aviation security: is more really more?

Aviation security has been in the news this week after ABC released a report suggesting that 95% of explosives go undetected when passengers go through checkpoint screening at airports.

There are several operations research challenges in passenger screening that address how the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) can set up, staff, and use its limited resources for screening passengers. My advisor Sheldon Jacobson has been working on aviation security issued since 1996 (!) and has amassed a large number of papers on passenger and baggage screening. His work provides the critical technical analysis that is at the foundation of security operations at commercial airports throughout the United States, including the fundamental technical analysis that laid the basis for risk-based security, which in turn lead to TSA PreCheck. I wrote several of these papers with Sheldon when I was a PhD student.

Sheldon Jacobson was interviewed by Defense One about risk-based passenger screening issues.

“Ultimately, we’re dealing with people’s intent more than items. Which concerns you more: a person who has no bad intent but who has an item on them like a knife or a gun, or someone who has bad intent but doesn’t have such an item?” [Jacobson] said. “Most people are comfortable with the former rather than the latter. A person with bad intent will find a way to cause damage. A person without bad intent who happens to have an item on them is not the issue.”

Risk-based systems can help solve that problem, but only when used correctly. The most famous and widely used is TSA’s PreCheck, which launched in December 2013. It allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents who submit to a somewhat strict background check (including an in-person meeting and fingerprint scan) to receive expedited screening at airports for five years. Jacobson says the best thing policy-makers could do to airport improve security is get a lot more people into PreCheck.

The TSA screening policies focus more on finding prohibited items rather than preventing terrorists from finding attacks. As evidence of this, think about the time and energy used to find bottles of liquids and gels that we have accidentally left in our bags. As further evidence of this, recall that the box cutters and small knives used in the September 11, 2001 hijackings were not even prohibited in the first place.

Ultimately, an overhaul of screening requires more than just operations research. We also need new technologies for screening and new training programs. Promising new technology may be just around the corner. Fast Company has an article about how to use biometrics to identify those with bad intents (rather than those who accidentally left a water bottle in their carry on).

I’ll end today’s post with a recent article from The Onion. The Onion is a bit pessimistic – we will always have security challenges. Hopefully we can make big improvements in security at airports and if we do, operations research will have played an important role.

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