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.