Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #3

Topics include: new report calling for trusted traveler system and offering alternative to CAPPS II.

In this issue:

Déjà vu All Over Again-This Time on Cargo Screening

Los Angeles (For Release May 29, 2003) – A new report calls for the immediate creation and testing of a Registered Traveler program and urges the Transportation Security Administration to adopt a risk-based approach to passenger and baggage screening that does not include the invasive privacy violations and data-mining used in the TSA’s proposed Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, known as CAPPS II.

“This report raises the same concerns that many of us in Congress have been discussing for more than a year. I would urge anyone interested in improving aviation security to pay close attention to its observations and recommendations,” said Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the aviation subcommittee.

In order to improve security while simultaneously reducing the “hassle factor” that is crippling the aviation industry, the Reason Foundation’s risk-based model separates passengers and their luggage into three categories: low-risk registered travelers, medium-risk travelers (most passengers), and high-risk travelers. The low-risk travelers would be part of a completely voluntary Registered Traveler program where passengers could willingly choose to undergo in-depth background investigations in exchange for shorter security checkpoint lines. Registered Travelers who voluntarily and successfully complete the investigation process would be issued biometric security cards (iris scan, hand or face geometry) to confirm their identities before proceeding to the security checkpoint. To alleviate personal privacy concerns, TSA would make the ultimate security clearance decisions, but a private company, interfacing with TSA and the airlines, would operate the program – just like Israel ‘s trusted traveler program.

EDS, a U.S. company, operates the trusted traveler program at Israel ‘s Ben Gurion Airport . In place since 1996, the trusted traveler program allows Israeli citizens to submit to a background check, an in-person interview, and pay a $20 to $25 annual fee, in return for shorter security lines. The program has reduced check-in time for members to 15 minutes, compared with two hours for other passengers.

“Visa and American Express maintain huge databases and they use software to search for unusual purchase patterns – but most of us are comfortable with that because we asked for the credit card and the system isn’t run by the government,” stated study author Robert Poole. “The same principles should be used for a registered traveler system. It can be completely voluntary and operated by private companies.”

Medium- and high-risk passengers would be determined through the use of sophisticated and classified algorithms, updated to include the latest criminal and terrorist watch lists – but would not collect or store the private information used by TSA’s proposed CAPPS II. “We need to focus our attention on getting real-time access to FBI and INS watch lists, which we still don’t have,” said Poole . “Those lists are going to highlight many more suspected terrorists than credit reports will.”

Sorting passengers into groups will increase security by focusing greater resources on high-risk passengers about whom little is known, while simultaneously reducing the “hassle factor” for all other travelers. According to a Delta Airlines survey, nearly 25 percent of their frequent flyers have cited the hassle factor as a reason for not flying since Sept. 11, 2001 . Similarly, a Business Travel Coalition survey found more than half of the business travelers who have reduced air travel by more than 25 percent since the attacks cited airport security delays and hassles as the primary reason for the reduction. TSA’s current plan to encrypt boarding passes with color-coded security levels will only aggravate the hassle factor at airports because it directs everyone, regardless of risk, to the same security checkpoints. In contrast, the Reason plan scrutinizes all travelers, but expedites the process for Registered Travelers with biometric identification. In effect, this also shortens the regular screening lines while allowing TSA to concentrate attention and resources on a smaller, select group of passengers. Using the Reason model, TSA would be able to devote more manpower and advanced technical equipment, such as backscatter X-ray machines, to the small group of high-risk travelers.

The Reason plan also closes a gaping hole in our current security system – carry-on luggage. TSA scans all checked baggage for explosives, but curiously ignores the possibility that a high-risk passenger’s carry-on luggage might contain explosives. Instead of scanning carry-on luggage with standard X-ray machines, the Reason plan requires that explosive detection machines scan the carry-on luggage of high-risk passengers.

To complement the passenger and carry-on screening techniques, the report recommends restructuring our current baggage-screening process, which assigns the same scrutiny to every bag, into a multi-tiered system. Based on the method used by most major European airports, most checked bags would be processed through high-speed X-ray machines first, with bags that clear the system being forwarded for loading. If the bag triggers an alarm, it would be forwarded, along with all bags from high-risk passengers, to an explosives detection scanner for detailed inspection. Then, if the explosives detection machine flags the bag, it would be manually inspected, preferably with the owner present The Reason baggage-screening plan would also require less than half the number of million-dollar explosive detection machines currently required, but not yet operating at many airports.

“All bags aren’t equal. Let’s subject high-risk bags to intense scrutiny,” said Poole . “But let’s also recognize that checked luggage is just one piece of the puzzle. We’ve committed billions of dollars to machines that are slow and ineffective. TSA is laying off screeners and will be confronting a variety of air cargo, border, and other security issues. Our resources need to be used where they can do the most good.”

A Risk-Based Airport Security Policy is available online at Reason’s July 2002 report, Rethinking Checked-Baggage Screening, can be found at

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