The Principle of Parsimony

Jan. 16, 2013
Sometimes something strange originates at the core that just gives the folks in the field a head-scratching moment

I admit up front that we are often unjustifiably defined by a single questionable deed rather than our hundreds of intervening positive good deeds. Such is often the case with some TSA endeavors in the past, perhaps more so by those odd deeds encountered at the relatively uncontrolled outer edges of the system than in the belly of the beast at HQ. However, [you knew there’d be a “however”, didn’t you...] sometimes something strange originates at the core that just gives the folks in the field a head-scratching moment that’s hard to describe, much less make sense of.

By now, we are all reasonably well-versed on the pleasures of TSA Pre-check, which allows pre-vetted persons the joy of a less stressful and more clothed trip through the checkpoint. We are also aware of some of its shortcomings — i.e., clearance by one participating airline doesn’t get you into the Pre-Check line on the other four major carriers ... assuming you are traveling to/from the 8 percent of participating U.S. airports. And finally, we are all aware of the existence of, but not the criteria for, the dreaded watch lists, plural. You’re not allowed to know why you’re on one, or how you got there, which means you cannot mount a challenge to get off ... assuming there was a way to do so, which there isn’t. Indeed, the very act of questioning TSA procedures is on the list of things deemed suspicious behavior, making one subject to even more intrusive screening.

Generally, I like the Pre-Check concept — it makes some sense in the context of TSA’s new universe of “risk-based security” (RBS). So why this particular rant? If you have been disqualified from Pre-Check for any reason — and it’s not clear if the criteria are the same from one airline to the next — congratulations — you are on a new watch list that is part of the TSA screening system Secure Flight.

First, let me state the painfully obvious: If they are not accepted by Pre-Check, they can't go thru that lane. Duh. Instead, they will go through the normal full-monte, bare-it-all security lane that they would have gone through anyway, without Pre-Check — much like at the other 92 percent of U.S. airports. 

According to the TSA notice, they are “creating a watch list of individuals who are disqualified from eligibility ... because they have been involved in violations of security regulations of sufficient severity or frequency,” which criteria, I repeat, they have not defined. As I point out in my regulatory training class, some things that are a felony in Wisconsin may be a misdemeanor in Alabama, or not a crime at all in Texas ... and have nothing at all to do with air travel or security — such as a friend of mine, a platinum frequent international flier, who was disqualified by a minor teen-age pot bust in 1968. There was no public input to the TSA notice, and no explanation of how this may relate to other watch lists, any one of which is sufficient to kill a Pre-Check application — generally, passengers identified on any watch list are either barred from the plane or must undergo additional inspection. 

Agency officials explained that “individuals cited on the disqualification watch list simply are banned from the PreCheck speed lane and would instead undergo standard screening”. So here’s a radical idea: instead of complicating the process with yet another layer of complexity and redundancy with yet another bureaucratic and unnecessary administrative process, just don’t stamp their boarding pass at all. Duh. The 14th century English logician William of Ockham must have seen TSA coming when he posed his Principle of Parsimony which has become universally known as “Occam’s Razor” the simplest solution is usually the best one. Way to go, Bill.


About the Author

Art Kosatka | CEO

Art Kosatka is CEO of TranSecure, an aviation consultancy in Virginia. He'll respond to questions or comments at [email protected].