Friday, May 30, 2008
Well, there's the history and then there's where we're going.
Historically, TSA hasn't taken ownership over the security queue. This dates back to pre-9/11 and pre-TSA when airlines contracted with security companies to man checkpoints. Instead of taking control of the queues after 9/11 when we were established, we have relied upon the airport operator and the airlines to manage the queue for us so we could concentrate directly on screening passengers. This originally included checking passenger identification and boarding passes to ensure that only ticketed passengers were entering the queue and going through security. In general, TSA took the view that once you got to security, we treated everyone the same. Passengers may have progressed through the queue at a different speed, but they fed into the same security lines in the checkpoint itself.
In terms of real estate, the queue is not generally considered to be a part of the checkpoint. It's a part of the airport lobby where the line for people to enter into the checkpoint is setup. The actual screening takes place in the actual checkpoint. As a result, since it belonged to the airport, the airport operator and airline tenant were allowed to do what they wanted with it so long as everyone went through the checkpoint before they boarded their flight. Enter premium passenger lanes-without revenue coming to TSA. It was airport space, and we let the airport manage it.
Now for the Checkpoint Evolution view.
The first thing that our research on Checkpoint Evolution told us is that in terms of the passenger experience, the queue belongs to TSA-not entirely new to us, but something of which we should take more notice. We've tracked queue wait times for a long time; however, that data is used to make sure our airports are properly resourced, and our research has told us that the queue experience also has a critical element of which we needed to take notice. For example, inexperienced travelers and families feel like they need more time to prepare for screening, want more help with the process, and do not like being in the queue in front of a Road-Warrior traveler, tapping their foot, who doesn't really care about the queue experience as long as it moves quickly. (Road-Warriors can be irritated with the families and the slower travelers, but it's their lack of speed and not the fact they're a family that bothers them.)
So, we started looking for ways to put our research to good use with two goals in mind. First, we wanted to build a new environment that would make our behavioral observation programs more effective by helping to reduce the overall stress in the queue and the checkpoint. Second, we wanted to find a way to increase our efficiency and reduce x-ray alarm rates by allowing the fast passengers to move fast, and the slow passengers to take their time. End result - the "Black Diamond" pilot in Salt Lake City that joined the queue to the checkpoint and allowed passengers to pick a security line designed to meet their needs and let them move at their own pace (keeping Road-Warriors and the Families separate for the whole screening experience). For those new to the blog, "Black Diamond" was named after the ski logos that help snow skiers choose ski trails based on their level of difficulty.
The results were tremendously positive-especially with passengers who wanted an experience where they could take their time going through security. The queue and the security experience were much calmer for passengers, and our initial results show that the new multi-queue "Black Diamond" checkpoints are more efficient than regular checkpoints. We're now 20 airports later, and we're still seeing the same results. As a matter of fact, peak wait times at Salt Lake City this past Memorial Day weekend were about half as along as they were last year, even though the number of passengers going through the checkpoint actually went up by about 5 percent.
It's important to note that even under this new system, the queue still sits on airport real estate, so "Black Diamond" is only coming to a willing airport near you. TSA can't force an airport into a particular queue design-although more than a few airports are interested in the project. Security is a partnership between TSA, airport operators, airlines, and passengers, and TSA is looking to work with all comers. We're thankful for those airport operators who have been willing to experiment with us to build a better queue management mousetrap, but we also understand that airports have other needs, and even this project might not work everywhere.
Diamond lanes, family lanes, Elite lanes, whatever lanes, they all add up to a better experience for passengers and a safer environment for everyone.
EoS Blog Contributor
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Since one of our readers asked about the difference between millimeter wave and backscatter images in a previous post and we’ve also seen other blogs get the two confused, we thought we’d put the correct information and images out there to clear up any misinformation. Both millimeter wave and backscatter fall under the classification of whole body imaging, which gives security officers a virtual image of a passenger that highlights potentially dangerous items.
Here’s the lowdown on the two technologies:
How millimeter wave works:
Beams of radio frequency (RF) energy in the millimeter wave spectrum are projected over the body’s surface at high speed from two antennas simultaneously as they rotate around the body.
The RF energy reflected back from the body or other objects on the body is used to construct a three-dimensional image.
