Sunday, September 22, 2013

TSA’s PreCheck security program fails to deal with the real problem

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is now expanding its PreCheck security program (for a hefty price paid by willing passengers) so that they won’t have to remove certain clothing items and even be allowed to keep a laptop in their carry-on bag.

This, it is claimed, will mean less waiting time in security screening queues, increase passenger satisfaction and positively affect bottom line security costs. This seems like a really good policy decision, but there are some hidden costs involved, as well as the critical issue of whether such a PreCheck program will actually reduce queuing time and passenger frustration.

Rather than argue from a “what if” position, I would like to apply some empirical results that emerged from the ground-breaking BEMOSA Project, which examined both employee and passenger behavior as it related to security decision-making in airports.

For one, nothing has changed in terms of prohibited items. Even without this new program, there was no prohibition against wearing shoes, a belt or bringing a laptop on board the aircraft. They simply had to be checked as potential carriers of explosives. What was prohibited remains on the prohibited list and from the BEMOSA Project it appears that the vast majority of prohibited items found among passengers are liquids.

More to the point, they are predominantly found among charter passengers (most likely holiday seekers!). But then it gets a bit more complicated as we also found that passengers who are “caught” with such prohibited items actually negotiate with the screeners, so as to not lose their $100 bottle of whiskey. This is a major contributor to the long and frustrating wait for those in the queue.

What this means is that even if you do apply PreCheck to passengers, it will likely completely miss the real culprits who are slowing down the throughput of passengers. It would be very rare that a holiday maker on a charter flight would pay an extra fee just to get a “free pass.” And even those with the security clearance will still have their carry-on bags checked for prohibited items. The net effect will probably be the same.

Now let’s take a quick look at the hidden costs of checking passenger in order to obtain a PreCheck clearance. As the TSA is not divulging how they will randomly give a green light for certain passengers to get PreCheck permits, the costs of this decision-making process is unknown. However, as it is based on a risk assessment, this means that there are employees working on attaining these risk assessments which are dynamic in nature. This means the costs are not a one-time deal; they require highly skilled employees working continuously to assess risks.

Then there is, of course, the fee for having the privilege of starting the PreCheck process, a payment which is a transparent cost. But it would appear that applicants also have to submit fingerprints (more employees) and be interviewed (more employees). Then there is all the administration to keep this system running (even more employees). It simply does not seem reasonable that this fee ($85, $100) would cover these costs. And, if not, who is paying for it?

Taken together, the actual benefits of increasing passenger throughput and the costs for allowing passengers to get through screening with their shoes and laptop in a carry-on bag seem a bit exaggerated and certainly extravagant.


*Prof Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, founder and CEO of Kirschenbaum Consulting.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Are TSA screeners really slower than amateurs?

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

A recent report published on NBC under the title, “TSA screeners slower than amateurs, but more accurate” raises some serious questions. 

The paper, which appeared in an obscure journal that focuses mainly on physical aspects of vision cognition, is certainly an eye catcher, until you look more carefully at the researchers’ results and try to figure out if the innuendos about the accuracy and speed of TSA trained screeners inability to match “amateurs” are what they actually found. 

Several issues are involved here. The first is that the “amateurs” were in fact college students, the proverbial “cannon fodder” of academic researchers in their quest to conduct experiments. The second is the relevance of these results for airport security.

The experiment revolves around identification of the letter “T” (sometimes) placed on a screen with various other “Ts” but not exactly the same or in the correct position. According to the results, accuracy and time in identifying the “T” differed. 

The differences, as far as I could determine, were not statistically significant, meaning they could have all been achieved by sheer chance. Moreover, this experiment was done without the usual external noises and pressures that are part of the daily life of security screeners.

Even more dubious is the substance of the comparison: screeners are trained to identify objects while college students focus most of their efforts on dealing with and comprehending words. No great wonder that students saw the letter more quickly, but when it came to accuracy the screeners beat them out. The rest is all interpretation, with the article’s authors bringing us the earth-shattering news that consistency is the key to better performance.

So what does this have to do with airport security? Does this mean that hiring amateurs is better than investing in training screeners? As airport managers want to increase throughput of passengers, no doubt that 1–2 second difference in spotting that “T” may make a difference. But what about the consequences?

It all comes down to accuracy versus speed. The screeners were more accurate – meaning fewer false alarms and greater chances of spotting the prohibited items. The college students were quicker but made more mistakes. 

