When it comes to passenger screening, the TSA has answered the aviation threat with manpower and dollars, but not much common sense. However, times are changing, albeit slowly. This is where sequestration can help.
In recent years, the TSA (and the Department of Homeland Security writ large) has begun shifting to a risk-based security methodology. This is a far more efficient and effective approach to securing people and cargo because it recognizes that there are variations in the threat level. The TSA has already begun implementing risk-based screening in cargo security, and the agency is also starting to amend passenger screening policies.
Last year, the TSA announced that children under 12 and passengers 75 and older could wear their shoes and light jackets during screening and could pass through an AIT machine one extra time if their first pass detected "an anomaly." The agency's website proudly declares that these adjustments are "part of TSA's overarching risk-based security methodology."
It's a good start, but more changes are needed. At its best, risk-based screening would draw on a range of intelligence -- like behavioral analysis, origin and destination points, nationality, and other passenger data -- in addition to body scanning and physical inspection. It would allow the TSA to focus most of its resources on the most likely threats. This would be a more efficient, expedient, and effective way of determining who among the million-plus people flying in the United States every day could put lives in jeopardy.
Risk-based screening, however, can be a tough pill for some to swallow. Scanning every passenger has a lot of political value, as it shows that elected officials and government agencies are tough on terrorism, doing whatever they can to protect the public. The 100 percent methodology is easy to sell because it gives the impression that U.S. aviation security is impenetrable, even though it is not.
Given this, shifting to this smarter, more cost-effective screening methodology cannot happen overnight. The TSA is slowly wading into the risk-based waters, but with sequestration looming, this is the perfect opportunity for the TSA to explain and implement the risk-based methodology across the board. Short on resources, asked to do more with less, the TSA will be able to make the case that the 100 percent security methodology is untenable in the current economy. Fortunately, however, a risk-based methodology will allow the agency to maintain or even elevate the level of security it provides.
The TSA could draw down its use of AIT machines and reduce the resources needed to maintain them. For every full-body scanner, the TSA requires a team of officers. Most concourses have several machines and most airports have several concourses. That costs a significant amount in salaries and technology acquisitions just to watch an irritated public (virtually all of which is benign) shuffle through million-dollar machines. Fewer officers mean fewer salaries paid with limited tax dollars.
But the TSA need not hand pink slips to most airport screening officers. Some are essential, and following the risk-based methodology, the agency might also retrain and move select staff to the front lines as behavioral detection officers or even beyond airport grounds in conspicuous and proactive Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response units. These are things the TSA already does, and in the face of a lower budget but a consistent threat, it needs to do more of them.
The TSA's mandate is clear: Protect the public. A smaller budget is no excuse for reduced security or reduced throughput. The TSA has the means and the methodology to make airport screening faster, cheaper, and more effective, and it should take this opportunity to put the pedal down on risk-based screening. Even though sequestration is a monster invented by Congress, if airport security lines grow longer after March 1, the blame can be laid fully at the TSA's feet.