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How COVID-19 Will Permanently Change the Way TSA Operates

By Kelly Hoggan

TSA's COVID-19 Screening Process Has Altered the Way the Agency Does Checkpoint Security

The COVID-19 virus is remaking society in ways both large and small. Did we all shake our last hand in March, for example? How many people, now that their employers have them working from home, will be willing to endure the daily grind of a commute when they’ve seen how life is like away from the cubicle farm? Also, will we ever again be willing to join a long, tightly packed line or bunch up in front of a TSA security checkpoint? Let’s not forget, as well, the TSA security screening process, one in which you and your luggage may end up being physically searched by TSA security officers (gloved though they may be). Indeed, COVID-19 is shaping up to be the catalyst which provokes a sea change in how TSA will operate in the future. Here’s why:

Building Upon Current Systems

TSA has always been a forward-looking federal security agency, partly because it must keep ahead of what bad actors out there might try to do to defeat the multi-layered aviation security defenses which have grown up since 9/11. Fortunately for the agency, the many screening systems it’s been putting into place over the last several years can accommodate an array of even newer technologies which could eventually eliminate the need to physically screen you or touch your baggage at all. Of course, there will still be certain instances when there’s just no way to avoid a TSA security officer physically patting you down or examining the contents of your luggage – because that’s just the nature of good security – but be prepared for a lot of changes because of COVID-19.

The New Security Checkpoint

One such change to how TSA will operate is that we will soon be going through security checkpoints in which we’ll have been examined well before we reach the checkpoint’s entrance, including for identity and any “red flags” posted by security agencies. These remote identification systems are powered by artificial intelligence, or AI, and their accuracy and reliability is improving with each passing day. So, imagine being anywhere from 30 feet to 30 yards away from a TSA security checkpoint and having your identity and travel itinerary verified as you walk towards it.

Once you arrive at the checkpoint, a TSA security officer will then invite you to enter and there will be almost no one standing in line. If your ID and travel documents require screening, however, you’ll be able to do it all on your own through self-service “Credential Authentication Technology” devices stationed at checkpoint entrances. They’re faster than human screeners, too, and they’ll eliminate line backups in front of you or behind you because everything will move at a seamless, AI-controlled pace.

At the same time, other AI-powered “crowd movement technology” systems will be delivering near-instantaneous feedback to TSA managers and supervisors as to just how many people will be queuing up to get in line. Those same systems will also tell TSA just which security lanes should handle just how many people, how many wheelchair-bound travelers and their helpers are in line, how many pieces of carryon luggage will be going through screening devices at any given moment and even whether people are maintaining proper social distancing. They’ll even be able to send real-time alerts to TSA checkpoint supervisors as well as travelers having the proper app downloaded on their smartphones or tablets.

Finally, AI will also recommend to checkpoint leaders how many security officers to deploy to any given security lane and when to do so, enabling the kind of responsiveness any traveler can appreciate. The best part is TSA will be experimenting with these crowd movement technologies at several airports in the extremely near future. Indeed, such systems promise to revolutionize how security checkpoint lines as well as even TSA officers are managed and utilized, and it will all be with the highest level of protection when it comes to personal information. No photos or other identifying information will be permanently stored, and the process will be so unobtrusive most travelers will never even know they’ve received their first security screening look upon approaching and then entering their chosen or designated security checkpoint.

Reduced Touch Points

Given just how COVID-19 is changing the ways we interact with other on a physical basis, it should come as no surprise TSA wants to reduce the number of times travelers and their luggage are touched during the screening process. Every assembly line manager knows that cutting down on the number of times items going through their lines are touched, either by humans or machines, often leads to reduced assembly times. More items can be built in a shorter period, in other words. The same assembly principles largely apply to TSA security checkpoints, so it’s the federal security agency’s aim to keep any physical interactions their personnel have with travelers and their luggage to the bare minimum needed to ensure highly effective security.

Standoff Screening

TSA is starting to reduce security lane “touch points,” as they’re called, by introducing a raft of new screening devices, most especially including passive terahertz standoff body detection technology. These revolutionary new security screening devices can pick up on your body even as you approach a security screening lane, quickly scan you and deliver a result to a TSA security officer standing nearby, who will then either invite you to continue through the checkpoint or direct you to another area for enhanced or secondary screening if it’s needed. Finally, the new passive terahertz standoff body detection technology can be used for ‘virtual pat downs,’ eliminating the need for physical contact between passengers and TSA security officers. Those virtual pat downs can also be used for secondary or enhanced security screening quite easily, with all data and images generated by them rapidly assessed by officers, after which travelers can be sent on to their flights.

