Security checkpoints would be eliminated at more than 150 smaller U.S. airports under a plan being considered by the Transportation Security Administration. Passengers would instead be screened when they arrived at larger airports after their initial flight.
The idea was first floated by the TSA two years ago and was seen then by critics as a transparent effort to get Congress to spend additional money on the agency.
"This is completely nuts," said Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation and an aviation expert. "Perhaps they want an outcry from the public to say 'Oh, no, no, no, Congress, give them the additional $115 million that they say this would save.'"
Neither Tampa International Airport or St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport anticipate any effect from the plan.
St. Pete-Clearwater spokesperson Michele Routh said the airport does not comment on security changes as a matter of policy, but did say it has no plans to do away with its TSA presence.
Likewise, neither does Tampa International. "We're not aware of any impact that it would have on us right now," TIA spokeswoman Janet Scherberger said Thursday.
Scherberger also passed along a statement issued by the TSA itself on the subject:
"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 proposal raises questions about whether would-be terrorists could penetrate the nation's air system at the airports lacking screening or commander smaller shuttle aircraft and use them to damage buildings or other infrastructure.
In September 2001, two hijackers began their travels in Portland, Maine, in an effort to escape notice. Mohamed Atta and Abdulaziz al-Omari flew on a commuter plane to Boston, where they boarded an American Airlines Boeing 767, took control of the jet in flight and crashed it into tower 102 of the World Trade Center, causing the deaths of more than 1,600 people on Sept. 11.
The TSA said no decision has been made on the plan.
"There has been no decision to eliminate passenger screening at any federalized U.S. airport," TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said in a statement. "Every year as part of the federal budget process TSA is asked to discuss potential operational efficiencies - this year is no different."
Bilello's statement described the discussions as "predecisional discussions and deliberations and would not take place without a risk assessment to ensure the security of the aviation system."
CNN, which first reported the story, cited senior TSA officials and official TSA documents that said eliminating checkpoints at 150 unspecified airports would affect 10,000 passengers daily, or about 0.5 percent of those who fly from those airports.
"They say that only 0.5 flights would be affected, but on any given day that's a lot of flights," Schiavo said. "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."
Schiavo said people would be afraid to fly if TSA ended screenings at their local airports.
"Not only will this destroy any reasonable security over American skies, it will destroy small towns and cities across the country because they will virtually have no air service," she said.
"You poor folks from, say, Toledo, Ohio, you only have three regional flights a day," Schiavo said. "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. You'll have no air service. No one's going to get on a plane without security. It's not only terrorists, it's nut cases.
Schiavo pointed out that about 2,500 weapons are confiscated at TSA checkpoints from people who otherwise would have carried them onboard aircraft.
"It's not like hijackers and terrorists and people with bad ideas will forget that we have smaller airports in America, and now with no security?" she said. "It's just bonkers. It's so crazy. It's confoundedly stupid."
Frederick Hill, spokesman for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which has Senate jurisdiction over the TSA, said the proposal to end security at smaller airports has "been a recurring idea for many years" from the TSA.
"But they have not made any decision about moving forward," he said. "Chairman [John] Thune, R-S.D., "would expect TSA to engage with the Senate and House committees of jurisdiction if consideration of such a significant change to security advances beyond a preliminary discussion."
The TSA is responsible for security at nearly 440 airports and its 43,000 officers screen more than 2 million passengers each day. In addition, they screen 1.3 million checked items and 4.9 million carry-on bags.
The agency provides security for more than 23,000 domestic flights per day and nearly 2,800 outbound international flights.
Times staff writers Malena Carollo and Richard Danielson contributed to this report.