In the early days of aviation security, passengers had to have their belongings sorted through by a screener. X-ray machines were brought in so that passengers wouldn’t have to have their personal belongings dumped out for all to see, and to make the process faster and more efficient. With the TSA announcement of expansion of the enhanced screening measures they have been testing at several airports in the United States, it seems we are going backwards, not forwards in aviation security.
The enhanced measures include taking additional electronics out of bags (in addition to laptops) including tablets and other electronic devices larger than a cell phone, and possibly extracting other items such as food or books. The procedures are necessary so the x-ray can provide a clearer image to the screener. These enhanced measures affect passengers who do not have pre-check status (yet).
TSA says the enhanced procedures are necessary to keep up with the evolving threat as terrorists have become more sophisticated and are able to conceal explosives in electronic devices. Unfortunately, the new procedures are sure to slow down screening lines. There is simply no way you can take more items out of the bag at the checkpoint and then put those items back in the bag on the other side of the x-ray machine, and have the process take the same amount of time as leaving the items in the bag. The whole reason we started using x-ray machines in the first place is so that you can keep your belongings in your bag.
TSA says these measures are necessary (I agree) and that by implementing them we are staying ahead of the evolving threat. On that point, I disagree.
If we were truly staying ahead of the evolving threat we would not be required to unpack more of our belongings. If we were truly staying ahead of the threat we would already have implemented more advanced CT explosive detection systems – the same kind used for checked bags screening – into the passenger checkpoint, if we were truly staying ahead of the evolving threat we would not be asking passengers to adapt to security procedures, we would be adapting security procedures to the passengers.
But TSA is in a tough position. Whatever problems you can’t or won’t fix in the engineering and design of a system, you must fix through the operation of that system. Operational fixes are more expensive because they must be sustained for long periods of time and aren’t often as effective.
The weaknesses of our existing technologies is not something we all just woke up one morning and realized. Industry insiders have long known the weaknesses and limitations of standard x-ray machines. Granted, the AT-Xray machines that replaced the old school black and white systems we used prior to 9/11 are far better, but if the machine cannot detect the threat, the machine either needs to be improved or be replaced.
The enhanced security procedures are being implemented because the technology in place is obviously inadequate to identify the existing and evolved threats. But this is not a victory for TSA, this is a cry for help.
TSA has been without leadership since Neffenger’s departure in January and neither the confirmation of the new TSA administrator nor funding aviation security seems to be a top priority. We are slowly moving back into a pre-9/11 mindset and we all know what happened the last time we did that.
We need a vision of aviation security for the future. We need TSA to deliver and Congress to fund an aviation security strategic plan that includes upgrading technology to not just meet the existing threat but that attempts to detect future evolving threats.
During the Pistole and Neffenger administrations, the passenger and carry-on bag screening model changed and evolved. It needs to continue to evolve. Neffenger was right, the old model of airline screening is the existing model of screening. We are still putting individuals through the same process only with slightly more upgraded technology. We need innovators to envision a new form of passenger and carry-on bag screening that brings dignity, speed, and effectiveness back to the screening process.
Whenever our country has been seriously threatened we have mobilized or greatest minds to identify new solutions. Perhaps there needs to be a competition like the XPRIZE that inspired commercial space operators to innovate. Maybe we need something like that for aviation security. TSA and industry can work together to establish clearly defined outcomes of what a future screening process should achieve, and then the prize goes to the company with the best innovative ideas on how to completely change the model. This may sound like a completely insane idea, but maybe it’s time to look at different solutions to these problems.
When I see our aviation security system starting to regress and look like it did decades ago, clearly our government and our political leadership is not up to the task of innovating and staying ahead of the evolving threat. Don’t tell me we’re going to go back to taking stuff out of our suitcases and somehow, that signifies a victory. It’s a band-aid applied to a chest wound; what’s needed is open-heart surgery.
To read more of my posts on aviation security, click HERE.