Travelers line up at Denver International Airport

RAND Solution

Can a Trusted-Traveler Program Improve Aviation Security?


Long lines at airport security checkpoints are a sign of the post-911 world. Perhaps few would deliberately choose a relaxation of security measures, but is there a way to reduce the burdens while minimizing any consequent security risk? Can aviation security be more efficient? Better yet, could a “trusted traveler” program not only reduce traveler burden but also increase security?


Security at Denver International Airport

Since the 9/11 attacks, aviation security has been a national priority. Al-Qa’ida has maintained its focus on the U.S. aviation system, and a number of attempted attacks on aircraft have been thwarted. Internationally, there have been successful attacks on aircraft and airports, and continued adaptation by terrorist groups has presented aviation planners with shifting risks. As a result, the security regime has undergone frequent adjustments and systematic tightening over the years. The resulting inconveniences to travelers have put the spotlight on the intangible costs of security efforts, such as intrusiveness and delays. There has been debate over whether the benefits of new security measures outweigh their costs—and over whether some elements of the security regime could be relaxed at substantial gains in travelers’ time and insubstantial increase in risk.

A TSA agent demonstrates the use of a millimeter wave machine at a security check point

A TSA agent demonstrates the use of a millimeter wave machine at a security check point

Photo by: George Frey/Reuters

Project Description

In a trusted-traveler program, the level of screening is varied based on whether a traveler has previously been screened and certified as “trusted.” As a result, the security burdens on the trusted are reduced. This means eliminating some security resources and thus saving money, or shifting those resources to focus greater attention on travelers not certified as trusted, thus improving security performance. RAND researchers estimated those savings and benefits—plus the risks. Risks are important, because the introduction of a lightly screened line could lure terrorists to attempt certification as “trusted.” This raises the question: Which is greater—the likelihood that a terrorist will gain access through a trusted-traveler line or the increased likelihood of catching one who goes through the general-public line?

Research Questions

  1. Is a trusted-traveler program viable, given that attackers might take advantage of it?
  2. What are the main issues and tradeoffs that must be considered in designing such a program?

Key Findings & Recommendations

Whether a trusted traveler program increases or decreases security will depend on interrelated issues of design and participation:

  • The greater the percentage of the traveling population that applies for trusted-traveler status, the greater the potential for the program to increase security.
  • Attention should be focused on high-quality background checks to weed out attacker applicants.
  • Finding ways to deter attackers from applying for trusted status will increase the chance that the program will enhance security.
A TSO checks a passenger's identification at an airport security checkpoint


RAND’s analysis of cost-effectiveness and risk reduction, together with recommendations drawing from that analysis, informed the Transportation Security Administration in the development of PreCheck, their trusted-traveler program, and subsequent changes to it.

“TSA PreCheck is enabling us to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to transportation security, as we look for more opportunities to provide the most effective security in the most efficient way.”

TSA Administrator John S. Pistole (December, 2013)