Policy Study

A Risk Based Airport Security Policy

Executive Summary

Today’s U.S. airport security policy rests on a fallacious proposition. By applying equal screening resources to all passengers and all bags, the system acts as if security officials believe that every passenger and every bag is equally likely to be a threat. This premise wastes limited security resources on low-risk passengers and bags, thereby devoting less resources to higher-risk passengers and bags. In addition, this approach has created a “hassle factor” at airports that drives away airline passengers. Credible estimates put the lost airline business due to this factor in the vicinity of $3 billion per year.

A more intelligent approach to airport security is to apportion security resources to passengers and baggage in proportion to estimated risk-just as law enforcement agencies do in other circumstances, ranging from the stalking of public figures to family violence. Risk-based airport security would mean a reduced focus on finding bad objects and an increased focus on identifying potentially bad people-those most worthy of additional scrutiny. Screening resources would then be applied in accordance with a passenger’s risk category. This report shows how a risk-based system can be implemented without posing a threat to the privacy of air travelers.

Risk-based principles are already used by the federal government with respect to border-crossing, where a number of programs (such as INSPASS and NEXUS) permit travelers to volunteer for pre-clearance, enabling them to bypass long lines when they actually pass through border facilities. Likewise, in the cargo area, “known-shipper” programs represent additional uses of risk-based decision-making. Overseas airports, in Israel and Europe, use risk-based techniques such as passenger profiling and trusted traveler programs to sort passengers into different risk groups for differential processing at the airport. Seen against this broad background, it is the security approach used for passengers and bags at U.S. airports that is out of step.

This report reviews the two key tools needed for a risk-based security model for U.S. airports. The first is a system for pre-clearing a subset of low-risk passengers, who can then receive expedited processing at airports. The current term for this is a Registered Traveler program. The second is a system for selecting out high-risk passengers for extra scrutiny. Our proposed Risk Screening System (RSS) would replace the current, flawed Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS).

With tools of this sort in place, both passenger and baggage screening can be redesigned to reduce delays and to redirect screening resources to where they are most needed. All checked bags of high-risk passengers would be screened by the most expensive (and generally slowest) explosive detection systems, but only a random fraction of other bags would be processed by those machines, rather than faster, less costly machines. All baggage processing would be carried out in secure baggage areas, away from crowded passenger lobbies for both safety and security reasons.

Under this risk-based approach, all passengers would be thoroughly screened at the security checkpoints at the entrances of concourses. This would eliminate last minute screening at the boarding gate. To make this possible, information from the RSS must be available at passenger screening checkpoints. Hence, all passengers must obtain boarding passes from either a ticket counter or an e-ticket kiosk in the lobby. The screening checkpoints must be redesigned to provide for (1) expedited lines for Registered Travelers, and (2) additional positions at which those selected by RSS can undergo additional screening.

Both the Registered Traveler program and the Risk Screening System could pose troubling privacy issues, depending on how they are designed and used. The Registered Traveler program requires a membership database, but it will be more acceptable to passengers if that database is administered by one or more private sector firms, interfacing with Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for the actual clearance decision and with individual airlines for customer interactions.

For the risk-screening function, TSA’s proposed CAPPS-II would create a massive, intrusive database on the personal and financial details of air travelers. This is far more than required for the task of identifying highrisk travelers for enhanced scrutiny at airports. Our proposed RSS, by contrast, would rely on the information already contained in airline reservation systems (which could have singled out a small subset of air travelers including all of the 9/11 hijackers). Creation of TSA’s proposed Aviation Security Screening Records database should be forbidden by Congress.

The shift of TSA into a new Homeland Security Department offers a good opportunity to rethink the past year’s over-emphasis on passenger airline security, at the expense of numerous other vulnerabilities in U.S. transportation, let alone other vital infrastructure. Shifting to a risk-based approach to airport security should be an integral part of that rethinking.


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.

George Passantino is a senior fellow at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

In 2004, Passantino served as a full-time director on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's California Performance Review. Passantino helped lead a thorough, top-to-bottom review of state government that the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office concluded could save California $15 billion over five years.

Passantino has authored frequent studies, white papers, and commentaries on California's need for fundamental economic, legislative, and regulatory reform. His views have appeared in numerous publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, San Diego Union-Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Investor's Business Daily.

Prior to joining Reason in 1997, Passantino served as a legislative consultant to the California State Legislature. His wide range of high-profile legislative accomplishments include the 1996 passage of California's version of Megan's Law, which has helped thousands of parents protect their children from dangerous sex offenders.

Passantino graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Applied Economics from California State University, Bakersfield.