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.