As a security manager, which one would you opt for? Part of that answer was revealed in the BEMOSA Project where up to 40 percent of the security employees stated they bent, broke, ignored and even went against the rules – despite knowing full well what was on the screen and who was in front of them.

This headline enticer requires a lot of caution when one realizes that we are dealing with a sanitized experiment in a controlled environment where the results may have very little to do with the real social world outside the experiment’s booth. 

This is particularly true in the case of airports which are complex social organizations with rich and vibrant social networks that the BEMOSA project has amply revealed. Therefore, it might be wise to keep both eyes open the next time you see this kind of article. 


 *Prof Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, founder and CEO of Kirschenbaum Consulting.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Airport employees security badge breach more positive than threatening

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

The latest news sensation in airport security was recently discovered in police reports which revealed that certain airport employees at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport were using their security badges for the evil purpose of assisting family members to avoid waiting in line to board aircraft.

One solution expressed by a security consultant was to discard security badges altogether and require all security employees to be physically checked like any other passenger. That, another consultant said, would bring the airport to a standstill.

What we have in these seemingly two contradictory pieces of “advice” is the inherent conflict that imposed security rules, regulations and protocols have on the smooth operation of airports. For the engineer, what counts is processing of passengers and cargo through mass production factory principles.

But the reality of airport operations cannot hide the fact that airports are complex social organizations maintained, inhabited and operated by employees and passengers. People! The “security geek’s” assumption that employees and passengers are cogs in a well-oiled mass processing machine simply does not match up to the reality of airport behavior by either passengers or employees.

In reality, a large proportion of security decisions does not comply with rules and protocols. Recent research found that passengers negotiate their way through the security system. Even the use of technology in making security decisions depends on the degree of trust employees have in the equipment.

Bending the rules has become symptomatic of the intense commercial interest of airports to remain viable economic enterprises. One way has apparently been to allow more latitude in how security decisions are made.

How then can this inherent conflict between security rules and human behavior be reconciled?

Let’s go back to the use of the security badge to expedite getting (usually family members) through the airport without going through security processes. This non-compliant decision was likely strongly influenced by such factors as co-workers’ and friends’ opinions and support, and even the security climate in the airport.

Utilizing the security badge was a judgment call on the part of the worker that had little impact on actual security threats and fitted into a framework of adapting to the situation. This decision-making process of adapting is widespread enough that co-workers support it. This is probably why the only reason these “breaches” were reported was that they emerged from police reports. Keeping rules for “the rule’s sake” is an incongruity within the social framework of airport security.

Employees are very aware of potential and real security threats and, certainly, making it less painful for those whom they trust to get through the security system seems more positive than threatening.


 *Prof Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, founder and CEO of Kirschenbaum Consulting.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

More attention should be paid to the human factor in airport security

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

Kirschenbaum Consulting’s recent study showing that passengers of charter flights are responsible for the majority of extra costs arising from delays in airport security checks won extensive media coverage.

Following the publication of the findings, we received many comments to which I will try to relate in this post. Our evidence about charter versus commercial flight passengers as a crude measure for gauging security costs is only one highlight of a complex and cutting edge research program carried out by the BEMOSA (Behaviour Modelling for Security in Airports) Project we were involved in.

The decision to highlight these results stems from an obvious need to reevaluate the role that passengers play in airport security. Until now, most studies of passenger “throughput” have been classical in their objective – reducing the time it takes to “process” passengers.

This is actually in line with how airports are designed, primarily as mass production units that regard passengers as passive cogs in the service of engineering design and logistic optimization.

The introduction of security technology was a natural outcome of such a perspective as it once more marginalized both employees and passengers by minimizing the need for what we know as the complexity of making security decisions under conditions of uncertainty. This complexity actually showed itself in the fact that close to 40 percent of the employees in airports dispersed throughout Europe actually bent, broke, ignored or even went against the security rules and protocols.

What we did was introduce passengers into the security decision-making process from a human factor perspective. Anyone going through the checkpoint screening process cannot but help but recognize that some passengers interact with the security employees. We noted that while some were very passive and almost automatically acquiesced to orders to open bags or leave items behind, we also noted that others acted differently, and there were those who even argued. Giving away a $100 bottle of prize whisky was not taken lightly.

All this negotiating took time, and given the practical and ethical problems involved in interviewing passengers during this screening process, we were restricted in distinguishing passengers by the type of flight they were about to board – commercial or charter. The costing was a relatively easy exercise and we simply made the association between the two.

