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To prevent terror attacks, strengthen airport screening of all travelers, not just suspects

The best way to prevent airborne terrorist attacks may be to improve the baseline security screening of all air travelers rather than identifying and screening high-risk passengers, according to new research by experts at MIT and Harvey Mudd College.

The findings are included in a new paper, “How Effective is Security Screening of Airline Passengers?” by Professors Susan E. Martonosi, Department of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, and Arnold Barnett, Operations Research Center, Sloan School of Management at MIT.

The paper will appear in the journal Interfaces, published by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS), whose December 2006 issue is dedicated to homeland security topics. This special issue will be distributed to multiple contacts within the Bush Administration and Congress.

The paper is based on the principles of Operations Research (OR), a discipline that uses advanced analytical methods grounded in mathematics to make better decisions. From police dispatching to how the Pentagon deploys troops to how medical professionals stop outbreaks of disease, OR is a powerful, behind-the-scenes force that impacts our daily lives.

Today, the US Transportation Security Administration is developing the “Secure Flight” program, a passenger-profiling system to identify terrorists before they board. However, Martonosi and Barnett’s paper found that a more effective way to prevent terror attacks might be to focus instead on improving the X-ray, metal and explosives detection technology used on all travelers and their luggage, even though those measures are time-consuming.

The research reignites the debate that has simmered since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Which is more important--preventing another terrorist attack or enabling Americans to fly with the least possible delay? Where is the balance between airport security and travelers’ convenience?

The December Interfaces special issue on homeland security will also include nearly a dozen research papers on such provocative topics as:

Which has done more to prevent suicide-bombings in Israel--killing or preemptively arresting terror suspects? (By Edward H. Kaplan, Yale School of Management; Alex Mintz, Texas A&M University, and Shaul Mishal, Tel Aviv University).

How to protect the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the US electrical transmission system and other critical infrastructure from terrorist attack. (By Gerald Brown, Matthew Carlyle, Javier Salmeron and Kevin Wood of the Naval Postgraduate School’s Operations Research Department).

How US cities can prepare for a bioterrorist attack, drawing upon lessons learned in a simulated smallpox gas attack in San Antonio, Texas. (By George Miller and Stephen Randolph of the Altarum Institute and Jan E. Patterson of the University of Texas Health Science Center).

For more information on any of the papers or to arrange an interview with the authors, contact Doug Russell or John McElhenny at Schwartz Communications at (781) 684-0770 or at

About Interfaces and INFORMS

Interfaces is a bimonthly journal published by the Hanover, Md.-based Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS). INFORMS is an international scientific society with 10,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, financial engineering, and telecommunications. The INFORMS website is More information about operations research can be found at

Barry List | EurekAlert!
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