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Obama Adminstration looks at TSA

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Feb 17, 2009) pointed out that the Obama Administration is considering changes to airport security procedures. The usual suspects weighed in with their opinions and I’m sure there is no lack of opinions amongst the general public about what should and should not be done with aviation security.

I think for a intelligent discussion on such issues, we have to minimize the opinons of the publicity seekers and get down to who the real experts are (some of whom were quoted in the WSJ piece) and what processes should and should not be done. I think another logical step is to look at the successful programs that are being done overseas but that we have not yet adopted.

Frankly, the changes that should take place in aviation security would likely fill up another book on the subject. But, let’s grab some low hanging fruit for now and see where it takes us.

Registered Traveler
The Registered Traveler (RT) program was cited in the article as one area that needs to be looked at. Initially, the program was called Trusted Traveler and its intent was to allow travelers to volunteer to be subjected to higher levels of scrutiny, in the form of biometrics and background checks. These travelers would then receive less screening at the checkpoint and thus allow travelers who we know very little about, to be the focus of the full screening programs.

Initially, the program was to also be a test bed for new technologies, and allow benefits to the trusted travelers, such as not having to remove shoes and the ability to keep their laptops in their briefcases (a common practice overseas by the way).

However, the TSA quickly decided that “trusted” put out the wrong image and that there should be no process whereby passengers receive less screening. Thus, RT was born. RT applicants still underwent the background check, paid fees, were issued biometric identification cards. They still must  have their identies verified biometrically when they fly, and the only benefit is that they go to the front of the screening line. That said, there are still plenty of business travelers that signed up for the program (including myself) because there is a cost benefit to not standing in the screening line.

The argument against less screening for RT’s is that there is always the risk that a person who is already in the RT program goes “rogue,” or slides by the background check. However, the RT program in it’s original design still allowed for random screening of RT passengers at higher levels and more thorough background checks – exceeding those of airport and airline employees. The RT concept we’re talking about here is one of reducing risk by focussing the most resources on the people we know the least about. When you try to defend against everything, you defend nothing.

Let’s also give TSA credit where it’s due. I disagree with those who think that the system is not any better than it was pre 9/11. With the new screening technologies that can better detect explosives, multi-view x-ray equipment, body imaging systems and behavior recognition programs, we are much more alert and prepared to identify threats than ever before. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 did not just address the last attack, like previous legislation had done, but addressed future threats. In some cases, as with the Large Aircraft Security Program, this has gone overboard, but in others, such as with cargo screening, TSA and the industry has been proactive.

Air Marshals
I do not agree that we should reduce the number of air marshals. This is what has happened historically with dire consequences. Read chapter 2 of Practical Aviation Security and you’ll see this disturbing pattern. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy ordered U.S. marshals to the skies after the first hijacking of a U.S. aircraft. After we implemented screening procedures in the early 70s the air marshals were scaled back, until a rash of hijackings in the Middle East in the mid 80’s brought the program back to life. Then, with fewer hijackings, the air marshals were rolled back again until we had about 33 still on the payroll on 9/11. It’s been less then a decade since 9/11 and people are already calling for a reduction in air marshals. I believe that the TSA has made some strides with the program by deploying them into other venues and putting them on assignments in the airport from time-to-time. And, I believe they are an essential part of any anti-hijacking program. Having flown to Israel on El Al, and undergone their numerous levels of screening, they still have air marshals on their planes. Maybe we should take a lesson from the people that have the least penetrable aviation system in the world.

More to come…

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