Media reports and security “experts” routinely ask if TSA really makes air travelers safer or if we are simply trying to make things more inconvenient in the name of security.
Safety and convenience can be a bit like oil and water at times, but TSA is always trying to balance the two. It’s not always easy, and we know passengers aren’t always thrilled to take off their shoes or put their liquids in a baggie. But you don’t take your shoes off because of Richard Reid and the liquid explosive threat isn’t over because the UK plot was foiled. Everything TSA does is rooted in intelligence, and every security measure is done to mitigate a threat.
Sometimes security measures come after a plot is busted, such as the August 10 liquids plot. In August 2006, existing technology could not root out the peroxide-based explosives from all the other liquids that come through the checkpoint. The threat was very real, and continues to be real, as all the news on terrorism this week shows. Three men involved in the UK plot have since been convicted for trying to blow up commercial airliners with liquid bombs. Watch this video to see the capabilities of liquid explosives to do catastrophic damage to a commercial airliner.
So we first enacted a total ban along with the UK and other countries. Then after national labs here and overseas studied the intel, we worked with international partners to come up with the policy of packing 3.4 ounce or smaller containers in the one quart baggie so passengers could take necessary liquids in their carry-on bags.
Other times, we proactively enact measures to mitigate a threat, like when we announced that remote control toys could receive additional screening last year, and again this month, when we deployed test kits to give added scrutiny to certain powders that could be used to make explosives. Both items can be used to create an IED, but instead of banning them, we use existing technology to mitigate the threat with very little impact on most travelers.
There are some other examples of balancing security with convenience to improve your travel experience:
Laptop Friendly Bags: Officers continue to this day to find gun parts and other prohibited items hidden in laptops, as well as tampered laptops. While it’s an extra step to take your laptop out of its bag, that extra step helps officers make sure they get a clear view without other items in your laptop bag getting in the way. So we worked with industry to come up with Laptop Friendly Bags that allow you to keep your laptop in your bag and give officers the clear view of the laptop that they need to keep you safe.
AT X-rays: Advanced Technology X-rays give officers a better and multidimensional view of your bag which in turn leads to fewer bag searches and reruns. AT X-rays can also be upgraded to address evolving threats.
Black Diamond Self Select and Family Lanes: Self Select and Family Lanes are based on feedback from frequent fliers and passengers with children or special needs. This enhancement allows passengers to travel through checkpoints at their own skill level and pace. TSA has also positioned technology to screen medically necessary liquids at the Family/Liquids lanes.
Imaging Technology: Not only has the use of Millimeter Wave and Backscatter made things safer for the flying public by detecting both metallic and non-metallic threat items that could be hidden on a body, it has allowed us to take a more hands-off approach when screening certain passengers. It has been a long time coming for passengers with metal implants who always have to undergo a pat down.
Alternative Screening Procedures: Good security requires giving the same level of screening to all passengers. While we must treat those with disabilities and other special needs with respect, over the years, we have seen many people try to get prohibited items through the checkpoint using wheelchairs, casts – even in prosthetics. If people think there’s a loophole, they will try to use it. That’s why TSA has created many alternate screening procedures for passengers with special needs such as disabilities, children, small infants , soldiers and wounded warriors.
Secure Flight: It’s critical to keep known terrorists off planes. But it’s unfortunate when people whose names are similar to those who are really on a watch list are unable to print a boarding pass at home or at a kiosk. It’s worse when someone in an airport tells a mom or dad that their child is on the No Fly List – because no child is. Secure Flight brought watch list matching back inside the government, so we could ensure a high level of security and reduce the hassle factor. Providing your name as it appears on your government-issued ID as well as your gender and date-of-birth reduces the chance of misidentification by more than 99% to make travel safer and easier.
Paperless Boarding Pass: The paperless boarding pass puts a 2D barcode encrypted boarding pass directly onto a passenger’s PDA or cell phone. It mitigates the threat of fraudulent boarding passes and it’s a customer service improvement for airlines and passengers.
TSA is not only concerned about balancing security and convenience – the equation isn’t complete without talking about privacy. Privacy considerations have been built into Secure Flight, imaging technology and other screening functions.
TSA’s layered approach to aviation security incorporates elements long before the airport all the way to the plane. You will never see or be affected by many of those elements. And while engaged passengers and hardened cockpit doors have gone a long way to preventing another 9-11 style attack, we also have to focus on preventing future attacks. As current media reports show, terrorists continue to look at IEDs, including peroxide-based explosives. Preventing an IED from getting on a plane involves intel-sharing, technology, highly trained officers and random, unpredictable screening procedures.
Assistant Administrator for Strategic Communications and Public Affairs