The Case for Profiling Air Travelers

One of the results of the recent TSA debates has been a full-blown campaign to demonize any proposal for risk-based airport security screening as “racial profiling.” In the much-talked about CBS News poll on airport security a few weeks ago, respondents were asked about their views on (1) body-scanning machines and (2) “racial or ethnic profiling”—as if those were the only choices available for American security policy.

An attack on my long-standing advocacy of risk-based screening by two writers from The Nation included a three-paragraph excerpt from my recent blog post on the subject, followed immediately by a reference to “high-profile charlatans pushing racial profiling as the alternative to TSA pat-downs and body scans.”

And it’s not only pundits on the left playing this game. Gabriel Schoenfeld of the conservative Hudson Institute attacked the strawman of “religious profiling” as an unacceptable alternative to body scans in an op-ed defending the TSA in The Wall Street Journal.

So I guess it’s time for a careful defense of real profiling—not the caricature that numerous opponents and some inexact supporters portray it as.

Many security professionals separate “profiling” into two categories. The first, positive profiling, means using techniques such as detailed background checks and other factors to assign certain people to the “low-risk” category and treat them accordingly.

The TSA itself recently (and rightly) conceded that airline flight crews—both cockpit and cabin—fit into this category, and will no longer have to undergo the demeaning security theater procedures the rest of us must face. Security resources, and taxpayer dollars, are not unlimited. Since we have already decided these pilots are trustworthy enough to fly planes with hundreds of passengers, it isn’t a good use of resources to pat them down or measure their shampoo bottles.

RAND Corporation has advocated positive profiling for many years, and the concept is the basis for a true Trusted Traveler program, in which frequent fliers who volunteer for and pass a stringent background check get a biometric ID card and can thereafter bypass some or all of the regular screening, just like flight crews will soon be able to do. I would also extend the Trusted Traveler concept to those holding federal security clearances. If we can trust someone with nuclear weapons secrets, shouldn’t we trust them to not blow up airliners?

Positive profiling is already in use by Customs & Border Protection (TSA’s sister agency) for people who are frequent border crossers, via at least three voluntary background-check programs: Global Entry for air travelers returning from abroad; Nexus, for frequent visitors to and from Canada; and Sentri, for frequent visitors to and from Mexico. If applied to airport screening, it would allow the TSA to shift resources from people who are not a threat to those who are more likely to be (and not just those trying to board planes, but also those loading baggage and cargo, visitors seeking targets in crowded ticket lobbies, etc.).

It would also spare a large fraction of air travelers (primarily frequent fliers who voluntarily opt-in) from the wasted time and indignity of current screening practices. This can be an important safety tool because frequent business travelers do an estimated 50% or more of the nation’s flying. Recognizing that not everyone presents an equal threat allows security to focus resources on those that may present more danger.

There are some, including the ACLU, who argue against a Registered Traveler system because they say it will create a new vulnerability as terrorists learn to beat the background checks. Is this possible? Of, course. Anything is possible. We cannot eliminate all risks from flying or driving or anything else in life. But if terrorists are volunteering for FBI-quality background checks, undergoing interviews and credit checks, and ultimately obtaining trusted status then we have dramatically bigger security failures and problems than we imagined. It’s far more likely the terrorists would turn their attention to different, softer targets.

With positive profiling reducing the number of travelers the TSA has to expend time and money on, the attention then shifts to negative profiling. When most people hear the term profiling they envision people being grouped or targeted solely based on race or religion. When security professionals use the term negative profiling they mean deciding that a small subset of travelers deserves closer scrutiny due to some combination of background factors, previous travel behavior, and suspicious behavior at the airport itself.

The TSA already does this type of profiling in a minor way: that’s what the selectee and no-fly lists are all about. We learned of some of these factors in the days after the 9/11 attacks. Buying a one-way ticket at the counter with cash was, and probably still is, something that would get you more attention from security.

Previous travel history would have flagged the underwear bomber last Christmas since he paid for his ticket in cash, had recently flown out of terrorist haven Yemen, and his suspicious behavior at the airport (that you’d like a trained security guard to catch) reportedly included not having a jacket or any checked luggage despite flying from Amsterdam to Detroit during winter.

It is also important to note that negative profiling is already mandated—by the TSA—for those flying to the United States from the overseas airports it has defined as “extraordinary locations.” While I have not seen a list of those specific airports, both times I’ve flown back to this country from Madrid in recent years, I’ve been interviewed in some detail by employees of a private security company, under contract to the airline in question, as required by TSA’s Aircraft Operator Standard Security Program (AOSSP).