The point of showing how charter and commercial passengers can have a direct impact on security costs was obvious. Nevertheless, the more important point was that we only exposed the tip of the iceberg in understanding passenger behavior and its impact on airport security.

This in itself could bring about a “revolution” in making the passenger experience more positive and in doing so benefit the commercial interests of airports and perhaps change the perspective of airports as mass processing production lines to service providers. In both cases, everyone wins.


 *Prof Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, founder and CEO of Kirschenbaum Consulting.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Prof. Kirschenbaum to present BEMOSA's finding at Passenger Terminal Expo 2013

Prof Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, founder and CEO of Kirschenbaum Consulting will present the findings of BEMOSA's first in-depth study of European airports at the Passenger Terminal Expo, which will take place on April 9–11, 2013, in Geneva Switzerland.

Prof. Kirschenbaum will hold a presentation on April 11 at 12:30 as part of the "Aviation Security, Border Control & Facilitation" session.

The presentation, titled "Taken For a Ride: Does Airport Security Really Work?" will focus on the results of a study conducted by EU-funded project BEMOSA (Behaviour Modelling for Security in Airports), which was headed by Prof. Kirschenbaum. The findings are based on over 500 interviews and 700 ethnographic observations held at airports across Europe.

At the event, Prof. Kirschenbaum will present a newly developed behavior model that aims to describe how people make security decisions in the face of reality during “normal routine” and crises. The results of the study indicate that the current design of airport security does not take into account the social behaviour of passengers and employees. BEMOSA results show that the processing within an airport's security framework, founded on rational and logical systems, is failing.

The audience will be presented with the reality of employee security decision-making behaviour in airports across Europe. This forms the basis for reexamining the basic concepts involved in airport security, and the alternative means that can be implemented to enhance it.

Prof. Kirschenbaum will also participate in a panel discussion on April 11 at 12:55 titled "Accounting for the human factor in aviation security." Other participants at the panel include Claudio Mauerhofer, Security Coordinator, at the Federal Office of Civil Aviation FOCA, Switzerland; Klaus Heindrichs, Project Manager, Cologne Bonn Airport and Uta Kohse, Managing Partner, Airport Research Center GmbH.

Friday, April 5, 2013

33–50% of charter passengers carry prohibited items

Passengers of charter flights are responsible for the majority of extra costs arising from delays in airport security checks, according to scientific research conducted by Kirschenbaum Consulting.

The results indicate that while only 10–15% of scheduled passengers carried prohibited items, 33–50% of charter passengers did so. Moreover, while only 10% of regular flyers were re-examined by security employees, 33% of charter passengers needed another check.

“Security has become a key cost component in airports. Passenger behavior and its significance to airport profits should not be underestimated,” said Prof Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, founder and CEO of Kirschenbaum Consulting. “We can clearly see that delays at the screening check point are directly related to the type of passenger involved. This requires paying more attention to the role that the human factor can have on security costs.”

The findings, that are based on a one-year in-depth study held at a regional European airport, also showed that, while charter passengers accounted for less than 50% of overall traffic, they were responsible for an additional 35% of the overall security costs.

Even though the majority of passengers pass through the security process very quickly, passengers who negotiate with the security personal consume close to 80% of the time spent passing through screening.

Kirschenbaum added that it could be conjectured that charter passengers were more likely to purchase holiday gifts and, given their lower sensitivity to security, more likely to be stopped for possessing prohibited items.

Airports estimate that it should take 20–30 seconds for a regular passenger to pass through the security screening process. The research showed, however, that it took those ignorant of the rules one to two minutes.

The study also showed that 85–90% of the prohibited items that delayed processing were liquids, with the remaining 10–15% consisting of knives, manicure files, paralytic sprays, cigarette lighters, imitation children’s toys and tools.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Reality sets the tone for new TSA airport security regulations

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

It has finally started. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has started to reduce the number of prohibited items that passengers need to deposit at security screening points before being allowed to board flights.

True, the items include such "dangerous" weapons as pocketknives, golf clubs and waffle ball style bats but it is a step in the right direction.

Source: The TSA Blog

The recent announcement is a decision that reflects a much more realistic assessment of airport security as the prohibited items regulators put on the "hit list" were reactions to a period when hijacking was the easiest and most effective way for terrorists to get attention. Now, with double pilot cabin doors, your trusty penknife or golf clubs will not do very much damage. Nevertheless, the other reality of airport security – namely bottom line profits is also at play here.  I would even argue that it played a critical role in bringing about this small step toward a more rational security policy.

