February 18, 2014
THE TRANSPORTATION SECURITY ADMINISTRATION is opening up its Precheck program to the public. Precheck-certified travelers enjoy expedited screening procedures, contingent on a background check. Qualified participants are allowed to leave their shoes on, for example (unless they cause the magnetometer to sound), and do not need to remove laptops or liquids from their carry-on bags. To this point, only those passengers pre-approved by airlines were eligible for Precheck enrollment. Now, any airline passenger may apply — for an $85 fee, renewable every five years.
There are things to like about Precheck, and things to not like.
What’s to like is that it helps move TSA away from a one-size-fits-all screening approach, in which every single person who flies is seen as an equally potential threat, toward a more “risk-based” strategy, as the experts call it, in which passengers are effectively profiled into categories, some of whom receive more scrutiny than others. The strategy we’ve grown accustomed to is simply not a workable one in a country with over two million people passing through airports each day. The risk-based concept, while itself imperfect, is probably the best alternative. Precheck-approved qualified flyers will be freed from the tedium of the screening line.
The thing is, most of that tedium needn’t exist in the first place, and that’s where the Precheck idea becomes frustrating. Rather than fix what’s wrong with current protocols, TSA will now charge you a fee to circumvent them! What a peculiarly American concept, no? The fundamentals of Precheck ought to have been adopted several years ago, and their cost should be included in the existing TSA budget. Airline passengers already are paying enough to TSA in ticket taxes.
We also wonder if TSA’s Precheck infrastructure is ready to handle a large-scale influx of passengers. Are we just trading one set of long lines and frustration for another?
Three ideas to help fix airport security…
>> Speed up and streamline the screening process for everyone, not just those willing to pay extra. Confiscating hobby tools and toy guns does nothing to make us safer, while wasting extraordinary amounts of time and money. As I’ve argued in the past, the success of the September 11th attacks had nothing to do with weapons. The hijackers could have used any form of hand-made weapon. What the men exploited wasn’t a weakness in security, but a weakness in our mindset, and our understanding of a hijacking, based on decades of precedent. The only weapon that really mattered was the simplest, lowest-tech weapon of all: the element of surprise. Let’s move past our self-defeating fixation with the September 11th scheme and stop fussing over harmless pointy objects. The focus should be on explosives. Or, perhaps more importantly, on people who might use explosives, which brings us to the next recommendation…
>> Take a percentage of screeners now working at airport checkpoints and re-train them to work away from public view. When it comes to protecting passengers from criminals and terrorists, screeners do have a role to play, but mostly it is one of last resort. The more critical work belongs to law enforcement and TSA working together backstage, so to speak: inspecting luggage and cargo, reviewing passenger data, and foiling plotters before they reach the airport.
>> Deploy more TSA staff overseas — in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America — where they can assist local security in the protection of US-bound aircraft. It is much more probable that a bomb or other attack would originate from overseas, yet our focus has been focused domestically. Again, this seems to be part of our September 11th hangover. We’ve got high-tech equipment and body scanners at regional airports in Ohio, but not in many cities around the world from where an attack is far likelier to emanate. Does anybody remember the comedy of errors that allowed the so-called “Underwear Bomber” to make his way onto a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight out of Amsterdam? Here was a Nigerian citizen who’d spent time in Yemen, traveling on a one-way ticket, and whose own father had tried to warn American authorities about him. And here we are confiscating plastic squirt-guns from four year-old kids at regional airports in Utah. The trick is getting foreign government to allow American security personnel to operate at their airports, but certainly some level of this is possible. Already in many countries US carriers hire third-party contractors to assist with passenger and luggage screening.