I travel quite a bit on business, and have been through more TSA checkpoints than I wish to count, including here in Houston at Bush Intercontinental Airport.
I, like most of the traveling public has put up with the ever-expanding security as we travel, but it seems that the TSA has reached the proverbial tipping point as far as going too far. Two weeks ago, I traveled from Houston to Cleveland, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois.
Departing Houston, two x-ray machines were in use, with only one metal detector and “millimeter wave” machine in use between them. Despite the 70-80 person backup (35-40 per line) screeners were routing every third or fourth person from the side closer to the machine through it instead of the metal detector.
While in Cleveland, I saw only one lane open at the checkpoint. It was indeed backed up, but not as bad had the adjacent millimeter wave machine been in use. I was in and out of security in 20 minutes (during a non-rush period).
Fast forward a couple of days to Chicago. Security was backed up quite deep, taking over an hour to pass through. Upon arriving to the front of the line, I saw the X-Ray Backscatter machines in use. Again, TSA screeners were picking every few people to go through that machine instead of the adjacent metal detector. While the selected passengers waited for the remote screener to approve of them passing on through the checkpoint, their personal belongings piled up at the end of the x-ray machine, creating a traffic jam for others to retrieve their belongings.
On an earlier trip to Los Angeles, screeners told me I didn’t need to remove my tennis shoes (although on most trips I wear dress boots, that will set off the metal detector – but they’re easy to take off and put on, so I don’t object to that).
While I haven’t suffered an enhanced pat-down that has been grabbing most of the headlines – “Don’t touch my junk…” – I have also have seen security in Tel Aviv, Israel that works, at a cost much less than here in the US. While not all of their procedures could be put in place here (our laws and Constitution certainly would not allow it) there is many things to be learned.
Years ago, the agent at the ticket counter would validate ID, and ask a few simple questions, regarding bags – did you pack it yourself, has it been out of your possession since you packed it, etc. With “positive bag match” and mandatory screening of all checked items, those questions were phased out.
So, let’s take lessons learned from everything since September 11, 2001, and put to practical use. What can the TSA do in short order to maintain the safety of the traveling public while imposing the least on the 99.999% of the travelers who do not pose a threat:
- Stop further deployment of Advanced Imaging Technologies (AIT) – including Backscatter and Millimeter Wave machines until the long-term affects can be studied, and determined safe.
- Once the AIT systems are safe, move them behind the Metal Detector. They should be used only as a secondary screening on those who alarm on the metal detector, not a primary means of screening.
- At the same time, work with the manufacturers to accelerate the privacy functions that reduce the “soft porn” images to nothing more than a stick figure with a highlight box indicating the area of interest.
- Increase the sensitivity of metal detectors. I can walk through every time with a metal belt buckle (of the fashion variety, not the huge rodeo bull-rider type buckle) and never set the detector off. Any metal more than a simple ear-ring (or other body piercing) should alarm.
- Any minor under the age of 16 should never be screened by AIT system, and should have a hand-metal detector wand sweep as secondary.
- TSA should be mandated to hire ex-military as their first choice for screeners. Military personnel have the discipline and training to best handle the public at the checkpoints. Screeners that do not have military experience should face additional training to fill in for areas that they fail to match the qualifications of military trained personnel.
- TSA should better manage checkpoint staffing, opening additional lanes when queues back up. In some cases, a crunch at one checkpoint could be augmented with personnel from another, less busy, checkpoint.
- TSA screeners that check passenger ID’s should be trained in psychological profiling, asking questions about the traveler’s destination, why they are going, etc. And can flag individuals for additional screening based on body language and other factors (ex Military MP’s would serve this function very well). This prevents profiling by race or religion (which as we know the terrorists have been trying to recruit non-Muslims) but still adds another layer of security that doesn’t exist today.
- All pat-down screening should be witnessed by a TSA supervisor or manager. Similarly, the recently deployed enhanced pat down need to be withdrawn, returning to the old version.
- Eliminate 3-1-1 rules. If you don’t do that, mandate that every airline accept the first checked bag free. Both would be better. If I can buy a soda for $2.00 outside the airport, must I throw it out just to buy the same type of beverage for $6.00 inside the sterile area? The 3-1-1 rules is playing into the concessions services at the airports, and such price fixing and collusion is normally illegal.
- Screeners should not be allowed to unionize. This is a clear throwback to the Air Traffic Controllers strike in August 1981. It also allows the TSA to remove screeners who fail to maintain the standards expected of them, without the burden of dealing with union politics.
So, there you have it. A list of 11 things the TSA should be reformed with. Most of these could implemented immediately. Others may take a few years (the AIT testing for example) and of course may be supplanted by better technology then.
I have always been a big proponent of not using technology to replace a human resources problem, and I believe that the same can be said here. A well-trained workforce can do things much more efficiently and maintain the safety much better than machines ever can.