Long Lines and Disasters: The TSA in a Time of Troubles

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

TSA agents check passenger boarding passes and identification at a security screening checkpoint, Thursday, May 19, 2016, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. 

The Transportation Security Administration is a perennial punching bag for air travelers, members of Congress, and municipal officials from coast to coast. However, the disappearance of EgyptAir Flight 804 en route to Cairo from Paris puts the ongoing furor over the long waits at TSA security checkpoints into a different perspective. “The [TSA’s] priority is security, it is not ease of travel,” says Juliette Kayyem, a former Homeland Security assistant secretary and currently an emergency management and national security lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The EgyptAir tragedy comes at a time when public frustration with the TSA has been mounting. Last week, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned that passengers could expect even longer waits during the summer travel season which sent members of Congress into paroxysms of criticism. House Republicans have scheduled a hearing on the issues, which is almost guaranteed to be an unpleasant affair for TSA chief Peter Neffenger.

The agency’s problems go well beyond Congress. TSA employees have some of the highest attrition and job dissatisfaction rates in the federal government. The agency has been plagued by a lengthy list of security-related lapses, including failing 67 out of 70 tests during Homeland Security Department screening exercises in 2015. But Congress and the airline industry have also failed to do their part in creating a successful air security system. Congress has cut the TSA’s funding and recently gave the agency permission to redirect monies between TSA accounts, so security officials could bring on new screening officers. Yet at the same time, airline profit-boosting mechanisms like baggage fees feed security checkpoint bottlenecks by compelling passengers to put more baggage through the carry-on screeners. “We can blame TSA, and there are going to have to be fixes to TSA,” says Kayyem. “But the idea that this is TSA’s problem that they made alone is just ridiculous.”

Kayyem spoke with The American Prospect about the TSA and U.S. air travel in the wake of the EgyptAir disaster. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Prospect: What does the disappearance of the EgyptAir flight mean for the TSA?

Juliette Kayyem: This gives more support for TSA’s argument in the short term: The priority is security, not ease of travel. In the short term, there’s going to be a much greater emphasis on security because we don’t know what happened to EgyptAir. That doesn’t defend TSA, or Congress, or the airlines, or all the people responsible for the mess we’re in. But what it does say is that pressure will be off TSA to a certain extent.

If TSA is not solely responsible for delays, what could airports be doing differently?

Airports are inevitably going to be soft targets. Let’s just say you move security to the front door of an airport. That just means that the garages are going to be vulnerable. You are never going to be able to totally fortify an airport.

The way TSA and certainly security experts like me think about security is that we talk about layered security: That is, what you want is enough layers. None of them are perfect; everyone is willing to admit that. You might secure some doors and not others. But you put enough layers in those access points for violence to become a little bit more difficult.

It’s a manpower issue at this stage.

What can the airlines do to improve the flow of travelers?

More baggage is being put through as hand luggage ever since the airlines charged fees. If there is a cost to checking baggage, it should be a cost borne by all. Just fold it into the price of the ticket: Baggage fees are relatively new. That’s a simple solution that the airlines are fighting back on and would be a simple fix. That would relieve pressure on people wanting to take their baggage on board with them.

The other issue is that TSA and the Department of Homeland Security underestimated the number of people who would go through the TSA pre-check process. They are starting to push that for travelers who do not travel that often. The more people you can get through the pre-clearing process relieves the burden on those lines. 

When a terrorist incident occurs, the virtues of Israel’s airport security system are often lauded. But Israel has fewer airports and fewer passengers to process compared with the U.S. Yet could the U.S. do a better job of incorporating Israeli airport security best practices, such as protocols that place a higher premium on observing behavior?

Some of that is already being done. The whole point of the pre-clearing process is that there’s a demographic of passengers that we can have incredible confidence about. In some ways, that is a behavioral assessment. A number of airports already have people trained in behavioral assessments. We have a certain level of randomness as well. That explains why a 90-year-old woman is pulled aside. That’s not happening because they think she is a threat, it’s just that she just hit the lottery with the random number that day.

Israel is a country with one major airport and eight million people. It’s an impossible comparison. Millions of people are on domestic flights in the U.S. every week. If you want to have the kind of travel flow that we expect as a nation, we have to accept a level of vulnerability. That’s a good thing. Even tragedies shouldn’t stray us from that. We have a mobile society in ways that a country like Israel can’t even imagine.

What is the long-term outlook for TSA?

Two things are going to impact airline travel over the next five to 10 years. The first thing is there are going to be two classes of passengers: pre-cleared passengers and not pre-cleared passengers. Their experiences at the airport will be very different. You’ll have a burdened class and an unburdened class. That will significantly change, and you’re seeing it now.

The second is that technology is going to make passenger flow through airports easier over time. I am quite confident that in 10 to 15 years our experience of the shoes, and the computers, and the disrobing will be very different.

What types of new technologies are in development?

They’re mostly detection systems that have fewer false positives so that you have more confidence in them. There are ones that are faster so you can have immediate walk through; and mobile detection apparatuses so that if there are backups you can move someone there. The problem with airport security now it is quite static: It doesn’t have the physical ability to move around to relieve burdens on lines.

Will the easing of tensions in global hotspots take pressure off airport security issues?

No. There is no white flag that is going to hang over airports, airlines, and aviation security anytime soon. These are high-risk modes of transportation. I don’t see many changes, except what we saw after the December 25, 2009 attempted attack that led to greater international cooperation. The EgyptAir flight is another example. Even if you start to have confidence in Cairo and Paris, look at the manifest of this plane: This plane has been everywhere. So have the passengers. That’s the nature of airline travel. Given our global world, security is only going to be as strong as the weakest link, and often we have no jurisdiction over the weakest link.

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