The future of airport security?

Pittsburgh has the right idea: In a trial program, pilots are finally exempt from standard TSA screening

Published June 16, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

A US Airways crew member makes his way to a security check at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.
A US Airways crew member makes his way to a security check at the Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

Two slick things about the Pittsburgh airport. Pittsburgh!

First thing is the presence, right there on the departure concourse, of a Rite-Aid convenience store. Convenience stores, a rarity in terminals, are No. 3 on my vaunted list of "Fifteen Things No Airport Should Be Without." I've lamented how airports are becoming more and more indistinguishable from shopping malls, and that's mostly a bad thing. But if you're going to load up the concourse with retail chains, it's nice when one or two of them are actually useful.

The second thing is that Pittsburgh airport is one of the trial spots for so-called CrewPASS. Now under testing at a handful of airports, CrewPASS uses a database to cross-check an airline pilot's company and Federal Aviation Administration credentials, and will eventually allow all on-duty crew members to bypass Transportation Security Administration checkpoints nationwide.

That pilots are currently forced to undergo the same TSA inspections as passengers has long been a sore point of mine. It wastes the crew members' time and it wastes the passengers' time, while doing virtually nothing to enhance safety. And it wouldn't be quite so preposterous if not for the fact that other airport workers, many with full access to aircraft, have long been exempt from standard TSA screening. Mechanics are not screened. Caterers are not screened. Cabin cleaners are not screened. Baggage loaders and apron workers are not screened. They are subject to fingerprinting, a 10-year criminal background investigation and cross-checking against terror watch lists, but they receive only occasional, random on-the-job checks. Many employees say they have gone years without ever once being screened.

As a uniformed, on-duty first officer, meanwhile, I am not allowed to carry a serrated butter knife onto my aircraft.

CrewPASS has been sitting in a kind of limbo for over two years, and how long it might take for full implementation is anybody's guess. The problem, mainly, has been one of money. The government feels it shouldn't have to pay for it; the airlines feel they shouldn't have to pay for it; pilots feel they shouldn't have to pay for it. But I'm not sure that I understand. We're told the program will require millions of dollars in manpower, hardware and software. Yet TSA and the industry long ago agreed on a simple and inexpensive way to pre-clear these tens of thousands of other workers. Why is it different for pilots?

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 My experience with Pittsburgh's CrewPASS trial was enough to make me want to bid Pittsburgh trips for the rest of my career. It was so pleasant, efficient and sensible.

Sadly, however, while the guard was verifying my status, I looked back over my shoulder at what lay in store for the rest of the flying public. The security line was enormous -- hundreds of people waiting impatiently to be victimized by TSA's wasteful and intrusive screening, scanning, X-raying and patting down -- lest a child or senior citizen sneak onto a plane with a 4-ounce tube of toothpaste or a pair of sewing scissors. This, even more so than any crew member policies, is the real madness of airport security.

Is there a glimmer of hope here too? Two weeks ago, at its 67th General Meeting in Singapore, the International Air Transport Association unveiled a mock-up of its "security checkpoint of the future."

The IATA proposal, covered in this column a few months ago, wouldn't be a perfect solution, but it's arguably the best idea I've yet heard with respect to restoring sanity to airport security. Basically it categorizes each passenger into one of three risk groups, each with its own security line. Those in the first line would receive little more than a cursory inspection, while those (presumably far fewer) in the third line would be subject to an enhanced-level check similar to existing TSA procedures.

Biometric data will be checked against a stored profile, and against passenger watch lists, to help determine which of the three lines a traveler is assigned to.

Sure, it's profiling. But it's a form of profiling that takes in more than simple ethnicity or nationality. And regardless of what one thinks of profiling in general, it is imperative that we break from the mad and self-defeating approach in which every last person who flies, from an infant to a uniformed captain, is an equal threat worthy of equal scrutiny.

"Today’s checkpoint was designed four decades ago to stop hijackers carrying metal weapons," said Giovanni Bisignani, director general of IATA. "We need a process that responds to today’s threat. It must amalgamate intelligence based on passenger information and new technology. That means moving from a system that looks for bad objects, to one that can find bad people."

It's a great idea, but sadly it's a long way off. And while it might be welcomed in Europe and the rest of the world, we cynics expect strong resistance from TSA. Not because TSA feels it's a bad idea, per se, but because the IATA plan diametrically opposes much of what TSA does, and would require TSA to relinquish a good deal of its power and control. TSA is essentially in the business of search and seizure -- of stripping people down, literally and figuratively, and confiscating their hardware. IATA's strategy is based primarily on the gathering and interpreting of intelligence.

We'll see what happens.

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 In the meantime, though, it's oddly reassuring to remind ourselves that despite what whiners like me often lead the public to believe, American airports do not, it turns out, hold a monopoly when it comes to lunatic and irrational security policies. For example:

I was traveling home from Asia a few weeks ago when -- and this is the second time this has happened to me -- I was asked to pack my liquids and gels in a zip-top plastic bag after clearing security.

I'd passed through the metal detector and X-ray machine with no trouble. But then, at the departure gate, security staff had set up a secondary screening station -- a common protocol for flights headed to the U.S. from foreign cities. Passengers were asked to haul their bags onto a metal table. Guards then opened the bags and rummaged through them, looking for who knows what.

One of the guards unzipped my toiletries kit. Inside were my various containers -- toothpaste, shaving gel and so forth. All were legally sized at 100 milliliters or less, but alas not encased in a clear plastic baggie. This was perfectly acceptable for the X-ray screeners, but, inexplicably, not for the secondary check.

"These need to go in a plastic bag," said the checker. She had a stack of zipper bags there at the ready. She handed me one, and watched intently as I placed each item inside. She nodded thanks, and I tucked the toiletries kit back into my suitcase.

The ridiculousness of this exercise ought to be obvious to anyone. The intent of having people bag their liquids and gels is to make it easier for the screeners at the X-ray station to scrutinize them. There is no point or purpose in having them bagged after you've cleared the checkpoint and are sitting on board the aircraft. After all, there is no rule against a passenger opening a zip-lock bag and using its contents any time he or she sees fit. Otherwise your toiletries would be confiscated from you entirely.

After wasting five minutes of my and everyone else's time, I was free to pick up my luggage, take 10 steps to my right, open the bag again, and dump everything back into the kit the way it was in the first place.

This is more than just silly. The money and resources spent on meaningless rigmarole could instead be deployed in the interest of actual security. Instead of paying people to hunt for plastic bags, they could be paid for the hunting of explosives, say, or, as IATA reminds us, for the people who might use them.



By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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