The botched Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a transatlantic Northwest flight as it was about to land in Detroit is likely to have a profound impact on the travel industry, at least in the near term and possibly for years to come, experts said last week.
Most predicted that the government’s response would result in more travel delays and hassles for domestic and foreign travelers alike.
Obtaining visas and navigating airport security will be more difficult in months to come, maybe much longer, as the government reviews its security practices and patches holes that allowed a passenger to smuggle and nearly detonate explosive material aboard a commercial jet.
The industry concern is that "if this results in longer lines and slower service, that would be the wrong outcome," said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of public affairs for the U.S. Travel Association.
The industry welcomes heightened security, Freeman said, but it should eliminate travel hassles, not create more of them.
Instead, he said, security officials should seize the opportunity to focus on better screening methods and improved interagency communications to make air travel more efficient and safer.
The bombing suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, foiled airport detection devices by concealing explosive material and a syringe detonator in specially made underwear, the FBI said. The combination made for a viable bomb, the FBI said, and the agency as of last week didn’t know why it had failed to explode.
Security experts say it was especially troubling that Abdulmutallab was able to secure a seat aboard an inbound U.S. flight in the first place, considering that he was in a database of potential security risks after his father had warned U.S. officials of his son’s increasingly radical beliefs.
What’s more, Abdulmutallab was on a U.K. flight watch list, and he raised more red flags by paying cash for a one-way ticket with no baggage.
"Why wasn’t he on the watch list or no-fly list?" Stephen McHale, a former Transportation Security Administration deputy administrator, wondered in an interview with Travel Weekly.
"He got through everything," said McHale, who is now with the Patton Boggs law firm in Washington. "That’s the scariest part."
McHale predicted, "There will be another great review about information sharing."
In the meantime, travelers wanting to come to the U.S. can expect a crackdown on visa approvals, predicted Janice Kephart, director of national security studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Kephart, who served as a counsel to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon America, popularly known as the 9/11 Commission, said that after the 2001 attacks, the U.S. government made it much harder to obtain entry visas.
"Lately, I’ve seen it switch back to a more customer-friendly system," she said. Kephart expects visa applications to get more scrutiny once again.
Freeman said he was "not sure how slowing down the visa process will help. The visa is not a silver bullet. It’s just part of the process."
Kephart noted that a successful review of any visa application depends on the most accurate and timely intelligence, and "intelligence is only as good as what is put into the system."
She pointed out that Abdulmutallab received his visa before his father’s warning was logged in the database of potential terrorist risks, adding: "If there’s no 24-hour reloading of intelligence, this is what’s going to happen."
But McHale cautioned that real-time analysis of the database could prove difficult, because "all kinds of tips and information are put into that database."
President Obama made it clear that he wanted a review of interagency sharing of data and the government’s flight-watch or no-fly lists. He also called for a review of technology used to screen passengers for explosives materials like that smuggled aboard the plane last week.
TSA officials have been reviewing technologically advanced screening methods such as special full-body scanners and backscatter X-ray machines, millimeter-wave imaging and devices that measure chemical vapor quantities on passengers.
The TSA has been looking into something it calls the "tunnel of truth." As described in a Congressional Research Service report earlier this year, this checkpoint concept would submit passengers to a "battery of screening techniques while being transported on a moving walkway." The TSA would incorporate "whole-body imaging technologies along with trace-detection portal technologies."
There are several challenges associated with these solutions, the report said, including costs and privacy issues.
Freeman acknowledged the privacy concerns but said the full-body scanning technology was an excellent example of how security could be enhanced while simultaneously making screening more efficient. It’s time, he said, to give these concepts more consideration.
But the report also noted that none of the new technologies provides a single-bullet answer. If one detects possible contraband, further screening, such as pat-downs, would be required.
For now, McHale said, more pat-downs and extra physical screening will be part of the norm. He also said passengers will likely see more specially trained explosive-sniffing dogs.
"But we can’t make it 100% foolproof," he said. "There’s not much more we can physically do. In the end, all you can do with security is make it more difficult."
McHale acknowledged that there appeared to have been a systemic breakdown that enabled an explosives-smuggling passenger to board a commercial jet.
"But he got aboard a plane with a defective device," he said. "We’re forcing them into more exotic ways, which appear to be less successful. They’re being pushed into less reliable methods."
But as far as Kephart and other security experts are concerned, U.S. screening methods are proving to be unreliable.