The three-dimensional image of the body, with facial features blurred for privacy, is displayed on a remote monitor for analysis. The image is not saved – once it’s off the screen it’s gone forever.
A millimeter wave machine looks like this:
Here’s how Millimeter Wave imaging works (WMV, 3.4 MB).
Here’s how Millimeter Wave technology detects threats (WMV, 3.4 MB).
How backscatter works:
A narrow, low intensity X-ray beam is scanned over the body's surface at high speed.
The technology relies on the X-ray radiation that is reflected back from the body and other objects placed or carried on the body, where it is converted into a computer image, embedded with a modesty filter and displayed on a remote monitor.
Passengers will walk up to the backscatter unit, assisted by a transportation security officer and remain still for several seconds while the technology creates an image of the body.
Images will be deleted immediately once viewed and will never be stored, transmitted or printed (the passenger imaging units have zero storage capability).
This is the backscatter image the security officer sees:
This is a backscatter machine.
Click here to see a demonstration of backscatter (2Mb, wmv).
And while we’re at it:
Because we see it time and time again, we wanted to clear up another bit of misinformation. This is a raw backscatter image with NO privacy algorithm. This is NOT what security officers see – this image was used to show what the capabilities of the technology are.
Friday, May 23, 2008
This is the first year since we started in 2002 that the major focus of a holiday travel season isn’t on the good old T-S-A. Maybe that’s a sign of a maturing organization that has gotten it right for the past several years, maybe is a sign of higher gas prices and a pending presidential election, who knows.
Today, just like each of the past six Memorial Day weekends, we’re staffed up, ready to roll and screen anyone and everyone that arrives at a security checkpoint. Wait times so far are short, maybe because the Air Transport Association forecasts a 1 percent reduction in passengers from last year, but in large part because of the dedicated service of a great majority of our 46,000 officers--- most of which will be on the line (40,000 plus), screening passengers and baggage this holiday weekend.
So instead of some thought-provoking, controversial subject this weekend, we thought we’d try to entertain you with a couple of cartoons that caught our eye. And while our Sensitive Security Information (SSI) office is concerned that the New Yorker may have unveiled standard operating procedures (just kidding), and this guy certainly isn’t Simpliflying, we’ll take the risk to share their most recent cover with you.
Our compliments to the New Yorker and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution respectively.
Monday, May 19, 2008
“Far-fetched as it sounds, bombs made from hydrogen peroxide and the breakfast powder drink Tang could have taken down seven planes bound for the U.S. and Canada - using flash cameras to trigger the explosions.
…The alleged plot, and the excellent police work that went into busting it, resulted in the tough carry-on restrictions passengers face before boarding an airplane. Knowing the dangers of liquid explosives should make the hassle of tossing your bottles when traveling a lot easier to bear.”
A recent BBC article described the liquid explosive:
“The alleged bombs would involve 500ml plastic bottles of the Oasis and Lucozade soft drinks. A sugary drink powder, Tang, would be mixed with hydrogen peroxide, used as a hair bleach, and other organic materials.
Hydrogen peroxide and the other ingredients can become explosive if mixed to a specific strength. Mr Wright said hydrogen peroxide had been used in "previous terrorist incidents".
The mixture would be injected into a bottle with the help of a syringe. The bottle's cap would not have been removed and the hole would have been resealed, said Mr Wright.
A second substance, a type of high explosive, would be hidden within an AA battery to form the small charge required to detonate the main bomb.
The charge would be detonated, said Mr Wright, by linking the bottle of explosives to a lightbulb and a disposable camera. The charge from the camera's flash unit would be enough to trigger the explosion, he said. The BBC has not comprehensively detailed the alleged bombs' composition.”
Since the 3-1-1 rule is a hot topic on the blog, I met with the head of TSA's Explosives Operations Division, Ed Kittel, to chat with him about the science behind 3-1-1. Before coming to TSA, Ed worked at the FAA Explosives Unit and Navy Explosives Ordnace Division. Ed was part of the team that investigated the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988 and numerous other actual and suspected airplane bombings worldwide. Ed and his staff, in conjunction with other federal and international explosives experts, analyzed the UK explosives mixture, tactics, techniques, and procedures and tested its capabilities.
Lynn: One of the most frequent questions we get is: Is the UK mix a binary explosive?
