The Transportation Security Administration acknowledges that its screening procedures have become much more invasive. TSA administrator John Pistole defends them as necessary to provide the best possible security for air travelers. However, he does not provide a reasoned basis for this conclusion — for example, what incremental security benefits new procedures provide compared with the incremental costs in lost privacy. Pistole’s argument reduces to the notion that any increase in inspection intensity is justified if Pistole decides that it is.
Both the new security procedures and Pistole’s unwillingness to provide a reasoned basis for them have provoked widespread opprobrium. Is there a constructive path forward, or has TSA lost its way?
Why is there such a poor relationship between TSA and airline passengers? It is generally assumed that both have the same interests. This assumption is probably false, and therein lies the source of this conflict.
WHAT PASSENGERS WANT #1: REASONABLE SAFETY BALANCED WITH CONVENIENCE
Airline passengers surely want to be “safe.” But “safe” does not mean zero risk, which can only be achieved by abandoning air travel. Passengers expect TSA to take all reasonable efforts to reduce risk. What passengers object to is actions TSA takes that appear to be unreasonable.
What is “unreasonable”? Passengers accept some amount of inconvenience, though the incremental safety benefits of some of TSA’s inconvenient procedures are not clear. To give an obvious example, the European airport security regime does not require passengers to remove their shoes. Assuming that European security is “safe enough,” removing shoes only adds value if TSA requires it in lieu of something that the Europeans do that TSA does not. If there is such a trade off, TSA has not explained it. Therefore, it is unsurprising that passengers comply with TSA’s rule only because there is no other option, and as explained more below, the loss of dignity involved is minor. Meanwhile, public confidence in TSA’s expertise continues to wither, for the agency appears to be imposing burdensome requirements largely because it has the authority to do so, not because it matters for safety.
WHAT PASSENGERS WANT #2: PRIVACY WITH DIGNITY
There are two objections to TSA’s new advanced imaging technology machines. First, while TSA says these machines are safe, some passengers do not trust its assurances. Of course, no amount of technical support will satisfy everyone. TSA’s problem is that it selected and began installing the new technology before selling the traveling public on its merits. With a significant fraction of the public now energetically opposed, TSA can only engage in defensive risk communication, which rarely succeeds. Because there is no way to prove safety, the predictable long-term consequence is TSA will continue to be distrusted when it tries to assure the public that it cares about the safety of its screening technologies.
Second, many passengers believe advanced imaging technology violates their expectation of reasonable privacy. As in the case of the safety issue, TSA asserts that it fully accounted for it in the way it implemented the technology. But an apparently significant fraction of the traveling public disagrees, including flight crews as well as passengers. Because there will always be instances of TSA officer misbehavior, the predictable long-term consequence is TSA will be trusted even less when it tries to assure the public it cares about privacy.
TSA’s credibility is further undermined because its public communications are misleading. TSA says, correctly, that “advanced imaging technology screening is optional to all passengers.” What TSA fails to mention is that passengers who decline this “option” must submit to a highly invasive and undignified pat-down. In short, TSA offers passengers something akin to a Hobson’s choice: they can accept the limited form of privacy offered by TSA, or they can decline it and suffer the indignity of an invasive pat-down.
At airport screening queues with both conventional x-ray and advanced imaging technology, passengers may be able to choose the former and avoid the latter. Whether they escape an invasive pat-down depends on whether they set off the magnetometer. But some passengers, such as those with metal implants, are assured of setting off the magnetometer and thus having no way to avoid the invasive pat-down. This is ironic given that TSA’s stated purpose of imposing the invasive pat-down is to detect non-metallic weapons, which conventional x-rays cannot detect. In short, TSA presumes that those who set off a magnetometer are more likely to possess non-metallic weapons than those who do not.
This result is illogical. Failing a vision test provides no evidence about one’s hearing. TSA likely follows this illogical practice because it is convenient for TSA. (There is another plausible explanation: by forcing passengers who refuse advanced imaging technology to endure highly invasive, undignified pat-downs, TSA can beat down their opposition to advanced imaging technologies. Note that TSA introduced the invasive pat-down at the same time that it encountered resistance to advanced imaging technology.)
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
TSA refuses to profile passengers on margins that clearly matter for safety, such as nationality, ethnic origin, sex, and age. Knowing only a handful of such factors, TSA could easily calibrate the intensity of screening effort to each passenger’s prior probability of posing a security risk. Because it will not do so to avoid being accused of discrimination, TSA misallocates scarce resources.
There is an ironic cost to resource misallocation in the pursuit of safety: it makes airline travel riskier than it otherwise would be. This cost is in addition to the costs of time, inconvenience, loss of privacy, and sufferance of indignity from invasive pat-downs. If airline passengers were asked to vote on how they’d like the security regime organized, profiling might well capture a large majority.
IS THERE A SENSIBLE ALTERNATIVE? OF COURSE
From 2004 through 2006, TSA ran a Registered Traveler pilot program, but its benefits were too limited for the program to be successful. RT was promoted as a “fast lane” for frequent flyers who agreed to submit to an extensive security review. In practice, however, the primary benefit of the RT program turned out to be occasionally reduced queuing time prior to screening. Screening intensity was no different, which begged the question why participants had to submit to the prior security review. Private vendors CLEAR, FLO Corporation (now iQueue) and Vigilant Solutions all went bankrupt because TSA would not let them offer a faster way through security. (CLEAR and iQueue are trying to make a go of it again, but the product they are selling is unchanged.)
A serious RT program would allow passengers who submit to the prior security review get less intensive screening. This would enable TSA to reallocate scarce resources to higher risks. In 2006, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff supported such a program, saying that “travelers would ‘by and large’ be exempted from additional searches and questioning at checkpoints.” During Chertoff’s tenure, however, the RT program never did make this leap. Today, there is no indication that TSA is interested in RT. This is characteristic of a bureaucracy primarily interested in maximizing its size, authority, and control. A serious RT program could undermine all three.
Meanwhile, TSA appears to be hunkering down in hopes that controversies over advanced imaging technology and invasive pat-downs will blow over. During an oversight hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, for example, TSA Administrator Pistole tried to enlist airline passengers as allies in pursuit of the same mission:
At the Senate hearing on Tuesday, asked by [Sen. Joe] Lieberman whether he had any “final” thoughts, Pistole said he would like to “appeal to the people” traveling before Thanksgiving to “really look at this as a partnership” with the U.S. government and “try to be patient, work with our folks.”
But a partnership isn’t feasible because passengers and TSA do not share the same mission. Passengers expect and accept tradeoffs between security and convenience; TSA does not. Passengers expect more privacy than TSA is willing to provide. TSA says it cares about the dignity of its customers, but its customers aren’t impressed.
A partnership cannot be created unless TSA agrees to give up total control. Pistole may want the public to “work with our folks,” but travelers know that this means utter submission. TSA now faces a rebellious public, and as the accompanying editorial comics show, it has become the butt of a thousand jokes. This suggests that the agency has lost its way. The week before Thanksgiving — the busiest airline travel period of the year — is an awkward time to prove it.