The Transportation Security Administration's ban on carrying liquids and items such as shaving cream and toothpaste onto airplanes is slowing down travel at Los Angeles International Airport and other airports around the United States, and has imposed restrictions that are not sustainable.
Travelers are spending more time in line to go check their bags, to go through security checkpoints, and waiting to pick up checked luggage. LAX has reported a 30 to 50 percent increase in checked baggage since authorities said they disrupted a terrorist plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic.
The new restrictions were necessary and prudent following the successful interdiction of 24 suspected terrorists in Britain. But for the long term, TSA should revive and redefine its abandoned program to allow trusted travelers to receive less scrutiny at airports – so that travelers who could pose a danger can get more scrutiny.
Today this tightened security, which can add an hour or more to the length of a trip, is simply an aggravation. But if the new TSA restrictions are kept in force, they mean decreased productivity for frequent business travelers.
Consider someone who flies in and out of LAX or another crowded airport 80 times a year. This person could spend an extra 80 hours or more annually waiting in airports, amounting to two full workweeks. With about 2 million passengers flying in the United States every day, these delays will result in hundreds of millions of hours in lost productivity.
And despite the inconvenience of long airport lines, a 2004 Rand Corp. study of LAX called into question the effectiveness of increased screening and security restrictions. That's because passengers standing in long lines to check their luggage or go through security screening are tempting targets for terrorists carrying suitcase bombs or guns.
The Rand study concluded that speeding passenger check-in at LAX is the most cost-effective short-term security measure available to improve airport security and reduce the impact of a potential terrorist attack.
TSA is experimenting with forms of a trusted traveler program. In one of its most recent incarnations, the Fly Clear registered passenger program promises travelers at Orlando, Indianapolis, and San Jose expedited transit for those who volunteer to pay a modest fee, are fingerprinted, and answer basic questions such as where they were born and where they have lived in the past.
TSA was expected to expand the trusted traveler program, but in June this plan was delayed. Programs such as Fly Clear address the costs of ongoing security restrictions for frequent travelers, but as proposed do not guarantee increased security.
Going forward, a trusted traveler program should impose a high security bar for participants, be fully integrated with programs of random inspections, and become a tool for TSA to use in maintaining the flow of passengers when responding to security incidents like occurred last week.
A high security bar would help to ensure that terrorists could not use the program as a means of attacking the system. Some people have suggested that a trusted traveler program opens a hole in security for terrorists to exploit. As the security bar is raised, the hole is smaller.
A meaningful trusted traveler program would include a review equivalent to a basic security clearance. These reviews are expensive – they could cost a few hundred dollars each, but remain valid for several years. However, some businesses will be willing to pay now to reduce disruptions later.
Random inspections are necessary so that the trusted traveler program does not become a green lane for terrorists. By identifying low-risk travelers, random inspections on the remaining passengers will be more effective. Continuing some level of random inspections on trusted travelers can reduce the extent to which the program can be exploited.
As a tool for aviation security, a trusted traveler program affords TSA flexibility in responding to security incidents. When events such as the foiled plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners occur, the trusted traveler program can be used to reduce disruptions to travelers. Trusted travelers could be subjected to milder increases in inspections and fewer restrictions on what can be carried on board.
The reality is we have a trusted traveler program for every other border segment. Certain manufacturers from Canada and Mexico that meet special security requirements can already speed their shipments over the border on special express lanes. Shippers can ensure that their cargo makes it through a port by adhering to the security principles of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism.
There is tremendous potential benefit to this kind of profiling out, where low-risk cargo and travelers avoid onerous and time-consuming security procedures. It frees more resources for inspecting the cargo and passengers that pose a higher risk. Passenger airlines are vital to the U.S. economy, and could benefit from the same profiling-out procedures already used on cargo.
The true failure of subjecting travelers to security restrictions that are at best marginally effective is the impact either frequent or ongoing disruptions can have on the public confidence in TSA's security capabilities. A trusted traveler program could enhance TSA's security capability and reduce the burden of airport security on the common traveler.
K. Jack Riley is associate director of the Infrastructure, Safety and Environment division of the Rand Corp., a non-profit research organization. Henry H. Willis is a policy researcher at Rand.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Business Journal on September 4, 2006.