Ed: While there were two primary ingredients, this composition is not a binary explosive; it is a “solution,” as one ingredient was to be dissolved into the other – making it possible to inject into a container using a syringe. The explosive was going to be pre-mixed, in a predetermined ratio, and carried onto the airplanes with an intact security seal. The remaining components of the bomb would have been separated during screening and hooked together later. All of the pieces were artfully concealed to attempt to “beat the system.” That’s why Transportation Security Officers are trained to detect individual components of improvised explosive devices, not just a fully assembled device.
Lynn: So with this UK liquid explosive, would the men be mixing the components at the airport or on the plane?
Ed: The liquid explosives solution was to be prepared at their safe house and injected into the sports drink bottles prior to coming to the airport. Additionally, we have seen no indication that they intended to combine the contents of multiple smaller bottles after screening.
Lynn: How did explosives testing play a part in creating the 3-1-1 rule?
Ed: As part of our analysis, we looked at some of the more likely liquid explosives recipes and compared them to descriptions contained in the intelligence reporting. Following a series of explosives tests of these materials performed by the federal government, we recommended the 3-1-1 protocol to senior TSA leadership as a viable alternative to the total liquids, gels and aerosols ban. Understandably, I cannot comment on the specifics of intelligence, formulations or the testing, nor would you want me to. By understanding and managing the risks associated with this threat, TSA was able to permit some exceptions for small quantities of liquids, aerosols and gels to be carried by the flying public. We also consulted with a number of our international partners to harmonize 3-1-1 countermeasures across the European Union and North America. TSA didn’t go this alone. In fact, this is the first time that the flying public has had the exact same security measures consistently applied across most of the world’s airports. It’s a model that we want to follow in the future.
TSA also introduced a number of other measures both at and beyond the screening checkpoints to minimize the risk of explosives getting onboard. The 3-1-1 protocol is only one of the multiple layers of security; many of which are invisible to the public. Passengers who need to have some small quantities of liquids, gels and aerosols may now do so, and 3-1-1 accommodates those needs while adding a significant level of security designed to protect the flights. Without 3-1-1, we would have had to maintain the total liquids ban, which was virtually unenforceable in the long-term, as it had a serious impact on checked baggage screening and cargo operations. Remember, the liquids, gels, and aerosols ban is all about the container and its ability to hold an explosive; it’s not about the original contents. Sometimes, people may not understand that and they become frustrated by the protocol as a result. You can be sure that we put our very best people on this, as did our Federal and international partners. 3-1-1 was the result of some excellent research by some of the best people our country has to offer.
Lynn: Is there anything else coming out of the UK trial that you find interesting or important to note?
Ed: The conspirators were very determined to beat airport screening systems by disguising all of their bomb components in common carry-on articles. Their goal was to destroy seven aircraft on the same day in nearly simultaneous attacks. This is very similar to Ramzi Yousef’s “Bojinka Plot” back in January 1995 in Asia. This case shows us that terrorists still consider airplanes to be major targets. As a result, TSA is continually looking at homemade and new explosives as well as artful concealment techniques to train our Transportation Security Officers. Our new Bomb Appraisal Officer (BAO) Program is placing hundreds of seasoned bomb technicians at airports nationwide to coordinate those efforts and improve screening to thwart these kinds of plots.
Lynn: Many say that the liquid threat is not scientifically possible. What do you have to say about that?
Ed: The U.S., UK, and other European security partners have all tested the liquid explosive that was planned to be used in that plot and we have all found that it is a viable liquid explosive. In fact, we have posted a video clip of one of these tests that was conducted by one of the National Labs out west. Make no mistake about it, this is the “real deal.”
We have also seen liquid explosives attacks before. For example, on November 29, 1987, Korean Airlines Flight 858 exploded over the Andaman Sea killing all 115 on board. North Korean agents conducted that attack using a liquid explosive concealed in a duty free whisky bottle. That attack used a different homemade liquid explosive but there are quite a few of them out there that are very powerful explosives.
EoS Blog Team
Friday, May 16, 2008
Eight alleged terrorists are on trial for planning to blow up seven airliners, five of which were destined for the U.S. While this trial is barely registering in the American press, had the plot succeeded, it would have been catastrophic, killing thousands of innocent passengers and rivaling 9/11 in its ferocity. It’s also the basis for one of our most controversial policies, 3-1-1.
