The TSA Versus the Private Sector

Since it was created in 2001, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been tasked with screening passengers at U.S. airports to ensure that they present no security risks to commercial air travel within the nation.

The TSA is ungodly awful at its primary job.

From the very beginning, the TSA's security lines have caused thousands upon thousands of needless delays for airline passengers, who have regularly been directed by the TSA to arrive for their flights at least two to three hours before their scheduled departure time just so they might have adequate time to make it all the way through the TSA's security checkpoints before proceeding to the gate before their flight departs.

Why? Because the TSA isn't very good at all at its primary job: screening passengers and baggage for weapons or explosives.

So since the beginning, the TSA has made of show of investing in new technologies designed to solve the most visible problem they create for airline passengers: the long lines and delays they create for screening passengers seeking to travel by air.

It turns out that the TSA sucks at that too. Here's an excerpt from a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report from back in 2009, reviewing the TSA's technological advances through the first eight years of its existence.

Since fiscal year 2002, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have invested over $795 million in technologies to screen passengers at airport checkpoints. The DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is responsible, with TSA, for researching and developing technologies, and TSA deploys them.


Since TSA’s creation, 10 passenger screening technologies have been in various phases of research, development, test and evaluation, procurement, and deployment, but TSA has not deployed any of these technologies to airports nationwide. The ETP, the first new technology deployment initiated by TSA, was halted in June 2006 because of performance problems and high installation costs. Deployment has been initiated for four technologies–the [Explosives Trace Portal] ETP in January 2006, and the advanced technology systems, a cast and prosthesis scanner, and a bottled liquids scanner in 2008. TSA’s acquisition guidance and leading commercial firms recommend testing the operational effectiveness and suitability of technologies or products prior to deploying them. However, in the case of the ETP, although TSA tested earlier models, the models ultimately chosen were not operationally tested before they were deployed to ensure they demonstrated effective performance in an operational environment. Without operationally testing technologies prior to deployment, TSA does not have reasonable assurance that technologies will perform as intended. DHS coordinated with stakeholders to research, develop, and deploy checkpoint screening technologies, but coordination challenges remain....

Three years later, the TSA finally began implementing its first solution for faster passenger security screening at U.S. airports: TSA PreCheck, which for an $100 application fee, would allow all passengers who submitted to a background security check access to a separate line for them to pass through at the TSA's security checkpoints.

And as anyone who is familiar with carpool lanes on highways running through large U.S. cities knows, dedicating one special traffic lane to fewer travelers means increased congestion in all the other lanes. Here is the main lesson learned over the four years that TSA's PreCheck has been around, which makes this review of the TSA's development of security technology current through 27 May 2016:

The idea behind TSA PreCheck is to create a faster checkpoint for low-risk fliers so that TSA can focus its limited resources on the majority of travelers in regular security lines.

But the program has fallen far short of its goal of enrolling 25 million travelers, and TSA critics blame the program’s shortcomings, in part, for the long security lines that are bogging down airport checkpoints as the nation prepares for the peak summer travel season.

Instead of speeding the screening process for everyone, critics say the TSA PreCheck is worsening the delays by taking up resources for a small group of travelers....

The reason more travelers haven't signed up for TSA PreCheck, critics contend, is that the program hasn’t been sufficiently promoted, signing up is a hassle and the cost for membership is too high. In addition, no one is guaranteed to zip through the special screening line because TSA officers always reserve the right to randomly pull any TSA PreCheck member out of line to undergo extra screening.

Read the last sentence in the quoted section above. That is your very real indication that the TSA itself does not believe that any of its employees, not to mention the employees of every other federal government security agency who processed comprehensive background checks, are capable of screening passengers effectively, even if it makes them pay for a comprehensive background check.

What's the real solution then? Clearly, the TSA isn't capable of improving at doing its primary job on its own.

Because the TSA has created so many problems for airline passengers, U.S. airlines have gotten fed up enough to do something about it on their own. One, Delta airlines, has not only figured out how to process passengers through the TSA's existing security checkpoints more quickly, it is gifting its solution to the TSA at its main hub in Atlanta just to make it happen sooner.

It cost Delta Airlines $1 million to research, design and implement the two accelerated "innovation" checkpoint lanes at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (ATL). Assuming that 20% of that cost was for the research and design of the system, which is money that would not need to be spent again, at $800,000 for two of its "innovation" checkpoint lanes, the cost of implementing the two new lanes at each of the other 159 large airports where the TSA offers its PreCheck service would cost a total of $127.2 million.

By contrast, the TSA has spent over 10 times that amount on advanced screening technologies over its 15 year history with no sustained improvement in its ability to effectively screen air passengers in a timely manner.

Meanwhile, Delta's innovation lanes are already providing real and immediate benefits for airline passengers, as explained by Delta COO Gil West:

"It's the first of its kind in the U.S., and day one it increased productivity 30 percent," West said. He's expecting productivity to double before the test run ends.

Essentially, in the current system one slow traveler can back up the line because everything happens in series, and in Delta's innovation, everything happens in parallel, he explained. In other words, instead of travelers putting their things on the conveyer [sic] belt one at a time, there are five stations, so there are five different people going through their pockets and getting their bags X-rayed.

"If a bag does alarm, the whole system continues to flow so nothing shuts the system down," West explained.

And that's without changing any other aspect of the TSA's security theater!