Nearly a decade has passed since the American public has given up its soul -- well, taken off its shoes, removed its belts, emptied its pockets, raised its arms, and otherwise danced crazily around at airport screening points, all in the name of safety aloft.
"It has worked, hasn't it?" say defenders of the Transportation Security Administration's current regimen. "Well, yes, but …" say critics, who like to point out that it was other passengers who saved their planes from the likes of the shoe-bomber and the underwear bomber on the two most infamous in-flight terrorist incidents of recent years.
Just recently, the TSA has decided to begin testing this fall on yet another pre-screening routine. There were several such programs in the past, all run by for-profit companies (most notably, Clear) during the Bush administration years and all failing. The premise of those outfits was that you would pay them an upfront fee, which then gave you access at the airport to a VIP line for frequent travelers and other swells.
But the hitch was that you weren't just waved through the VIP line. You still had to go through the regular TSA line, which meant shoes off, belts off, and so on.
Pie in the Sky this Autumn: the TSA Unveils a New Pre-Screening Program
In the fall, the TSA says it will begin a new pre-screening program at four major airports by using frequent fliers from two major airlines. In addition, participants will include members of three government-trusted traveler programs: Global Entry (www.globalentry.gov), NEXUS (www.nexus.gov), and SENTRI (www.sentri.gov).
The new pre-screening procedure will be tried at Atlanta and Detroit airports with those in the three government programs and with selected travelers from the Delta Air Lines frequent-flier program; at Miami and Dallas-Fort Worth airports, participants will come from the three government programs and selected travelers from American Airlines' frequent-flier program.
You already have to give the government more info about yourself than in the past, namely your full name as shown on the government-approved ID that you intend to use at the airport, your sex, and your date of birth. But if you are part of the frequent-flier programs of Delta and American, you have also given them your home address, e-mail address or phone number, and your preferred language.
In this test, you will walk through an "expedited" line with special boarding passes encoded by the TSA with your ID. Presumably this means you'll get through to your plane faster, maybe even without having to remove your shoes.
Industry spokespeople say they would like to add other means of identifying fliers, such as fingerprints or eye scans. However, the TSA has decided on this pre-screening process for its next trials, so more advanced techniques are ruled out for the moment.
The Best Screening Strategies
I believe the best kind of screening is used by El Al (www.elal.co.il), Israel's main airline, in which well-trained security officers have a little chat with every passenger in the check-in line. Whenever I flew El Al, these screeners introduced themselves, asked my name as they looked at my ID, asked why I was going to a destination, what I planned to do there, who I knew there, how long I was planning to stay, and so forth. In less than a minute, sometimes these men and women could tell a lot about you, and whether you might pose a risk.
More comprehensive screening strategies would mean no patting down small children, asking 90-year-old women in wheelchairs to remove their diapers, or feeling too closely into people's private areas. I have my own personal horror tale to tell: I've once watched with dismay as a TSA screener insisted on probing the ankle bandages on the leg of my wheelchair-bound 92-year-old relative.
Most critics of the El Al idea point out that Israel has only one major airport and one big airline, but this screening also takes place at airports where people board flights for Israel. That means screeners in New York, Chicago, LAX, London, and many other airports around the world participate in this type of comprehensive screening. If we were to adopt the interview method of screening, the men and women working on our TSA lines wouldn't have to spend all their time bumping baskets of clothing and shoes through the machines. If passengers were screened psychologically by trained agents chatting with them instead, TSA agents also wouldn't have to touch and probe all the passengers either.
Future Plans for TSA Screening
The TSA says it will expand this test program to other airlines (namely United, Southwest, JetBlue, US Airways, Alaska, and Hawaiian) at other airports -- assuming the tests at the first four places work properly.
Well, we will see what happens.
Robert Haru Fisher is pro-bono vice president of the not-for-profit charity, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (www.iamat.org), now celebrating its 50th year of serving the public.