As the security agency begins to increasingly rely on “automated screening lanes” (ASLs) there will be very few security officers standing by because the total number needed per checkpoint where the units are deployed will decrease overall. ASLs will also increase social distancing for both passengers and TSA officers in the lane as passengers are divesting themselves of their belongings, plus there will be full social distancing at the end of the lane when travelers reclaim their luggage and belongings. In effect, new social distancing practices will be the norm whenever a TSO resolves an alarm triggered by something in a bag, as there is additional space available at the backend of these ASLs for carryon baggage resolution. Due to improved detection and overall increases in processing these lanes can also enhance personal privacy as well as eliminate physical interactions between TSA personnel and air travelers.

Improved Security Lane Performance

When ASLs are deployed correctly they may also reduce the total number of ASLs needed because they increase the number of passengers that can be processed through those lanes in any given period. Another technological improvement is the fact that remote screening is more readily supported with ASLs. This type of screening is a process where TSA officers don’t even have to be at the checkpoint but, rather, can be in a remote location examining baggage as it’s being processed through any designated checkpoint. Remote screening also keeps those officers far away from passengers while also increasing lane productivity across the board. TSA has already deployed some remote screening lanes at checkpoints where ASLs are deployed and those lanes already have the capability to implement remote screening activities even with the agency’s current technologies. These include existing X-ray machines located at standard non-automated screening lanes, meaning security officers can be quickly trained in the process as needed.

As well, new computed tomography (CT) machines coming online to inspect carryon luggage at checkpoints. Those CT machines will be able to operate strictly in a standalone capacity or can become a part of the overall remote screening solution -- when paired with an ASL -- the security agency is designing to make it even easier for travelers to make their way through security screening. These machines not only improve detection but also make it easier on passengers while enabling officers to relocate away from the physical checkpoint area and into a remote screening room, something which also further improves the social distancing TSA is helping travelers to practice. Just these devices alone will drastically reduce the number of instances in which TSA security officers have to physically search the carryon contents of a traveler.

Improved Luggage Screening

New carryon luggage screening devices are being fielded by TSA even as we speak and they’re both more sensitive and have the potential to be speedier than the older machines. More importantly, they have greater detection capabilities than the equipment they’re replacing. These new screening machines can rapidly scrutinize carryon luggage and pick out any suspicious, prohibited, or dangerous items, thereby simultaneously reducing the number of physical baggage examinations TSA’s security officers must carry out. In addition to greatly reducing how often security officers touch luggage, these new machines also help curtail security lane backups, because travelers will simply continue moving through the lane at a steady pace and pick up their own carryon bag at the end.

While there will always be a varying or random percentage of carryon luggage that must receive additional scrutiny – in keeping with the dictum that security should never become predictable – TSA’s aim with both checked and carryon luggage is to get to the point where a security officer having to physically inspect a bag will become exceedingly rare. To help ensure rarity becomes the case, the agency is also deploying handheld devices called Raman spectrometers which will supplement current explosive trace detection (ETD) testing of baggage by security officers. ETD is a separate bag screening process where TSA security officers (TSOs) screen a bag for traces of any explosive or its residue. Raman spectrometers can identify known and unknown solids and liquids in luggage in just seconds. “Point and shoot” in character, these devices, which just a few years ago were not only bulky but prohibitively expensive, are now making their way into the field at a rapid pace. They too will cut back on the time needed to screen even a stuffed carryon bag, and all without a TSA officer having to physically inspect its contents.

A New World

Though no one would ever claim with a straight face that the COVID-19 pandemic is any sort of welcome occurrence it’s also necessary for us to try to find the bright side of things if only to keep ourselves from becoming too depressed. For TSA, which has been facing huge declines in daily passenger screening numbers because of the coronavirus, the bright side is that the pandemic has freed it to experiment with a myriad of new security technologies. These technologies, tested and now proven in the field, promise to soon enough greatly benefit people going through TSA security checkpoints at every commercial airport in the country.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 450-plus commercial airports.

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