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The Transportation Security Administration has 45,000 agents at every U.S. airport with commercial airline service. Last month, the TSA announced that it would shift some of those agents at large airports, adding manpower in a few airports and decreasing the number in others. Officials at virtually every airport that is slated to lose agents has protested the moves.
While big airports with hundreds of flights daily worry about the number of TSA agents available to check boarding passengers, controversy continues over the ability of security checkpoints to keep terrorists off flights originating at U.S. airports. The issue is more than how many agents there are. It's about what they do and how they do it.
"Profiling" has become an ugly word when used in connection with airport screening. So random checks are made of passengers based on a counting system rather than paying attention to who is going through the security checkpoints.
The FBI and other crimefighting agencies have long used profilers to crack major cases. These experts use many obvious -- and some not so obvious -- characteristics of criminal behavior to guide law enforcement officers in their search for serial killers, rapists, child molesters and Unabombers.
And if some major air hubs are worried about losing some of their TSA agents, they should consider the staffing at small airports like the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, which services three commuter flights daily with six agents.
In the first four months of 2005, there were 3.25 million flights at U.S. airports carrying 209 million passengers, all of who were checked through security by 45,000 TSA agents, or an average of 4,644 passengers per agent. At the Cape Girardeau airport in that same period, six agents were responsible for a total of 2,062 passengers, or 344 for each agent.
Targeting passengers who fit terrorist profiles and putting TSA agents where they're needed the most seem like sensible things to do.