Beyond the Shadow of 9/11

Air Passenger Security at a Reasonable Cost

By K. Jack Riley

Jack Riley, vice president and director of the RAND National Security Research Division, previously served as associate director of RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment and director of the RAND Homeland Security Center.

The phrase “don’t touch my junk” became part of the lexicon of air passenger security in late 2010 thanks to the controversial decision by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to increase the physical scrutiny of air travelers. John Tyner, a software engineer attempting to fly from San Diego, uttered the now-famous words when he refused to walk through a whole body image scanner and subsequently also refused to submit to a full-body frisk. The latter would have involved a TSA agent touching his “junk,” or genitals.

That national attention focused on the anatomy of a private citizen is one small indication of how distracted the country has become.

That national attention focused on the anatomy of a private citizen is one small indication of how distracted the country has become in its efforts to ensure air passenger security. The focus of these efforts should be on what works best and at least cost, but the traveling public remains doubtful that the focus has been put in the proper place. TSA has moved toward this kind of screening in reaction to the December 2009 attempted bombing of an airplane over Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called Christmas bomber, who had concealed explosive material in his underwear.

TSA annually spends about $5 billion on a workforce numbering an estimated 60,000. These screeners man the walk-through metal detectors, operate the baggage x-ray systems, search for liquids that exceed the established thresholds, man the whole body image devices, conduct pat-downs, implement behavioral profiling, and conduct other screening functions. One reason for the workforce and expenses being so large is that the screening functions are imposed virtually uniformly on every traveler entering an airport in the United States.

An officer of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration pats down a traveler.


An officer of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration pats down a traveler as he works his way through security at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on November 24, 2010.

Missed Opportunities

The high level of scrutiny to which U.S. airline passengers are subjected is a curious departure from the levels implemented in other areas of transportation and border security that use more risk-based approaches, such as the highly selective screening of shipping containers and the limited placement of federal air marshals aboard U.S. commercial flights. Another departure from the “inspect everyone and everything” approach involves TSA’s own workforce. TSA employees are not screened when they enter the secure area of an airport throughout the course of the day, because they are trusted employees who have had a background check.

There are two main opportunities for improving the risk management system for passengers. Because flights originating in the United States are at much lower risk of being attacked by terrorists than are flights originating overseas, the first opportunity would be to differentiate between domestic and international enplanements. One way to do this is to subject travelers who wish to come to the United States to a higher level of scrutiny than those already in the United States. This could be accomplished by maintaining current levels of inspection of travelers coming to the country and reducing the use of advanced equipment and intrusive methods inside the United States. Such a step would yield big savings in equipment and personnel by reducing the number of machines and agents required at U.S. airports.

Recognizing the security of flights originating in the United States and thus returning all passengers to the domestic procedures that existed before the recent additions would save, at minimum, about $1.2 billion annually. Additional savings could be achieved by eliminating the supplemental searches of passengers that now occur as they board planes and the use of roving teams to test passengers’ beverages for explosive residue in the secure parts of airports.

The second opportunity, specifically for domestic enplanements (at least initially), would be to develop a trusted traveler program. The current security regime applies the same procedures to all 700 million passengers who board planes each year in the United States. That we have not developed a reasonable way to reduce that inspection workload is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of the past decade.

Because a very small fraction of fliers account for a very large proportion of trips, a trusted traveler program could be relatively small (with 5 million enrollees or less) and could still provide significant benefits. Such a program could initially be organized around one or more of these three characteristics: possession of a security clearance issued by a U.S. government agency, a profile that involves frequent travel, and a willingness to submit to the equivalent of a security-clearance process. Some travelers would find it well worth the time and expense to obtain such a credential in exchange for the ability to move through an airport more quickly. Several programs, including Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI, already allow certain travelers to be preapproved for expedited clearance for entry at U.S. borders. Extending the privileges of these programs to security at U.S. airports would be a relatively trivial and easily justified action.

Rep. Sharon Cissna (D-Anchorage) refused to be patted down in the Seattle-Tacoma airport.


Rep. Sharon Cissna (D-Anchorage) refused to be patted down in the Seattle-Tacoma airport, following a full body scan that had detected her mastectomy and prompted the pat-down, and took a ferry to Juneau to return to her duties on February 24, 2011. She vowed to fight for the rights of travelers who have been subjected to what she considers intrusive airport searches.

The savings from a trusted traveler program would depend largely on how it was configured, on what fraction of the traveling public was qualified to be trusted travelers, and whether security procedures were relaxed for U.S. enplanements. If procedures were relaxed for all U.S. enplanements, the incremental savings from a trusted traveler program would be smaller. However, if procedures were not relaxed for all U.S. enplanements, the savings from a trusted traveler program could be substantially greater. The savings would rise with the fraction of travelers who are trusted and could easily approach those associated with relaxing the standards for all U.S. enplanements. Even greater savings could be achieved if trusted traveler status were something for which travelers had to pay.

Had these steps been implemented in the years after 9/11, the savings would now likely total in the tens of billions of dollars, with no discernible reduction in security.

In the meantime, some travelers have reacted to the new security measures by choosing to drive instead of fly, but they may be placing themselves at greater risk. Researchers have estimated that the 9/11 attacks generated nearly 2,200 additional road traffic deaths in the United States through mid-2003 from a relative increase in driving and a reduction in flying resulting from fear of additional terrorist attacks and associated reductions in the convenience of flying. If today’s security measures are generating similar, or even smaller, substitutions and the driving risk has grown as hypothesized, the air security measures could be contributing to more deaths annually on U.S. roads than have been experienced cumulatively since 9/11 from terrorism against air transportation targets around the world.

The first opportunity would be to differentiate between domestic and international enplanements. The second opportunity would be to develop a trusted traveler program.

The potential of a trusted traveler program and the risk of driving rather than flying both point to the same conclusion: TSA should be required to analyze proposed security measures and regulations, using clear, transparent, peer-reviewed risk management principles. One reason for the current situation is that security measures have been grafted on or layered on in response to specific incidents, with little regard to an integrated assessment of cost, effectiveness, and impact. Risk management modeling can be used to assess these variables.

For most of the past decade, the United States has pursued policies with very little regard to the costs they impose on travelers or the net reduction in risk that they generate. It is imperative that we use the next decade to develop smarter, more sustainable, and more practical solutions to air passenger security. We should start by rolling back the procedures that were implemented in late 2010. Further savings could likely be gained by subjecting other security measures — such as shoe removal, the ban on liquids, gate inspections, and the use of behavioral-detection officers — to careful scrutiny. square

Related Reading

“Flight of Fancy? Air Passenger Security Since 9/11,” K. Jack Riley, in The Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism, Brian Michael Jenkins, John Paul Godges, eds., RAND/MG-1107-RC, 2011, pp. 147–160, ISBN 978-0-8330-5833-1.