Why Airport Screening Lines are Backing Up


If you’ve been on a commercial flight in the past six months you probably noticed that the checkpoint lines are slowing down and as a result, getting longer. Also, there does not seem to be relief in sight as TSA reaffirms its commitment to spending more time looking at you and your luggage and less time worrying about how long the lines get.

There is a saying I heard several years ago that I just love:

“Good, fast or cheap, pick two but you can’t have all three.”

In June 2015, an Inspector’s General report revealed that over the course of a period of testing by Red Teams (people who are experts in how to hide things in bags and on themselves), the TSA failed nearly 97% of the tests at screening checkpoints. Several months later former US Coast Guard Admiral Peter Neffenger was appointed as the new TSA Administrator and one of his top priorities was to increase the rate of detecting prohibited and dangerous items.

The problem with security is it is meant to get in the way, which means security has to get in the way of a process in order to ensure the security of the process, but the goal of any security professionals should be to make security fit the process not make the process fit security.

Right now the process is fitting security.

Going back to “good, fast or cheap, pick two…” Let’s see how this applies to airport screening.

Situation 1: Good and Fast: “good” in this situation Good equals quality and if you want the highest quality of security which means the highest detection rate and the least amount of risk, and you also want the process to go fast, it’s going to cost a lot of money. Millions if not billions, of dollars in more screening personnel, K-9’s, (and all the training that goes along with both personnel and puppies) new equipment and new testing of equipment, research and development of new systems, and modifications to airport terminals, just to name a few of the big-ticket items.

Situation 2: Fast and Cheap: this means that TSA can get you through the checkpoint quickly and at the lowest cost, but you’ll probably have to accept a lot more risk than you want to – this was the pre 9/11 model.

Situation 3: Good and Cheap: long and slow lines at the checkpoint with grumpy passengers and grumpy airlines. Good and Cheap is pretty much where we’re at now, with a big question mark about whether the system is even Good.

I understand that some people believe that “if it stops just one terrorist,” then all of the slow lines and all of the money spent is worth it. Other people believe that money should not be a factor when it comes to our safety and security. But this is the real world, and things do cost money, and we do not have an endless supply of it, so we have to assess the risks, apply our mitigation strategies where we can and make the best decisions possible.

If you waited until things were 100% safe you would never leave the house. The same goes for the “…if it stops just one terrorist…” believers. By that logic shouldn’t you stay at home the rest of your life? Because if you get in your car you are automatically putting yourself at some level of risk and, if not driving saves at least one life, then it’s worth it, right? Of course not. Life is a risk sport. The job of security is to reduce the risks not eliminate them because to eliminate them, eliminates the thing that security is trying to protect.

So what’s the solution?

At least for the time being we will have to accept moving towards Good and Cheap. And, hope that Neffenger’s strategy to overhaul how screeners are trained and slowing down the screening process, until there is a momentum shift, or new technologies, or something that improves the detection rate. But, there are a few of significant downsides to being Good and being Cheap.

First, the airlines are never too happy when the screening lines are long. All you have to do is go back to pre-9/11 and look at the tremendous pressure the airline industry was constantly putting on the FAA, and the airlines own security screening contractors, to push people through the checkpoint as fast as possible. Fast screening makes for a happier public, a happier airline that does not have to deal with flight delays and people missing flights and rebooking issues, and a happier airport operator because when people are happier they spend more money at the airport. It even makes for a happier community because the airport is often the first and last place a visitor to the community sees, and they often remember that experience (if it was bad) more than they remember elements of their own vacation or business trip. But if a plane blows up, the no one’s happy except the bomber. So we can’t accept just fast and cheap ever again.

As screening lines grow, another potential terrorist target is created, as hundreds of people are crammed into screening checkpoints. The active shooter, suicide bomber, or in some cases even a vehicle borne improvised explosive device could cause a lot of devastation in a very short period of time (not giving ideas here, this has already been identified as a threat). Because of this, costs on the airport side increase, as airport operators must provide more police officers on curbside and in the public areas of the terminal near the screening areas, to watch for suspicious items and people, and be able to respond immediately to a threat.

TSA must continue to strike a balance, between security and efficiency, but the cold reality is people do not make good system monitors. There are very few people that can sit and stare into a screen, watching x-ray images make their way through a snail’s pace, and do it effectively for a long period of time. I think the solution will come first in what is being done now, as the TSA detection rates are clearly not acceptable. Many screening agencies look for people who are actually good at sitting there in front of the screen all day, and higher them to just work the x-ray scanners. Then, they look for people who are good at interacting with the public and allow them to just work with the passengers. Is TSA doing this now?

Second, I think we need to look at new technologies for the screening checkpoint that are designed to move passengers through the system quickly, kindly and securely. The International Air Transport Association has promoted a couple of different “check point of the future” type models (the latest iteration is called Smart Security), and the US needs to get on board. In the first few years after 9/11, some companies were developing the CAT scan explosive detection system machines that are used in checked baggage screening, for use at the passenger screening checkpoint, but TSA chose to go with advanced imaging x-rays instead. While the advanced imaging x-rays are much better than the pre-9/11 x-ray machine, an EDS machine does the majority of the detection itself, leaving the operator to look at just a few anomalies rather than every single bag.

Third, we need to understand that the threats of today are not going away. In fact, they may continue to get worse, so we can’t take our foot off the gas. We need to continue developing new technologies, and looking for ways to make security fit aviation, instead of aviation fit security.

The new IMAX movie, Living in the Age of Airplanes, has a great quote that talks about how airports are a time portal to anywhere on the planet: what once was a migration is now a vacation. Unless we continue to evolve aviation security for existing and future threats, we will go back to taking days, to cover the same amount of ground we can now cover in hours.


One Response to Why Airport Screening Lines are Backing Up

  1. Great Article. I believe if you tell the public just exactly what you wrote, they will understand.
    Currently they believe that TSA is not doing a good job.

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