In short, profiling is a legitimate technique for deciding how to allocate security resources. Catching terrorists is tough. Making the TSA pat-down or body-scan every single person on every single U.S. flight (which the current policy calls for by the end of 2011) does not increase the chances they’ll find a terrorist (TSA has never found one).

Pretending that everyone is equally likely to attack us wastes precious resources on low-risk travelers, which just makes us more vulnerable. Unless, and until, we adopt a risk-based airport screening system (i.e., forms of profiling), the TSA will continue to treat everyone as a potential suicide bomber and Americans will continue to be harassed and groped by TSA’s out-of-control screeners.

Robert Poole is director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow at Reason Foundation. Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, has advised the Ronald Reagan, the George H.W. Bush, the Clinton, and the George W. Bush administrations.

Surface Transportation

In the field of surface transportation, Poole has advised the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the White House Office of Policy Development, National Economic Council, Government Accountability Office, and state DOTs in numerous states.

Poole's 1988 policy paper proposing privately financed toll lanes to relieve congestion directly inspired California's landmark private tollway law (AB 680), which authorized four pilot toll projects including the successful 91 Express Lanes in Orange County. More than 20 other states and the federal government have since enacted similar public-private partnership legislation. In 1993, Poole oversaw a study that coined the term HOT (high-occupancy toll) Lanes, a term which has become widely accepted since.

California Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Poole to the California's Commission on Transportation Investment and he also served on the Caltrans Privatization Advisory Steering Committee, where he helped oversee the implementation of AB 680.

From 2003 to 2005, he was a member of the Transportation Research Board's special committee on the long-term viability of the fuel tax for highway finance. In 2008 he served as a member of the Texas Study Committee on Private Participation in Toll Roads, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In 2009, he was a member of an Expert Review Panel for Washington State DOT, advising on a $1.5 billion toll mega-project. In 2010, he was a member of the transportation transition team for Florida's Governor-elect Rick Scott. He is a member of two TRB standing committees: Congestion Pricing and Managed Lanes.


Poole is a member of the Government Accountability Office's National Aviation Studies Advisory Panel and he has testified before the House and Senate's aviation subcommittees on numerous occasions. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Poole consulted the White House Domestic Policy Council and the leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

He has also advised the Federal Aviation Administration, Office of the Secretary of Transportation, White House Office of Policy Development, National Performance Review, National Economic Council, and the National Civil Aviation Review Commission on aviation issues. Poole is a member of the Critical Infrastructure Council of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation and of the Air Traffic Control Association.

Poole was among the first to propose the commercialization of the U.S. air traffic control system, and his work in this field has helped shape proposals for a U.S. air traffic control corporation. A version of his corporation concept was implemented in Canada in 1996 and was more recently endorsed by several former top FAA administrators.

Poole's studies also launched a national debate on airport privatization in the United States. He advised both the FAA and local officials during the 1989-90 controversy over the proposed privatization of Albany (NY) Airport. His policy research on this issue helped inspire Congress' 1996 enactment of the Airport Privatization Pilot Program and the privatization of Indianapolis' airport management under Mayor Steve Goldsmith.

General Background

Robert Poole co-founded the Reason Foundation with Manny Klausner and Tibor Machan in 1978, and served as its president and CEO from then until the end of 2000. He was a member of the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000. Over the years, he has advised the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations on privatization and transportation policy.

Poole is credited as the first person to use the term "privatization" to refer to the contracting-out of public services and is the author of the first-ever book on privatization, Cutting Back City Hall, published by Universe Books in 1980. He is also editor of the books Instead of Regulation: Alternatives to Federal Regulatory Agencies (Lexington Books, 1981), Defending a Free Society (Lexington Books, 1984), and Unnatural Monopolies (Lexington Books, 1985). He also co-edited the book Free Minds & Free Markets: 25 Years of Reason (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

Poole has written hundreds of articles, papers, and policy studies on privatization and transportation issues. His popular writings have appeared in national newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He has also been a guest on network television programs such as Good Morning America, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News Tonight, and the CBS Evening News. Poole writes a monthly column on transportation issues for Public Works Financing.

Poole earned his B.S. and M.S. in mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and did graduate work in operations research at New York University.