In the eight years since the 9/11 attacks, security at the nation's airports has become much more stringent as any airline passenger can attest. The technology to screen passengers is more advanced, too. Still, you may wonder just how secure the airports are.

So did NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR: By now, the routine has become mind-numbingly familiar: take off your shoes, put them in the gray plastic container along with your toiletries no more than three three-ounce bottles in a one-quart plastic bag, please. Take out your laptop, et cetera, et cetera. It's a scene played out millions of times a day in the nation's airports.

Mr. ROBIN KANE (Head of Security Technology, Transportation Security Administration): So they walk up with their carry-on bags. It'll go through the X-ray. This is the advanced technology X-ray here.

NAYLOR: Robin Kane is head of security technology at the Transportation Security Administration, the TSA. He's standing in front of a security checkpoint at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

If not a showcase, it's certainly one of the nation's better-equipped airports, security-wise. It has the latest in explosives-detecting luggage X-rays and something called a millimeter wave whole body imager. It produces an image of each traveler that leaves little to the imagination. A TSA employee who cannot see the passenger checks for what Kane calls anomalies.

Mr. KANE: Like, if I carry my wallet it's going to pick up my wallet. But what they can do is then communicate back to that operator here at the machine and say this person has something on their left, right pocket of their pants. And we can do a very targeted search now to say, okay, yes, can you show me what's in your pocket. Yes, it's a wallet.

NAYLOR: All the machinery at the checkpoints is just the tip of the iceberg of what the TSA says is a 20 layered approach to security. But critics of the airport screening process call all this security theater.

Mr. PATRICK SMITH (Commercial Pilot; Writer,'s "Ask the Pilot"): We have this 9/11 hangover that's been going on for eight years. And we see it most poignantly there at the airport.

NAYLOR: Patrick Smith is a commercial pilot who writes a blog called Ask the Pilot, on He says much of what occurs at airline checkpoints is needless.

Mr. SMITH: We're wasting immense amounts of time and manpower searching through people's bags for little knives and pointy objects, and then taking harmless liquids away from people. That doesn't make us safer.

NAYLOR: Smith says there should be less emphasis on looking for sharp objects. Since the advent of secure cockpit doors inside jetliners, they don't pose much of a threat anyways. Instead, emphasis should be placed on explosives detection.

Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio, who sponsored legislation to make TSA screeners federal employees, says he feels airports need to beef up security in another area — at what he calls the back of the airport, where maintenance personnel have unfettered access to planes.

Representative PETER DeFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon): Everybody accessing the secure area of the airport, whether it was the terminal or the tarmac, would have to go through a screening. I mean, mechanics — everybody goes through that system every time.

NAYLOR: But DeFazio defends the TSA. The government has spent some $45 billion since 9/11 on aviation security. He says screening has improved dramatically in recent years.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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