The resignations of Tom Ridge and James Loy from the Department of Homeland Security give us the opportunity to step back and take a hard look at how the Transportation Security Administration has dealt with airport security in its first few years of existence. Rather than details like inequities in funding the in-line EDS systems or the continuing problem of long lines at checkpoints, I want to focus on more fundamental issues.
The first issue concerns the degree to which political correctness has undermined sensible decisionmaking about airport security.
It's no accident that airports have received more than 90 percent of all TSA funding, despite the agency's responsibility for protecting all transportation infrastructure (ports, railroads, transit, trucking, etc.). This stems directly from Congress having mandated the very costly 100 percent screening of checked bags for explosives and equal screening of all airline passengers, as well creating a much larger and more costly staff of federal employees to do the actual screening.
I cite political correctness because inherent in today's airport screening policies is the idea that every bag and every passenger is equally likely to be a threat, and hence must receive the same scrutiny. That's why every checked bag must be screened for explosives, even if it's carried by an aerospace engineer with a Top Secret clearance.
And that's why it's presumed that if the current loophole that ignores the threat of explosives carried under a passenger's clothing were to be closed, it would have to involve forcing all passengers to walk through something like a backscatter X-ray machine. And it's why "profiling" of passengers to determine which ones are more likely to pose a threat (which was the original intent of the pre-9/11 CAPPS, developed by Northwest Airlines) has been studiously avoided.
Not only is this "everyone is equally likely" premise incorrect, it is also inconsistent with how transportation security is carried out by TSA elsewhere. In air cargo, we have risk-based policies such as the Known Shipper program. Likewise, cargo containers coming into ports are selected for inspection based on risk estimates. Were the United States to attempt anything like 100 percent physical inspection of every cargo container, or every truck trailer crossing our borders, commerce would grind to a halt. And the cost would be in the tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars.
A major failing of the Ridge era was that the newly created Department of Homeland Security did not do the hard thinking to make the case for extending the risk-based approach used everywhere else in transportation security to the passenger airline sector. That would have meant going back to Congress with proposed changes to the hastily enacted Aviation & Transportation Security Act of 2001, and that would have required the expenditure of political capital. But it would have been the right thing to do. That's what leadership is all about.
To its credit, TSA has pursued one risk-based program: the Registered Traveler approach, under which frequent flyers can volunteer for pre-clearance and expedited passage through passenger screening. But in addition to expanding this program systemwide, it needs to be extended to the checked bags of RT members. As a recent RAND Corporation analysis has demonstrated, exempting such bags from EDS screening could yield major savings for airports by reducing the size and cost of their EDS systems.
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