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Laptops in or out, make up your mind: New TSA procedures likely to slow down the lines and may expose critical vulnerabilities

By Jeffrey C. Price

 

TSA revealed a new pilot program that has passengers taking their laptops and more, out of their bags. In a statement released on May 24, 2017, TSA said:

TSA Testing Adjusted Accessible Property Screening

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) informed ACI-NA that it is testing adjusted screening procedures for carry-on bags and other accessible property at about a dozen select U.S. airports with the potential to expand to other airports nationwide. As part of TSA’s counterterrorism efforts, the agency continuously enhances and adjusts security screening procedures to stay ahead of evolving threats. The airports selected represent a variety of sizes, locations, equipment and personnel configurations.

Everyday items, including some foods, books and magazines, and large electronics, can appear similar to explosives when going through the X-ray screening machine. TSA is testing different ways to screen these items while maintaining a smooth traveler experience.  While TSA is testing ways to better screen bags effectively, travelers at test locations may be asked to remove electronics larger than a cell phone from carry-on bags and place them in a bin separately. Travelers may also be advised to place other carry-on items in a separate bin for X-ray screening. This helps TSA officers focus more on resolving any threats while keeping a smooth screening experience for travelers. Passengers may experience more bag checks; however, TSA is testing quicker and more targeted search procedures at these locations.

TSA officers will be available in front of the X-ray machine to guide passengers through the screening process and advise what items will need to be removed from carry-on bags and placed in a bin separately for X-ray screening.

TSA reports that early indications of these tests offer several benefits, including:

  • Increased threat detection by addressing challenges presented by cluttered and/or oversized carry-on bags.
  • No slow down to the screening process or requirement for additional staff; however, throughput will slow down initially as officers adjust to the new procedures, but will then return to normal.
  • Additional help and guidance to passengers by positioning an Officer in front of the lane, where passengers are most likely to ask questions about the screening process.

I don’t like the direction this is going. For the past several years TSA has been focused on risk-based screening, which is a move in right direction. A key component of the risk-based PreCheck program is to be able to keep your laptops and liquids IN your bag. Now we’re being told that TSA may not be able to see what’s in there? I don’t blame this on passengers packing too much stuff in their carry-on luggage. I blame this on screening technologies that can’t apparently detect threat items and a country that is lagging behind the evolving threats to aviation.

The whole point of air travel is to be able to take what you need and get to your destination in hours, not days or weeks. You shouldn’t have to modify your behavior and compromise your needs so you can jump through all the security hoops. This is aviation trying to fit security, not security trying to fit aviation.

If the screening equipment cannot detect the evolving threats, then the equipment needs to get better. We need to stay ahead of the threats, not lag behind them. Tragically, this is a path we’ve gone down before: In 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed, killing all 259 people on board and 11 more on the ground in the town of Lockerbie, Scotland. The investigation determined that our screening technology could not detect Semtex, the military-grade plastic explosive that was used to bring down the plane. Turns out we were still looking for sticks of dynamite, while the terrorists had long since switched to using stuff we couldn’t detect.

What did the U.S. do with this knowledge? Nothing. New legislation was passed (largely window dressing) and we would continue for 13 more years using technology we KNEW could not detect bombs that terrorists were using. Had 9/11 never happened we’d probably still be using it.

I have to take issue with TSA saying that these procedures won’t slow down the checkpoint lines. Unless the checkpoint is located in Fantasyland, that’s just not true. When people have to start unpacking at the checkpoint, it’s going to slow down the lines – plain and simple. We started using x-ray machines in the early 1970s so we wouldn’t have to unpack our stuff at the checkpoint.

The problem with backing up the screening lines (again) is not just delayed flights and inconvenienced passengers. I’m drafting this blog just days after the tragic suicide bomber attack on mostly teen and tween Ariana Grande concertgoers in Manchester, England. Large groups of people are natural terrorist targets, for both active shooters and bombings. When you back up a screening line, you create a terrorist target. Hundreds, or possibly thousands of people waiting en masse in a public place – and public places are the hardest areas to defend. Adding to our vulnerabilities is the recent budget proposal that would cut funding for airport police and VIPR teams, two key essentials to deter and be able respond to attacks in public areas.

For years, we were moving the right direction with aviation security. We weren’t moving smoothly, but we were at least moving the right way. Having passengers modify their behaviors in a way that will have them unpacking at the checkpoint could set us back years. It could back up the lines and further erode the benefit of aviation. We are already moving the wrong way – now add an electronics ban to this and we will be moving the wrong way even faster. We need to be getting ahead of the curve, not lagging behind it. Otherwise, the government will have done the job the terrorists failed to do – they will have killed aviation in this United States.

 

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

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One Response to Laptops in or out, make up your mind: New TSA procedures likely to slow down the lines and may expose critical vulnerabilities

  1. You make a couple of good points Jeff when referring to large masses of people in confined areas and the added inconvenience to passengers. One thing we have seen in the past months is a dramatic uptick in agitated passengers interfering with fight crew members resulting in delayed, cancelled and diverted fights, all of which law enforcement must respond to. Putting more sheep in the pen and having the shepherds called away doesn’t strike me as the most strategic move ever made.

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