Since 2006, U.S. and global explosives experts have been following this plot with great interest, because of its alleged use of novel explosives and methods. Until information became public during the trial, we have been extremely limited in what we could say about this plot. As the trial progresses, we are finally able to share information - things like the fact that the bottles of liquid explosives were pre-mixed, non-binary and would have almost certainly brought down those airliners;
things like showing the hollowed out batteries that would have hidden detonators; things like despite doing everything “right” this crew of alleged would-be killers would have walked right through airport security anywhere in the world under the rules at the time… Had it not been for intelligence leads, police intervention and eventual arrests there’s just no telling the eventual outcome of this diabolical plot.
Just this week, jurors were shown a video of the liquid explosive the suspected terrorists allegedly planned to use on airplanes. The liquid explosive mix was created in a government laboratory and placed in an Oasis soft drink bottle, just as the terrorists planned to do.
We will post more specific information on the plot as it is available and plan to post a Q&A with the chief of our explosives division on the plot and its ramifications here in the U.S. in the next few days. In the mean time, the Daily Telegraph of London has posted notes from the trial and the video shown to jurors here. We have also posted regular updates to the trial on our Web site, here.
Below is the liquid explosive video we prepared and released last year.
EOS Blog Team
Monday, May 12, 2008
Here's a snippet:
"Whether richer fliers should be allowed to cut in line at checkpoints is one of a family of problems that crop up when public spaces and private interests intersect, and selling off favored outcomes makes the public spaces more efficient. Some states let single drivers pay extra to use H.O.V. lanes. What looks to one person like flexibility looks to another like bribing your way through the system.
Although there is no principled argument for segregated airport security, maybe there is a pragmatic one. Elite travelers tend to be repeat travelers. As likely as not, they have had their luggage rummaged through three times in the past week, and the airlines - or their databases - know who they are. If there were some security-based system for speeding their transit, that would be great. Since there is no such system, maybe the rough-and-ready class system is (without meaning to be, of course) fair.”
Check out the entire article. Thanks for your feedback.
EoS Blog Team
Friday, May 9, 2008
These were provided to TSA by the manufacturer of the technology, L-3. We asked L-3 to blur the facial features just like they are blurred when our officers see the images in Phoenix, Baltimore, LAX and JFK. These are exactly what officers see at airports today and will see in future deployments.
While we have said this many times, it bears repeating, TSA will not keep, store or transmit images. Once deleted, they are gone forever. For additional privacy, the officer viewing the image is in a separate room and will never see the passenger and the officer attending to the passenger will never see the image. The officers have 2-way radios to communicate with other in case a threat object is identified.I venture to say, Mikhail Baryshnikov may have exposed more in his ballet costume than these robotic images portray.
Why did we decide to put them up now? Because you've asked for it... Hopefully the editors of Reader's Digest will consider these for their next cover.
What do you think?
05/10/08 6:10 p.m. Christopher said:
There have been a couple of incorrect assumptions made regarding the actual screening that I feel are important to clear up.
The actual scan itself takes about 2.5 seconds. That is the length of time a passenger should stand still in the machine (which is clear Plexiglas, allowing passengers to view their items as they come out of the x-ray used to inspect carry-on bags). The remaining time, between 15-45 seconds, is used by the officer at the remote viewing location to evaluate the image. During that time, the passenger can move around at will next to the machine while the officer attending the machine waits to hear via wireless comms that the image is free of any potential threats. This is an important point as ALL items must be removed from passenger's pockets prior to entering the millimeter wave machine because they will show up and must be removed to ensure they are not threat items.
A couple of bloggers have advocated for the officer viewing the image to be out in the public area. We specifically require the remote location to protect the privacy of passengers using the machine. We just don’t think it’s appropriate for other passengers, airport, airline employees or just anybody walking by to see the images, much less snap a photo with a camera phone or anything else and post that image to TMZ.com or who knows where. That’s also why officers are not allowed to bring anything, including phones, bags or other items into the remote viewing location.
While we’re still collecting acceptance stats, the early word is that a great majority (more than 85 percent) of passengers prefer using this machine in lieu of a pat-down, which contrary to one poster takes much longer than 5 seconds and requires physical contact.
