A blue-ribbon panel of experts has called on the federal government to reform its "reactionary" and "one-size-fits-all" approach to aviation security, according to a report issued by the U.S. Travel Association last week.
A blue-ribbon panel of bipartisan experts has called on the federal government to reform its "reactionary" and "one-size-fits-all" approach to aviation security, according to a report issued by the U.S. Travel Association last week.
"We can, and must, build a new traveler-focused system for aviation security," the report concludes, stressing these reforms don't only protect the flying public, but U.S. economic competitiveness globally and the personal right to travel freely.
According to the panel, which was co-chaired by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, reformed checkpoints overseen by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would allow travelers to choose between three different screening methods performed by the agency's transportation security officers (TSOs) (.pdf) at U.S. airports.
The first is a revival of a "Trusted Traveler" program, whereby passengers would voluntarily give up more personal and biological information about themselves in return for an easier and faster screening experience. The report recommends that trusted travelers would only have to pass through an explosives detection portal after using a biometric kiosk to verify their identity without ever having to take off any clothing, empty their pockets, or kick off their shoes. Any carry-on baggage, however, would receive explosives' scanning.
The report estimates that a Trusted Traveler program could be up and running by the end of the year and should be opened to passengers already vetted by the federal government first, such as federal law enforcement members and people holding secret-level security clearances.
The final two alternatives are the current two options today. Passengers can continue to choose between full body scanning, or whatever new sophisticated technologies emerge in the future, and enhanced pat-down searches by TSOs.
According to the report, providing travelers three options should mitigate different privacy concerns stemming from each option. "In a country of over 300 million individuals, we recognize different travelers have different priorities and different visions about their privacy expectations."
The report argues that reforming security checkpoints at the airport will go a long way to making commercial aviation more secure, more efficient, and hopefully more profitable. Since 9-11, TSA has increasingly layered passenger screening procedures—from taking off their shoes to going through full body scanners or enhanced pat-downs—that have made passenger screening slower, more expensive, and more burdensome for all stakeholders.
Furthermore, the report fears that the recession has obscured the problem of longer passenger wait-times associated with these new screening procedures and that time-consuming bottlenecks will arise as travelers return to the airport as the economy recovers. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that the volume of air travelers will increase by 3.7 percent annually over the next five years as the TSA fails to keep passenger wait-times at checkpoints under its own goal of 10 minutes.
"With such steep rises in passenger levels," the report says, "TSA will be hard pressed to control the growth of its budget, wait times at security checkpoints will increase, and the burdens of the current system will slow economic recovery unless Congress and TSA develop a long-term, risk based strategy to focus assets and resources at the highest priority threats."
According to the U.S. Travel Association, Congress also has to exert more leadership on aviation security and not let TSA become the fall guy after whiplash-like policy shifts. In June 2009, for instance, the House voted overwhelmingly to mandate that full body scanners could not be used for primary screening. Yet six months later, Congress voted to expand the use of full body scanners for primary screening after the botched Christmas Day attack on an aircraft destined for Detroit from Amsterdam. In return, the report notes, the TSA and its screening personnel become the whipping posts for policies implemented by the White House and Congress.
The report also recommended that the Department of Transportation mandate rules that require airlines to include checking one bag in the ticket's price. Since airlines started to charge for checked bags, passengers have responded by carrying on more bags, which leads to longer wait-times at checkpoints due to the higher volume of bags getting screened.
♦ Photo of passenger security line by oddharmonic/Flickr