Sequestration is coming...maybe. The $85 billion in spending cuts that were designed to force Congress to the bargaining table will go into effect March 1, and Washington is warning it could make your airport experience even more miserable than usual. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said sequestration could cause delays because fewer air traffic controllers means fewer flights. And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress that spending cuts could lead to longer security lines at airports, as the Transportation Security Administration deploys fewer officers.
But, to be blunt, the length and speed of security lines at airports are a function of the TSA's inefficient security methodology, not its budget and staff. Reduced federal funds will magnify this inefficiency, but to claim longer lines are purely a result of budget cuts is a cop-out. Sequestration is actually an opportunity for the TSA to abandon its insistence on screening all airline passengers, which demands extraordinary resources and manpower, and instead adopt a more efficient and effective approach. If it does, budget cuts might be the best thing that ever happened to airport screening.
For years, the TSA has attempted to detect every single threat to the U.S. transportation system. In aviation, this has meant scanning every bag, every piece of cargo, and every man, woman, and child that comes through an airport. This 100 percent methodology is deceptively simple, and it gives the false impression that if everything on an airplane has been scanned, then there is no threat. But it is flawed. Detecting and stopping every threatening item and person is not possible. Eventually, there will be another "failure of imagination," a black swan that undercuts the misperception that U.S. transportation is completely secure.
Some degree of risk is unavoidable, and spending tax dollars with abandon chasing after the unobtainable is a waste. Worse, in trying to stop every potential danger, low priorities receive an inordinate amount of attention. For example, in April 2005, the TSA started confiscating cigarette lighters because they could be used to ignite a bomb. This meant ferreting out about 22,000 lighters a day (which cost $4 million annually to destroy). In having transportation security officers focus their attention on lighters, they potentially missed other threatening items -- such as the very bomb components the lighter supposedly could ignite. This is precisely why TSA Administrator Kip Hawley removed the lighter ban in 2007.
Other aspects of TSA's airport passenger screening follow the same methodology that banned lighters. Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines (aka full-body scanners) are at best a deterrent, and at worst, a waste of money. Of the full-body scanners in use across the United States, exactly none of them could have detected the explosives hidden in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear during his attempted 2009 attack. Nor can these machines detect explosives hidden inside the body, either in a cavity or surgically implanted. This is a tactic al Qaeda terrorists have already used in attacks in other countries, most notably in the 2009 attempted assassination of Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif.
The 100 percent methodology was also behind the controversial full-body pat downs levied against every passenger who refused to pass through or who triggered an AIT machine. This suggests a 3-year-old child, a terminally ill cancer patient, and a grandmother in her 90s all present the same level of threat as a Yemeni national visiting the United States with a one-way plane ticket. This is, of course, absurd.