Hope this information helps.
EoS Blog Team
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
It’s important to note that airport employees who require access to secure areas of airports must pass a background investigation to obtain an access badge. Through the background check, we know a lot about these airport employees, and they are also well-known to other airport workers who see them every day and would know if something didn’t look right.
Currently at all airports, TSA officers can be deployed anywhere at anytime to inspect workers, their property and vehicles. These officers ensure workers follow proper access procedures when entering secure areas, display the appropriate credentials and do not possess items unrelated to their work that may pose a security threat.
Earlier this week, TSA began an employee screening pilot program in seven airports, as required by Congress in January 2008. The pilot programs started on May 5 and will run for 90 days.
Seven airports will participate in the pilot, representing different locations and airport sizes. One hundred percent employee screening at either the checkpoint or airport perimeter gates will be conducted at Boston Logan International Airport, Jacksonville International Airport in Florida, and Craven Regional Airport in New Bern, North Carolina. This means that every time an employee has to enter the secure area, they have to be screened. At these airports, there may be slightly longer checkpoint wait times for passengers and employees, particularly during peak times, as the volume of traffic will increase.
Denver International Airport in Colorado; Kansas City International Airport in Missouri; Southwest Oregon Regional Airport in North Bend, Oregon; and Eugene Airport in Oregon will conduct layered, enhanced employee screening methods. These include increased random physical screening and the deployment of portable equipment to screen employees throughout the airport environment. Additionally, we will be providing behavior detection training for law enforcement officials and airport operations/security personnel and employee security awareness training to enable these individuals to identify potential security risks.
The Homeland Security Institute will assist in collecting results, evaluating the programs and reporting the results to Congress in December 2008. They’ll be looking at efficiency and effectiveness of the pilot programs, required costs to implement comparable activities at all commercial airports, staffing requirements, necessary infrastructure improvements, and passenger and employee wait times, among other things.
We look forward to seeing the results, and as soon as we can, we’ll report them on the blog. If you’re going through one of the airports in the pilot, let us know how things went for you.
TSA EoS Blog Team
Monday, May 5, 2008
There are two classifications of items, prohibited and illegal. The prohibited category includes things like knives, scissors (larger than 4 inches), some tools, chain saws, swords, boulders, replica guns, bottled water, soda, toothpaste, hair gel, snow globes and on and on.
Illegal items are obviously guns, brass knuckles, switch blades. When discovered at the checkpoint, we contact law enforcement and they do what they need to do, maybe arrest, maybe a citation,…. it really depends on each jurisdiction.
We often refer to prohibited items internally as Voluntary Abandoned Property. Passengers call them confiscated…, either way; these items become possessions of the federal government, and are deemed excess government property.
While it may seem like we enjoy taking this stuff, the fact is passengers have choices. A passenger can go back to the airline and place the item in his/her checked bag. Some airports have mailing facilities or mail back programs so travelers can mail the item home. The item can be given to a loved one seeing you off at the airport or, if you drove yourself to the airport, you can go place the items in your car. Or for that matter, a passenger can go throw the items away in a nearby trash can. If they decide to do none of these and "surrender" the prohibited item to a security officer, they are considered excess government property.
Now before you go and post a comment about the options, I’m not saying they are good or bad options, I’m just pointing out that there are options. I know if someone is late for a flight, the last thing they are going to do is go back to their car, and wait in line again. Can we just agree these are options? Of course, the best option is to know what is in your bag and not bring a prohibited item to the checkpoint to begin with, but that’s not the point of this post
Of interesting note, of all the items I have seen, most, almost all, could have made it from Point A to Point B, had the passenger simply taken the time to place it in a checked bag.
Depending on the size of the airport, each day, week or month, the items are picked up. Because the items are excess government property, we must follow General Services Administration guidelines for the disposition of the material. Many airports use a TSA-provided contractor who collects the “stuff” and disposes of it….. quite literally, throws it away. Or, as some airports do, we donate items to approved, non-profit organizations in accordance w/GSA regulations.
