSA field leader, who’s not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, told CNN, the proposal is “so dangerous,” while two more senior officials said they have serious concerns about national security because of it.
According to these officials, the idea first appeared in 2011 and has been resurrected a few times since, which TSA spokesperson Michael Bilello confirmed to CNN via email. He added that “the regulations which established TSA does not require screening below a certain level.” But the officials said it’s now being taken more seriously.
There are also consequences to the proposal beyond national security, according to Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the Department of Transportation, who spoke to the Washington Post. “It will destroy small towns and cities across the country because they will virtually have no air service,” she explained. “You poor folks from, say, Toledo, Ohio, you only have three regional flights a day. We’re not going to do any security for you. Would anyone fly from Toledo? Absolutely not. What does it do to Toledo, Ohio? Destroys it.”
She also labeled the idea “completely nuts” because “at each one of those [airports] you could have everything from a 19-seater to a 50-seater aircraft. Imagine if [terrorists] took out 10 regional flights in one day? You’ve had the largest loss of life, other than 9/11, in an aviation accident in decades.”
Bilello addressed the proposal and backlash to it in a statement on Twitter: “There has been no decision to eliminate passenger screening at any federalized U.S. airport. TSA remains committed to its core mission to secure the Homeland by screening more than 2.5 million airline passengers per day. Every year as part of the federal budget process TSA is asked to discuss potential operational efficiencies—this year is no different. Any potential operational changes to better allocate limited taxpayer resources are simply part of predecisional discussions and deliberations and would not take place without a risk assessment to ensure the security of the aviation system.”
The TSA was created in 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the agency has focused primarily on changes for passengers that increase security, namely banning liquid and gels in quantities greater than 3 ounces in carry-on bags and requiring removal of shoes to go through the TSA line. The Trump administration has also intensified screening for laptops and tablets within the past year.