Aviation Screening

Facilitation and Security in the Age of Air Travel

By Matthew Wein
Friday, June 24, 2016, 10:12 AM

This summer has been dominated by headlines about long lines at Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints at the nation’s airports. Surely, countless meetings are currently being held at DHS and TSA aimed at ensuring no one else spends a night on a cot in O’Hare Airport. But overlooked in the scrutiny is the ways in which the issue brings to light an important security development of last 5 years. Security and the facilitation of travelers are no longer at odds. In fact, more should be done to encourage and promote DHS’s travel facilitation programs—in the name of security.

The initial response in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks was to lock down airports, land and sea ports of entry as a preventative measure and to block any potential remaining conspirators from being able to leave. Quickly, it became evident that this strategy would cripple the American economy, to say nothing of global commerce or the resilience of the American people in the face of terrorism. The government set about working to find a better way to screen the people and goods transiting to, from and through the United States that would both keep us safe and allow our economy and industry to thrive. 

Using the oft-cited metaphor of looking for a needle in a haystack, it is possible to imagine a number of different eventualities to keeping the system safe. You can throw out all of the hay—the equivalent of the immediate post-9/11 approach. As we’ve seen, this is not a practical solution. Some argue that the answer is investing in better intelligence. Effective intelligence-based strategies require precise and accurate information in a constant stream—in essence you must know where to look in the haystack every time. To pursue intelligence as a comprehensive screening strategy not only requires massive operational and analytical manpower, it also relies on quite a bit of good luck. The remaining scenario is to focus on shrinking the haystack in order to facilitate targeted, thorough searches.

A number of programs currently exist for precisely the purpose of shrinking the haystack, and gradually other countries are following suit. When U.S. citizens join programs like TSA’s Pre-Check or Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry, they voluntarily provide information to these agencies in order to become trusted travelers. This saves those individuals time in screening lines, but more importantly, it allows screeners and analysts to focus on those travelers about whom they have no information. For example, JFK sees approximately 150,000 travelers each day for both domestic and international flights. If just 5% of those travelers enroll in Pre-Check, then the equivalent of 50 Boeing 737’s will receive expedited screenings at that airport alone every single day. And as of January 2016, over 2 million Americans had enrolled in TSA Pre-Check. The success of pre-check is an accomplishment for TSA, but the fact remains that over 50 times that number of travelers passed through Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in 2015.

Over the past decade, DHS has taken to heart the notion that borders don’t exist like they used to. As information, people and goods move at an ever-increasing pace, borders cannot be seen as simply a fortress wall at the water’s edge. In the case of security, an airport should be the last line of defense, not the first. In the case of commerce, a seaport should not be a place where shipping containers await endless inspections on their way to market. To this end, DHS embraced the notion of trusted travelers as a way to segment the traveling population. TSA Pre-Check is not the only program of its kind.  Customs and Border Protection (CBP) operates Global Entry, NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST.  Global Entry even took this one step further when it began enrolling foreign nationals and extrapolated this notion to the realm of commerce with its Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) Program to expedite the movement of goods into the U.S.

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP), administered by both DHS and the State Department is one the most well-known and established traveled facilitation program in the world. While the VWP has received scrutiny in recent years, the program embodies the complementary nature of security and travel facilitation. Congress initially enacted the Visa Waiver Program in 1986 to encourage tourism from Western European allies. Post-9/11, Congress recognized that the advance information provided through VWP, along with key security measures outlined in Title 8 of the U.S. Code, constitute a security gain. In order to be included in VWP, fellow governments must meet certain standards, which, in turn, better secures the overall air travel and immigration environment. Congress has been reassessing new stipulations for some travelers, but as the program has come under fire it is important to stress the gains achieved from facilitation programs. Reform efforts should focus on strengthening such programs, not eliminating them.

DHS should work to better promote the benefits of Pre-Check to the public, and realize additional efficiencies by collaborating with other trusted traveler programs. And TSA should more vigorously engage private sector partners like airlines and large employers in order to promote the program and incentivize its use. We should be looking to find more ways to shrink the haystack and improve our screening processes. We do not have to sacrifice the efficient flow of people and goods across our borders in the name of security. If we embrace the power of trusted traveler programs and advance information, then efficiency and security can coexist and mutually reinforce one other.