We have heard of local schools receiving the scissors. We have heard of local police departments training with the mace. Some VA hospitals sell some of the items to help make ends meet. Some non-profits, including several state surplus property divisions, sell the material on the auction web site eBay, and put the profits in THEIR coffers. TSA does not sell or profit in any way from the selling of this voluntarily abandoned property.
There have been references to this practice on this very blog, but the fact is, those news reports are plain wrong. Again, we are required to follow GSA guidelines for the disposition of this property and we do.
Now liquids are another story. As you can imagine we have voluminous amounts of liquid items surrendered daily and from airport to airport the disposition is different. Some airports have the local janitorial staff pick up the trashcans. Some are collected and picked up by our contractor and in some airports, both can happen, depending if a passenger throws the item away prior to screening or in the security checkpoint. Either way, it’s disposed of … that goes for liquor, water, lotions and everything in between.
Early on, there was a move to donate the liquid items to local homeless shelters but we were forced to suspend that practice after the determination was made that there is a liability risk. We couldn’t continue to donate items and not know if the if the water was truly water or if the shampoo was truly shampoo. While unfortunate, the litigious world in which we live forced the abandonment (pun intended) of that process. So now, those items are tossed out.
It is important to note, that currently there is a California state senator-sponsored bill that would require all California airports to donate these liquid items to homeless shelters. While it is unclear exactly how that would work, an effort to actually put these items to use is in the works; at least in one state.
A question raised many times on this blog is how can we justify throwing all of these liquids away in a trash can near the checkpoint if they are such a danger. While a fair question, the answer has been available in many different threads though not directly answered, so here it goes.
We have said since the institution of the liquid ban that the fear or threat is the combination of items, including liquid explosives while in flight to create an improvised explosive device. That combination means explosives, detonator and other components to have a fully assembled bomb. Take one component away and you have a collection of harmless items. Of course we don't want liquid explosives anywhere near us but without the other components, they're not causing catastrophic damage.
That’s why it is safe for us to store the items together in a trash can near the checkpoint and that's what we do with prohibited items.
TSA EoS Blog Team
Friday, May 2, 2008
Here’s the scoop: When you fly to the U.S. from an international destination and have to change planes in the U.S., you get your checked bags back right before you go through customs. So if you have any item that you can’t take through the checkpoint, you can put it in your checked bag.
That’s not the case when you fly to Europe, Asia and other international destinations. You go through customs without them. So if you have a bottle of liquor, perfume or other liquid item, you have no chance to put it in your checked bag, and you risk having to toss them at the checkpoint.
Another glitch is that countries in Europe, Asia and elsewhere require that liquid duty-free items in excess of 3.4 ounces/100ml be sealed in an approved International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) tamper-evident bag in order to go through checkpoints. As a result, many passengers who buy liquid duty-free items in U.S. airports and have a connecting flight in Asia or Europe end up having to throw their liquor or perfume out because they can’t take it through the security checkpoint. Some people buy a suitcase in the airport and check the items. Some decide to drink the liquor instead of tossing it, which can lead to some other problems at checkpoints or on flights, but that’s for another post…
To sync up with our international partners, TSA is allowing U.S. duty-free stores to place liquid, aerosol and gel items in the tamper-evident bag for travelers headed overseas. As long as the liquid duty-free items are sealed in the bag when purchased, they can be taken through checkpoints in Europe, Asia and other international destinations.
Carrying the bags isn’t mandatory for duty-free stores here in the U.S., but we hope they’ll start carrying them soon. If you’re taking an international flight and want to pick up a bottle of cognac or a special perfume, be sure to ask for the tamper-evident bag. If the store doesn’t have them, you might want to wait until you get to the airport where you change planes or at your final destination to make a purchase.
One thing to note - because travelers coming into the U.S. do have the opportunity to place any liquid items that exceed 3-1-1 rules in their checked bag before going through customs, the international duty-free bag will not be allowed through U.S. checkpoints.
For more information, check out our web content on duty-free items.
TSA EoS Blog Team
The federal Privacy Act prohibits us from providing any details about what happened, how it happened or any disciplinary action we took. It’s unfortunate because there are always two sides to every story.
What we can say is that anyone that shows up with a gun is held accountable, officer or passenger.
TSA EoS Blog Team
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Please note that Blogger.com limits posts to 200 comments. To see comments beyond 200, click on the Post a Comment link (Part 3 comments).