The legislation that created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the current approach to aviation security, though well-intentioned, was poorly thought out and is fundamentally flawed. It mandated costly changes in some aspects of aviation security, without any analysis of relative risks, costs, or benefits. Consequently, it has wasted passengers’ time and absorbed large sums of money that could have done more to improve security if used in other ways. With new leadership at the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the time is ripe for rethinking how this country approaches airport security.
There are three basic flaws in the current model. First, the law presumes that all air travelers are equally likely to be a threat, and mandates equal attention (and spending) on each—which is very wasteful of scarce security resources. Second, the TSA operates in a highly centralized manner, which is poorly matched to the wide variation in sizes and types of passenger airports. And third, the law puts the TSA in the conflicting position of being both the airport security policymaker/regulator and the provider of some (but not all) airport security services.
DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and TSA Administrator Edmund “Kip” Hawley have called for re-orienting security policies along risk-based lines. At the same time, the Government Accountability Office has found that today’s very costly airport screening is little better than what existed prior to “federalization” of this function—and that the performance-contracting approach implemented on a pilot-program basis at five airports appears to have worked slightly better than the TSA-provided screening. Both factors set the stage for fundamental reform.
This report calls for three such reforms, to address the three fundamental flaws in the current approach. First, to remove the inherent conflict of interest, the TSA should be phased out of performing airport screening services. Instead, its role should become purely policymaking and regulatory (and better balanced among all transportation modes). Second, the screening functions should be devolved to each individual airport, under TSA oversight. And third, screening and other airport security functions should be redesigned along risk-based lines, to better target resources on dangerous people rather than dangerous objects.
Devolving screening responsibilities to airports would mean that each airport could decide to meet the requirements either with its own workforce or by hiring a TSA-approved screening contractor. This model has been used successfully in Europe and Israel since the 1980s and has worked very well. Funding would be re-allocated to airports on a monthly (or at least quarterly) basis, rather than annually as at present. This would permit a much better match of screener numbers to actual passenger throughput, in the rapidly changing airline environment.
And with the funding managed at the airport level, airport managers would have strong incentives to finance the upgrading of baggage-screening systems to make them less labor-intensive. At most larger airports, this would mean replacing lobby-based EDS machines with automated, in-line EDS systems. At smaller airports, it would replace labor-intensive ETD installations with EDS machines transferred from larger airports. These changes alone would save over $700 million per year in screener staffing costs nationwide.
A risk-based model would separate passengers into three groups: low-risk, high-risk, and ordinary. Low-risk travelers would be those who qualify for Registered Traveler status. They would get expedited checkpoint processing and their bags could usually bypass EDS screening. This change would cut future EDS acquisition costs by $1 to $2 billion, and would yield another $200 million annual savings in baggage screener costs. High-risk travelers would receive mandatory body scans and explosive-detection inspection of both checked and carry-on baggage.
These changes would free up resources to use for increased security in lobby areas and on the tarmac, as well as improved control of access by non-passengers to secure areas. Overall, this set of risk-based changes would put much greater emphasis on guarding against the threat of explosives (as opposed to just weapons) getting onto planes, as well as the threat of suicide bombers in terminals and on planes.
In addition, by putting all airport security functions under the control of the airport (instead of dividing them between airport and the TSA, as today), and putting all these functions under armslength TSA regulation, overall airport security would be more integrated and more effective, and the whole program would be more accountable. And freeing up nearly $1 billion a year from screening would provide the resources for reconfiguring passenger checkpoints and beefing up the other aspects of airport security.