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.