The recent failed airliner bombing attempt, by a Nigerian Islamic terrorist, caused the United States to increase screening efforts at American airports. This screening is done by a force of over 40,000 TSA (Transportation Security Administration) personnel. The TSA also has the authority to fine or arrest those who violate the new airport security rules. Each year, over a thousand people are arrested by TSA, and over 4,000 are fined. This is happening during screening for about ten million flights a year. As far as terror attacks are concerned, the effort seems to have worked. The only terrorist attacks on American airliners since September 11, 2001 were on two flights coming in from overseas airports. The TSA effort has not only scared off terrorist attempts, but it has made air travel more risky for criminals, who are the people most often caught with contraband, or arrested.
But the TSA is not making it impossible for terrorists to get aboard commercial flights. Journalists have frequently demonstrated the vulnerability of TSA procedures, showing how observant and careful terrorists could find these weaknesses (most of which still exist) and exploit them. Details are still available on the Internet.
In effect, one of the most terrifying aftereffects of the war on terror has been the many new security procedures imposed on air travelers. Most of them have no impact on airline security. Early on, it was realized that not being able to carry a pocket knife or knitting needles has not stopped terrorists from coming up with new ways to get weapons aboard. What happened on Flight 93 (the one that crashed, when passengers realized what was happening and attacked the hijackers), has, as stronger cockpit doors were installed on all airliners. Other measures, that address real vulnerabilities, have not been implemented. This is largely because real security improvements are not as visible, and thus are less valuable, in a PR sense, to politicians who pass these laws. For example, a glaring weakness in airports is background checks and security measures applied to airport personnel. It's widely known that drug gangs regularly exploit this to get airport workers to help them smuggle drugs on airplanes. Some security experts (the ones who are ignored a lot), keep pointing out that bombs could just as easily be placed on aircraft using the same methods. Another weakness is baggage control. This includes simple things like making sure passengers always fly when their baggage does, and explosive screening for all luggage (checked as well as carry-on.) The biggest flaw is the reluctance to adopt the profiling techniques pioneered by Israel (and since Russia, and several other countries). As long as politics and PR play such a large role in counter-terrorism, expect measures that play better than they perform will be favored.
Many Americans now travel less by air, or not at all, because of the TSA effort. Drugs are still being smuggled via airliners, and if there were as many terrorists as there were people moving illegal drugs, bombs would be getting aboard, and going off. This highlights another aspect of Islamic terrorism. These groups do not attract the best and the brightest. There are not as many of them active as the public realizes. Most Islamic terrorism takes place in Islamic countries, despite local security efforts every bit as draconian as what the TSA practices.
The TSA insists that the lack of attacks is attributable to its growing list of prohibitions and inspection procedures. The TSA even has representatives overseas, where they threaten foreign airlines with sanctions (not being able to fly into the United States), if there is not more cooperation, and conformity with the TSA way of doing things. This causes headaches for the U.S. State Department, as foreign nations are no more comfortable with the TSA officials than are American air travelers. Foreign nations point out that their less oppressive security procedures are every bit as effective as the TSA. But in the United States, the TSA has the power, and it uses it regardless of what those pesky foreigners say.