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More TSA Changes for Prohibited Items.

More TSA Changes for Prohibited Items

By Dr. Todd Curtis, The Foundation

In late November, the Transportation Security Administration announced several changes in policy, including changes that would allow passengers to once again bring previously banned items into the cabin, including scissors that are less than four inches or 10 cm long and small tools that are less than seven inches or 17.8 cm long. While TSA Assistant Secretary Kip Hawley also announced several other policy changes, these changes were the focus of much of the traveling public's attention. Among the reactions was one of dismay, with many in the airline industry concerned that air travelers would be facing additional risks because of the TSA's actions. Upon closer examination of the words and actions of the TSA, risk is indeed at the core of their actions, but not in the way that it may appear at first.

The TSA, formed in the wake of 9/11, has the mission of protecting the transportation system of the U.S., not just from the kinds of threats faced in the past, but from a wide range of potential threats, many of which have never occurred in the U.S. From the perspective of the average passenger, the most important methods used to do this job are the ones that they see. The key changes that will be evident on December 22nd include random pat down screenings of passengers and changing the prohibited items list to allow items that are currently banned. To many travelers, neither change is welcomed, especially any kind of physical search. The stated reasons for these changes include a desire on the part of the TSA and its parent organization the Department of Homeland Security to make changes in strategy based on transportation related risks. Risks from explosives is one that is receiving increased emphasis, including enhancing explosives detection through improvements of both the training of screeners and in the technology used to explosives. One of these changes, allowing previously banned items, certainly increases risks faced by passengers, while the enhancement of explosives detection techniques may or may not reduce risks.

These two changes, changes in how passengers are screened and changes in the technology is used to detect explosives, are not random decisions, but illustrate a risk-based decision philosophy of the TSA. This philosophy is similar in many ways to the underlying philosophy used to develop safety regulations within the FAA. Traditionally within the FAA, decisions on whether safety regulations are added or changed are guided by basic risk assessment concepts, which considers three basic things: the outcome to be avoided, the likelihood of that outcome occurring, and the resources needed to implement the changes. It is a particularly useful decision making method when there are multiple risks, multiple ways of dealing with those risks, and limited resources available for reducing or eliminating those risks.

The changes in passenger screening and bomb detection are a classic example of this kind of risk assessment decision making. In his remarks on December 2nd to the National Press Club, Assistant Secretary Hawley outlined three types of risk reduction strategies that were being addressed: explosives detection, passenger screening, and allowing previously prohibited items. Allowing previously banned items on board the aircraft clearly increases the risk that such item may be used in an attempt to hijack or sabotage an airliner. In his remarks, Hawley admitted that the changes to the prohibited items list might attract the most attention, but considered this change less important than the fact that the TSA was focusing on higher threat areas like explosives. He also stated that this change came about after an evaluation of the risk environment in the transportation sector. Hawley implied, but did not explicitly state, that taken together these actions and other actions taken by the TSA would lower the overall risks faced by passengers.

It remains to be seen if the upcoming changes will have the desired effect of reducing overall risks. One thing that is clear about the recently proposed changes is that they will not be 100% effective. TSA screeners are human, and there is ample evidence that some past tests, screeners are unable to find every simulated gun or explosive that is put through the system. It would be reasonable to assume that even with the increased training to detect explosive devices or explosive device components in carry on baggage, that some of these items could still make it past the TSA screening personnel.

The new devices for detecting the presence of trace amounts explosive residue on a passenger, even if they operate perfectly, will also not be 100% effective because the TSA has implied that they will not be available for every airport. In those same remarks on December 2nd, Assistant Secretary Hawley stated that by the end of next year the number of these machines would expand from the present 43 in 22 airports to over 340 throughout the country. These are impressive numbers, but Hawley did not state whether the program would cover every airport in the U.S. Upon further review, it is clear that this will not be the case. According to the FAA, at the beginning of 2004, 383 U.S. airports accounted for 99.8% of all passenger enplanements, so it is obvious that dozens of airports will not have this tool available and that some passenger will not benefit from this technology. One important tool that complements other explosives detection technologies are the canine explosives detection teams around the country. Hawley stated that the 420 teams that are currently in place in 80 airports represent a 70% increase since 2003. However, he did not mention any plan to put such teams in every airport. The reasonable conclusion is that two of the key explosives detection tools used by the TSA, explosive trace detection devices and canine explosives detection teams, will not provide 100% coverage of all passenger flights.

The upcoming changes in the way the TSA does business will not sit well with many groups involved in airline transportation. Passengers will certainly not welcome the new rules that call for more random physical searches. Flight attendant organizations and passenger organizations will also not welcome the presence of more potential weapons in the cabin. On the other hand, if the efforts to prevent explosives from getting on board an aircraft prevents an airliner from exploding, then this would without question be a good outcome.

As is often the case with risk reduction efforts, the only certainty is that it is easy to identify the costs and the inconvenience associated with the steps taken to prevent bad outcomes, in this case shifting efforts toward finding explosives and away from finding items such as small tools and scissors. One of the key challenges for the TSA is convincing the public that all of these changes will be worthwhile. In this area, the TSA is at a distinct disadvantage. After December 22nd, the TSA will earn the public's scorn if previously banned items are used to threaten airline crews or passengers. They will also get the blame if explosives make their way on to an airliner. On the other hand, they will probably not get any public praise if there are no explosions on an airliner.

Dr. Todd Curtis is president of the Foundation and creator of the web site Todd Curtis conducted research in several areas of aviation risk assessment and accident prevention. Author of the book Understanding Aviation Safety Data as well as a number of articles on Web site planning and airline safety. Licensed private pilot.
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Title Annotation:Transportation Security Administration
Author:Curtis, Todd
Publication:Airguide Online
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 30, 2006
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