In this case, two 'bottom-line' factors are at work in making these decisions and ensure airports remain financially viable: one magic bullet is increasing passenger "throughput". Logically, getting ever-increasing numbers of passengers in shorter times through the security screening process reduces security labor costs. It may also make passengers more amiable to purchase more goods and services (and of course cause less delayed flights).

How do you expedite this process? By simply keep reducing the number of prohibited items that need to be searched for, the time allocated in the queuing and searching process can be substantially reduced.

Let's look at this argument in terms of empirical evidence recently published from the BEMOSA project. This encompassed a detailed ethnographic "time-motion" study of an airport in addition to detailed interviews of security employees at another eight airports across Europe. It clearly showed that security screening is a social platform for negotiating between passenger and security employee when prohibited items show up.

This negotiating can move from outright refusal to give up an item to trying to convince the security employee to let the item pass. So much for rule compliance and the triumph of technology.

More interesting is that about 85-90 percent of the prohibited items that delayed processing were liquids; the remainder of confiscated items (10-15%) included knifes, manicure files, paralytic sprays, cigarette lighters, imitation children toys such as guns and knifes and in rare cases tools. And of course, those hidden pocketknives (more likely loose change or house keys) led to the necessity to have every third passenger retrace their steps and go through the metal detectors at least one more time.

A closer look at the passengers who were holding things up during the negotiating stages found them to be predominantly composed of "holiday makers" heading for a charter flight!

What this all suggests is that eliminating prohibited items by administrative fiat is too simple a solution to a very complex social and organizational problem. Dealing with passengers as people and not passive cogs in a mass production processing system requires looking at hard behavioral evidence and putting it within the social context of airport security. By looking at the human factor, security can be enhanced just as it has been done so through sophisticated technology.


 *Prof Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, founder and CEO of Kirschenbaum Consulting.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Can a remote queue management system for airport security work in reality?

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

A recent report indicates that Warsaw Chopin is the first airport in the world to launch a remote queue management system aimed at controlling queue lengths and reducing the waiting time for security checks. The arrangement of the queuing configuration that directs the flow of passengers into the security screening path will automatically and seamlessly change according to queuing pressures.

Source: Warsaw Chopin site
Source: Warsaw Chopin site
No more unnecessary waiting in line, no more frustrated and angry passengers. Remote control at its finest. And, no need for human intervention or interference: no need for security personal to mix with passengers, argue with them, make judgments, be friendly or explain long delays. Information will now be relayed by sensors to software that will take this hazardous and annoying part of the security process and sanitize it. Heaven on earth!

But, if we look a little closer at the basic idea of continuing the “automation” of airport passenger processing by minimizing any contact or decisions by employees, we should also take into account the fact that passengers are not mindless, individual robots. Nor are they passive cogs in a mass processing factory.

Just picture the possibility of a family consisting of parents, children and grandparents on their way to enjoy a family vacation. They are waiting in line together, when all of a sudden the posts or guidance tapes change configuration and they find themselves split up. Great for optimizing the flow of passengers but terrible for the family members. And what can we expect regarding their probable behaviour?

Those posts and tapes will likely be ignored in favour of family togetherness. And others seeing this will also likely do the same. The technology does not accept that passengers are not cattle that blindly follow the chosen path.

So, we are faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, we have sophisticated technology that should reduce queuing time, facilitate throughput and reduce costs and passenger dissatisfaction. On the other, we have passenger social behaviour which, to the airport designer, seems not only unreasonable but downright irrational. Complicate this situation with the fact that passengers are a very diverse population culturally, socially and economically. Some have experience in airport travel while others do not. Some arrive at airports as family units and others do not. Some are on charter flights and others on commercial scheduled flights. All these differences among passengers are simply not accounted for in the security processes.

A good example of this diversity emerged from the BEMOSA (Behavior Modeling for Security in Airports) Project. Close observations of passengers during the screening process discovered distinct stages where passengers and security employees actually negotiate over items screeners decide are prohibited to bring onboard.

These stages range from accepting the decision to more time-consuming (and costly) stages of negotiating (and even arguing and refusal). While this analysis was done to gauge the actual costs of screening security, what emerged was that by characterizing passengers on the simple basis of being a “charter” or “scheduled” flight passenger, we could predict how the negotiation process would develop.

