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Taking a Risk-Based Approach to Aviation Security: Air Travelers

By Kelly Hoggan

Screening air travelers based on the risk they pose may work better than general or random screening.

Generally, most air travelers proceed through security screening in the same manner, and the same screening techniques for assessing them are used with little variation among each traveler. At any given airport security checkpoint, for example, every flyer may have to pass through a metal detector after placing their shoes, belts, jackets, keys, laptops and other items in a tray or tub to be screened separately. While casting such a wide net is certainly one method of carrying out security screening, there are other ways of doing so which are also more precise and aimed at assessing the risk posed by each individual flyer.

Assessing and Eliminating Risks

The terrorism threat posed to commercial air travel, which billions of travelers worldwide rely on every year, varies in intensity based on a wide variety of factors, including geographic location. Air travel in the United States and Europe, for instance, is safe –owing to the consistent and persistent mass screening of air travelers -- but the same may not hold true for other parts of the world. In addition, the rise of ‘lone wolf’ terror attacks, in which a single person acts on his own or with very little outside control by a non-state terror group, makes assessing and then stopping such individuals difficult at best. It’s vital, then, that the risks posed to commercial air travel by such bad actors as well as terror groups be effectively assessed and then eliminated. But how do we do so?

Recognizing Emerging Threats

Typically, airports and airlines rely on government security agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security in the United States, to provide early warning on emerging threats. But with threats to aviation coming in ever more diffuse ways, including from lone-wolf terrorists, it’s important that each air traveler be more precisely screened for the risk he or she may pose when flying. And this is where risk-based aviation security screening can be of great help in first recognizing any emerging threats and then acting to prevent them from occurring. Of course, collecting, collating and then disseminating the vast amounts of data needed to effectively assign risk to each flyer is a huge task and the computer power needed to do so is impressive, to say the least.

Threat and Risk Management

In the U.S. and Europe most especially, recognizing a threat posed by an individual flyer and then managing it so that his civil liberties aren’t infringed until necessary is important to the security process. Assigning flyers a score based on the risk each poses to commercial travel – a score which may increase or decrease based on many factors – is one way to effectively security screen each traveler.

In other words, the depth and comprehensiveness of the aviation security screening you might receive prior to boarding your flight could depend on a ‘risk score’ based on data collected about you. Did you walk up at the last minute to book your flight and then paid for it in cash and don’t have any luggage to check? No doubt, your risk score would be higher than if you’d booked your flight well in advance, paid for it with a credit card in your name and have luggage to check in or carry through security.

Here’s another, more speculative, risk-based scenario: Perhaps you’ve recently been on various social media sites discussing how easy it would be for you to hijack or “take down” an airliner full of travelers. Or maybe you’ve remarked on how you’d like to travel to some part of the world known to harbor terror groups and then join up with one of them, and have even booked a flight there soon? Should your risk score increase, and should you then be subjected to heightened security screening at the airport? And should the depth of screening you receive be greater than that of the frequent-flyer business traveler heading off yet again to some conference in yet another city in Europe or the U.S.?

The Truth About Air Travel

In truth, with aviation security screening so thorough and wide-ranging since the 9/11 terror attacks, flying is by far the safest mode of transportation today. But what price has been paid to purchase such a secure air travel environment? Millions and millions of air travelers daily are processed through the aviation security system, with all usually receiving the same thorough, and time-consuming, level of screening before boarding their flight.

Assigning a Risk Score

But is subjecting every flyer to the same comprehensive security screening necessary or needed? Or can we assign each air traveler a score based on the risk they might pose and then direct the right amount of screening at them while others with lower scores receive less, or even no, screening? With the ability of computers, often using artificial intelligence, to collect vast amounts of data about each of us and then present extremely accurate threat assessments to security agencies, which then issue a risk score that determines what security screening you receive, that day may soon arrive.

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 400-plus commercial airports.

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