Just how fast can you go through airport security?

TSA is still working on improving checkpoints at Sea-Tac and nation’s other airports

Staff, news servicesDecember 23, 2012 

If holiday air travel is one of the few times a year you board a plane, you may find that part of flying that most people find the most onerous, the pre-flight security check, has become swifter and less inconvenient for some travelers.

Recent changes in the way the Transportation Security Administration handles those security procedures have streamlined the process and sped up the lines.

At Sea-Tac Airport, for instance, TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said the maximum wait for fliers going through security during the busy Thanksgiving holiday period was 11 minutes.

That relative speed has happened in part because of several programs designed to reduce the time its takes low-risk travelers to pass through security.

The Transportation Security Administration has expanded its PreCheck trusted traveler program to 35 airports, allowing members who have been deemed low risk to keep shoes, jackets and belts on. Children 12 and younger and passengers 75 and older also receive expedited screening at any checkpoint; pilots, flight attendants, members of the military and people with top-secret security clearances qualify at some airports including Sea-Tac, an early participant in the PreCheck program.

John S. Pistole, administrator of the TSA, said in an interview that the agency’s priority this year had been to move toward a risk-based approach to screening, recognizing that the vast majority of travelers are not potential terrorists.

“When the agency was set up, it was focused almost exclusively on the security mission and not as much on the passenger experience,” Pistole said. “It became an adversarial relationship, so what we’re trying to do through all these initiatives is change that paradigm and make this a partnership.”

For the middle-aged, nonmilitary, twice-a-year flier, the PreCheck program and other programs won’t offer much relief, but it will help reduce the length of the regular security lines because the people eligible for abbreviated screening are routed to other lines.

The PreCheck program is available at Sea-Tac for the most frequent fliers of five airlines, Alaska, American, Delta, United and US Airways. The airlines themselves using confidential standards promulgated by the TSA select their frequent fliers for inclusion in the program on an opt-in basis.

The TSA has also allowed passengers 75 and older or 12 and under to undergo the same streamlined screening procedure. Active duty military are also eligible for expedited security clearance. The PreCheck line is available at Sea-Tac’s central terminal checkpoint near the airport’s food court.

OTHER ASSISTANCE

The agency, said Dankers, has also established special programs for those with disabilities and medical conditions. Those travelers are advised to call the TSA’s toll-free help line 72 hours before traveling to check on security procedures and to coordinate with the TSA customer service manager at the airport if necessary. The number is 855-787-2227.

For those who aren’t frequent fliers but who want a quicker trip through security, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Protection agency offers the Trusted Traveler Program. This fee-based program involves background checks and interviews for those applying for preferred status. The agency’s Nexus program also offers swifter passage through vehicle checkpoints at the U.S.-Canada border.

Because the rules regarding what kinds of substances can be carried in on-board baggage, the TSA has also developed a mobile application, MY TSA, that will allow travelers to ask questions about what’s allowed or not. (Snowglobes, once banned, for instance, are now allowed if they’ll fit inside a 3.4-ounce bag.

Wrapped presents are now on the OK list, but TSA advises passengers to hold off on wrapping until they arrive at their destination. If the TSA needs to unwrap a present to inspect it, they don’t guarantee it will be rewrapped in the same neat fashion as it arrived.

CALLS FOR MORE CHANGES

Even with these changes, the agency is under pressure to refine its strategy further in 2013.

Its operations have been scrutinized by independent researchers, travel industry committees and government officials charged with oversight, and their ideas for reform are coalescing around a consistent theme.

“I use this acronym SEE,” said Stephen M. Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues for the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress that has issued many lengthy reports about the TSA. “They need to make the process more selective, more effective and more efficient.”

More selective means “shrinking the haystack and really focusing on the dangerous people,” Lord said.

While PreCheck and other expedited screening options are a step in that direction, only 7 percent of passengers qualify for these programs, a number Pistole said the agency was working to expand.

One option being tested is to use dogs that sniff for explosives in tandem with behavior detection officers to divert more people to PreCheck lanes. That process was used at Indianapolis International Airport the day before Thanksgiving, allowing nearly a third of passengers to have expedited screening.

Regarding effectiveness, Lord said, the TSA needs to improve the technology it relies on – primarily expensive body scanners that may not detect explosives reliably. Although the test results he has seen are classified, lawmakers briefed on them have called them disappointing. The agency has acknowledged problems with the slow pace of its X-ray body scanners, and removed many of the machines from larger airports in favor of millimeter wave scanners.

Finally, becoming more efficient means addressing the time passengers spend waiting to get through security – a factor that the TSA does not measure consistently or make public, but one that is of growing concern to the travel industry as passenger volume has stagnated.

“You can’t focus exclusively on security,” Lord said. “You’ve got to be mindful of customer service.”

WORKING ON CUSTOMER RELATIONS

Pistole said the agency was working to improve its relationship with passengers. It is training officers and supervisors to defuse escalating situations at checkpoints, appointing customer service representatives at some airports and creating a process to channel complaints that are not resolved locally to an ombudsman.

Dankers said the agency is now using “flex” scheduling to better match the number of agents working the checkpoints to the anticipated passenger loads.

The airlines let the agency know in advance what volume of passengers to expect at an airport, and the TSA calls in workers accordingly, she said.

At Sea-Tac, five passenger security points are available for use. On an ordinary travel day, three of those are open for business. During the holidays, the fourth check point is opened, and during the busiest travel times of the year -- at Sea-Tac that’s late summer when the cruise business is at its peak, not the Christmas or Thanksgiving holidays -- a fifth security checkpoint is utilized.

The TSA has also resurrected the Aviation Security Advisory Committee that was disbanded years ago. A subcommittee of that group is working on customer service recommendations that the TSA “won’t love,” said its chairman, Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association.

Another member of the subcommittee, Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, shared his own ideas for changes recently in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Aviation.

Among his suggestions were revising the forbidden items list to focus on explosives, not pointy objects that even maximum-security prisons fail to intercept, and going back to metal detectors for primary screening of passengers.

“We have two giant differences between now and the situation we had back in 9/11,” Leocha said. “We’ve got cockpits which are hardened and we’ve got watch lists that now screen every passenger. Today, there’s less of a reason for invasive searches at the airport, and yet TSA continues to expand their operation.”

Some of the agency’s efforts to expand have met with resistance, however. A program to buy scanners to verify the authenticity of passengers’ boarding passes and IDs was postponed after members of Congress questioned the program’s $100 million expense. And both the GAO and the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general are investigating a behavior detection program being tested at Logan Airport in Boston, in response to accusations of racial profiling and skepticism about the underlying science.

Pistole said he recognized that some security measures were “not perfect,” but he defended the effectiveness of the agency’s multilayered strategy.

“Reasonable people can disagree as to what’s the precise solution to the current threat,” he said. “The whole idea is to take these good security protocols and layer them in a way that gives us the best opportunity to detect a putative terrorist.”

Staff writer John Gillie and Susan Stellin of The New York Times contributed to this report.

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