(Part III of a series that takes a look at the status of the US aviation security system)


Aviation security is still not working – we’re still not winning – and here’s how I know.

Shortly after 9/11, we adopted the term, the new normal. The New Normal described what life in America would be in the post 9/11 world. We all knew that things were never going to be the same again, but we didn’t know quite what that would look like. We are now fifteen years past 9/11, we now know what the new normal is… and it sucks.

When will it not suck? When we can prevent attacks on aviation while still allowing passengers, bags and cargo to move quickly. When we finally have an effective and efficient screening process that is a minor part of the passenger experience, not one that defines the passenger experience. When my friend’s teenage daughter (who carries a diabetes pump) can go through screening and not be subjected to a full pat-down search, as if she were a drug mule under suspicion of smuggling heroin.

airport-731196_1920I refuse to believe that what we have now is the best we can do.

So how do we get there?

After 9/11, the success of aviation security was judged on one criterion only: whether there was another successful attack on (or using) aviation. However, preventing attacks is not the only performance metric when determining whether or not we are winning. If aviation security was merely about preventing attacks, we could easily design and implement a system that assures us virtually 100% safety while traveling. The downside of such a system would be airports that resemble prisons instead of transportation facilities, a screening process that violates most of our civil rights, our dignity and our freedom of movement, and airfares five times the current average to pay for it all – and in reality, we still would not be 100% safe.

Aviation is an essential form of transportation throughout the world, particularly so in the United States, where there is no viable alternative. There is no coast-to-coast high-speed rail system and sadly, there is no Scotty to beam us to our destinations. Aviation is as essential to our lives today as food, water, power, effective sewage systems and the Internet. But the benefit of aviation is that it moves quickly. If we slow the process down to the speed of smell, we may as well jump in the SUV and drive to our destination – an option many have selected since 9/11.

Aviation security must be judged not only on deterring attacks, but also on ensuring the rapid and safe transportation of goods and people while treating those people in a respectful manner.

We can’t address aviation security from the perspective of “How much stuff did you find?” In fact, if you agree with the statement, “I don’t care what they have to do, just make sure my flight is 100% safe”, I have a revelation for you: That’s not how aviation security works. In fact, that’s not how anything in life works. Life is a risk sport. Even getting out of bed in the morning involves a risk assessment. The goal of aviation security is to reduce risks as much as possible while still allowing people and goods to move quickly by air. We can never prevent and detect every possible Bad Guy, nor can we anticipate every possible situation he can dream up. What we can do is to make things as difficult as possible for him, in the hopes that he heads down the road and finds another method of demonstrating his hate against society.

Last year, an Inspector General report revealed glaring deficiencies in TSA performance, noting up to 97% failure rates for the screener workforce when presented with real-world “red team” type tactics. TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger was in the midst of the confirmation process at the time, so the message to him was clear: his first priority was to reduce that failure rate drastically. TSA implemented a variety of tactics, including slowing down screening lines and eliminating some risk-based security programs. Simultaneously, TSA’s budget was cut, resulting in the loss of several thousand screeners. Meanwhile, TSA was operating under the flawed assumption that 25 million passengers were going to sign up for PreCheck, and in addition, TSA’s lack of engagement with the airline industry meant that they failed to notice that passenger forecasts were increasing the following year. A perfect storm of passenger congestion was brewing.

The result: Epic screening lines, massive flight delays, missed flights by the thousands and passenger contempt of the TSA. What’s more, crowded airport terminals themselves now presented lucrative soft targets for a suicide bomber or active shooter.

Although many decry that TSA was becoming too focused on customer service and keeping the lines moving and less focused on providing good security, that argument misses the point entirely: There doesn’t have to be a debate between good customer service and good security; good customer service IS good security. 

 Some TSA supervisors are fond of saying that screeners should not worry about the lines; concern about the lines is the job of the TSA supervisor themselves. That sounds admirable, but here’s the reality: I myself am a former, pre-9/11 screener (from back in the 1980s). As someone with over 30 years experience in aviation security, I can tell you that no matter what a TSA supervisor might say about the situation, there is a definite psychological impact on the screener workforce as they see the lines backing up. They hear the angry and snide comments as passengers get more and more irritable at the wait, and many will subconsciously start pushing the bags through faster.

In addition to that, the reality of line management is that TSA can only do so much. They can shift personnel to balance the lines, they can open up new lines if personnel is available, and they can start diverting passengers if they have the ability to use canine explosive detection teams to the Pre-check. In some cases they can even surge more screeners by using overtime or by shifting personnel from other airports… but beyond that, most of line queue management falls directly on the airport operator.

As we saw this summer, many airport operators and air carriers started hiring contract personnel to assist with line queue management, taking some of the workload off of TSA by handling non-security related functions (assisting passengers during divestiture, hauling bins around, managing the queues, etc.).  While this is a definite improvement to the system, the question remains: Why couldn’t TSA have done this from the beginning? Why did we task individuals highly trained at operating and interpreting x-ray imagery with carrying bins around the checkpoint and advising people on how to properly divest their stuff so that they can get through the screening checkpoint in the first place? This is the type of innovation that’s still missing.

Among Neffenger’s improvements are his strides in improving the training of the screening workforce. More needs to be done. It’s not enough to just train them on their job, they need to understand the bigger picture of how the roles of aviation, airports and the airlines mesh in order to provide the necessary level of protection, and to understand how their actions affect the entire system… including when their actions are actually increasing risk to the system.

TSA has finally begun deployment of innovation lanes, another step in the right direction (but one that should have been done a decade ago).  TSA, it seems, is finally starting to learn that good aviation security isn’t just about detection rates.

Additionally, TSA now makes widespread use of explosive detection dogs at the checkpoints, which significantly ratchets up the difficulty level for a terrorist to get a bomb through. Remember, the #1 goal of a terrorist is to not get caught BEFORE the attack. Therefore, they tend to avoid areas where the risk of getting caught is significant. Despite the red team tests, there are easier ways to attack aviation than by trying to go through the “front door” of the screening process.

TSA needs to continue to support risk-based alternatives to screening, such as PreCheck. Airport screening works like a computer firewall. The stronger the firewall, the less bad stuff gets through; this also means a higher incidence of legitimate stuff is also being kept out. Turn down the firewall security settings and fewer legitimate emails get stopped, but you increase the risk that one of those actually contains a virus. PreCheck is a system similar to trusting a person’s email address – you know them, so you extend some trust to them (but the good firewalls may still find a bad apple from time to time).

Moving forward, we need to continue the integration of technology at the checkpoint. As Neffenger has said before, we’re still using a screening model designed in the 1970s to handle air traffic and terrorist threats of the 21st century. We need to continue PreCheck and other risk-based programs, but with the understanding that someone, someday may slip through the cracks – it is inevitable. When that eventuality occurs, we can’t react to that by discontinuing risk-based programs. Instead, we need to correct what allowed the person to slip through and continue using risk-based processes… and continue to reap the benefits that such programs offer.

By expanding risk-based screening measures while continuing the innovation of screening technologies and processes, we can allow the trained Behavior Detection Officers to fulfill the roles they are trained at, giving those officers the authority and the discretion of saying, “No ma’am, you don’t need a pat-down; we know what a diabetes pump looks like and you’re good to go.”

When that happens, aviation security will be working… and we’ll be winning.




To read more of my posts on aviation security, click HERE.

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