Here is a clear case where passengers do make a critical impact on security processes. So, despite all the efforts to eliminate the human factor in airport security through greater use of sophisticated technology, airport security designers still have to face the unpleasant fact that passengers are the life blood of air transportation. Paying attention to them rather than ignoring them is rule number one for commercial survival.


*Prof Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, founder and CEO of Kirschenbaum Consulting.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Body Scanner: Who says looks don’t count?

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

The recent decision of the TSA to replace one type of body scanner with another is, at first glance, a remarkable shift in policy for the agency that is the final arbitrator of all matters dealing with airport security. Even more surprising, this decision was brought about by the pressures of non-airport security stakeholders (the Electronic Privacy Information Center), and related to privacy issues rather than security.

Source: TSA blog
This shift in policy is, of course, a bit simplistic as the installation of alternative body scanners remains. The goal is to detect as fast as possible those persons who carry items deemed a threat to security. My emphasis on “as fast as possible” is the reason for body scanners as airport management is extremely sensitive to increasing “through-put,” that magical word that is directly linked to bottom line profits or losses. It is a technological fix that fits into the assembly line design of airports as a people-processing factory. But the technology does have its limits. And people aren’t always compliant.

This was brought home in an analysis, during the BEMOSA project, of the role that passengers play at screening check points. For conventional screening (and it seems for full body scanners as well), screening detection and threat avoidance is guided by rule compliance. The technology is very sophisticated, but we found that there was a problem with employees bending, breaking or ignoring the rules, and even more problematic was passenger behavior. Passengers argued and negotiated with the security employees! What we discovered was that security checking is a complex social process and not the simplistic picture of automated filtering by technology.

The critical time factor of the passenger negotiating over a prohibited item not only put the proverbial monkey wrench into the spokes of the technology, but was, in fact, the key to the flow affecting passenger “through-put.” Shaving off 2-5 seconds per passenger by an advanced algorithm paled in comparison to the time-consuming social process of negotiating whether to open a bag, go through the metal detector, refusal to give up an expensive bottle of whisky or even take off shoes!

So the TSA policy change is really no change at all as it still continues (with an internal logic of justification) to seek the design of a better mouse trap. But to do so there still remains the missing link – employees and passengers. Perhaps the king will realize he is naked only when the evidence proves it to be the case.


*The writer is the initiator and coordinator of BEMOSA (Behavioral Modeling of Security in Airports).

Thursday, January 3, 2013

IATA’s new airport security vision neglect the human factor

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

As part of its 2012 annual review, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has forecast that airline traffic is expected to rise to 3.6 billion passengers in 2016 from 2.8 billion in 2011.

The recent IATA review covers the issue of security as part of its comprehensive program to strengthen the air industry. Security, as we all know, has been prominent in public and scientific discussion and it is satisfying to note that the new vision for the checkpoint of the future (CoF) is one response to make airport and air travel more secure and pleasant for the passenger.

The emphasis of this effort appears to be primarily focused on technological means to enhance security – developing technology and software to enhance (API) advanced passenger information and (PRN) passenger name record information. The implication is that this will promote passenger flow-through and reduce inconvenience and “friction” for passengers during their airport experience.

The notable “missing link” in this vision is people. Certainly, technology is a critical part of airport security, but this perspective ignores the fact that the entire security decision-making process is in the hands of both employees and to some extent the passengers. Nor is there mention of the airport as a complex social organization within which employees and passengers interact with security technology within two distinct social and communications networks – the formal administrative and informal.

These extremely vital aspects presented in the IATA report are marginalized, as they do not reflect how security actually operates in reality.

It is here that the BEMOSA project has made a major contribution to providing an evidence-based depiction of the actual behavioral security decision-making process among a wide range of employees in airports distributed across Europe. The fact that up to 40 percent of the decision-makers bend, break and even ignore the rules; that security decisions are primarily made within groups; that most threats are assessed as false alarms; the degree to which employees trust security technology and to which the opinions of friends directly impacts on rule compliance are the reality of security in airports.

These findings can be integrated into the checkpoint of the future by recognizing that technology is only one component in the airport triumvirate for not only enhancing security but also making airports viable business organizations.


The writer is the initiator and coordinator of BEMOSA (Behavioral Modeling of Security in Airports). This article was first published in i-HLS Web site.*