TSA is trying hard to help passengers understand the new carry-on rules. They are so helpful that they are undermining public perception that their rules are risk-based. We offer some helpful suggestions.
Friday morning at 5:00, Neutral Source managing editor Richard Belzer passed through the TSA ‘s Pier B security checkpoint at Reagan National Airport. Despite the long lines, TSA personnel managed their responsibilities methodically and swiftly.
On September 26 TSA relaxed its rules permitting some liquids and gels to be included with carry-on luggage. We posted on the August 10 crackdown on such contrabandhere and on the slight relaxation of the rules here.
At the front of the line prior to its separation into multiple x-ray scanners there was a table with two clear ziplock bags containing toiletries with signs above each. The bag on the left said “No Go,” the bag on the right said “Go.” There is little doubt that passengers, regardless of their English proficiency, could understand TSA’s simple message.
What distinguished the bag on the left that rendered it “No Go”?
- The ziplock bag was slightly larger than TSA’s presribed 1 quart bag.
- The bag contained toiletries in packages slightly larger than the prescribed 3 ounces.
Nothing inside the bag on the left posed any greater risk to airline travel than anything inside the bag on the right. Thus, the difference between “Go” and “No Go” has nothing to do with risk. We have previously raised concern that rules that deo not appear to be risk-based tool threaten to undermine public confidence in both airline security and TSA:
The problem for TSA (and for air travel security in general) is that overbearing and senseless restrictions are risk communication failures. When TSA imposes rules that appear ridiculous on their face, it causes travelers to discount real risks and doubt TSA’s legitimacy and competence. After all, if TSA is unable or unwilling to distinguish real from phantom risks, why should travelers make such distinctions, or have confidence in TSA?
As a risk management matter, appearing ridiculous undermines the effectiveness of those elements of the security regime that are fully justified, whether on benefit-cost grounds or as prudent exercises of precaution. This inevitably misallocates scarce resources. This problem is severely exacerbated by TSA’s unwillingness to allocate its passenger screening resources based on risk-based criteria. No one believes that all airline passengers pose the same threat, yet it is TSA’s policy to treat all travelers as if they do.
At Reagan National, TSA very effectively communicated the distinction between permissible and impermissible cary-on toiletries. But it has consistently failed to persuasively communicate any risk-based justification for these rules. The helpful display of “Go” and “No Go” ziplock bags only reinforces the lack of risk-based justification for the rukes.
TSA might be better off justifying the carry-on rules on grounds other than risk. For example, airline passengers also care about being processed swiftly and consistently. A set of rules that is arbitrary but not capricious makes it easier for security officers to do their jobs by elminating the need to exercise discretion. The exercise of discretion is time-consuming, and if TSA officers had discretion many more airline passengers would demand that they exercise it in common-sense ways. That would seriously slow down the process, and it could well lead less demanding passengers to believe that squeeky wheels get greased–with a different set of adverse effects then to manage.
The same rules that look silly when proffered as justified to manage risk may look perfectly reasonable when they are justified on other grounds. Rules can make sense for reasons other than risk management, but risk management should not be used as the excuse.