Operational planners for Al-Qaeda, the non-state terror organization, had for several years been looking for ways to strike a blow against the US. The group’s leader, Osama bin Laden, felt it was possible to attack the United States on its own turf and operatives for the group began noting certain weaknesses in the passenger security screening system in effect at the time. The group’s work in 2001, including the attacks of 9/11 and the failed in-flight attack later in December by the shoe bomber Richard Reid, directly led to creation of the Transportation Security Administration.
Transportation Security Administration
Prior to 9/11, passenger security screening at US airports was largely the responsibility of the airlines, though the Federal Aviation Administration oversaw the effort. With the creation of the TSA, though, the federal government assumed direct responsibility for security screening and all other aspects of aviation security. TSA’s most-public activities occur at the airport security checkpoints it staffs at hundreds of airports across the nation. Though TSA’s checkpoint screening mission is similar to the mission as it was first laid out by the FAA in late 1972, it’s safe to say that the technologies and the processes and procedures employed by the agency at its security checkpoints are far more advanced.
TSA Security Checkpoints
Owing to 9/11 and other attempts by non-state terror groups to attack commercial aviation in the years since, the attention paid to airport security is much, much higher today than it once was. TSA security checkpoints, for example, make use of a myriad of state-of-the-art technologies utilized by personnel who also receive constant training in their use as well as testing to ensure they’re at the top of their game.
TSA Screening Devices
Today, a typical security checkpoint may feature several different kinds of passenger screening devices in addition to more traditional metal detectors. Carry-on and checked bags also undergo scrutiny using devices that are much more capable of revealing their contents than the old-style X-ray machines of the past.
Managing Security Lines
Airport security screening checkpoints today also benefit from more attention paid to how air travelers make their way through them. Real-time adjustments to security lanes ensure passengers spend the minimum amount of time possible while also receiving the maximum amount of screening needed. Using sophisticated artificial intelligence-based software, TSA checkpoint managers and leaders are able to decide what personnel and electronic resources to devote to any particular security lane at any given time. Having the ability to reposition TSA screeners and their equipment where needed at a checkpoint is a qualitative step up from how security checkpoints were managed before 9/11 and even just five years ago.
Artificial intelligence is also driving a revolution in how passengers are screened as they enter a TSA security checkpoint. AI makes it possible to instantly size up the number of air travelers in security checkpoint lanes, whether any are in wheelchairs and also how much carry-on luggage they have with them as well as the size of each individual piece. In addition, AI-driven facial recognition software also makes it possible to route each passenger to the appropriate level of security screening. For example, passengers with TSA’s PreCheck trusted traveler approval may be sent to the lightest level of security screening as their faces are recognized by agency cameras at the checkpoints.
Building for the Future
TSA knows that global air travel is projected to increase to 8 billion flyers annually in the coming years, and agency leaders say they’re aware of the need to build for the future. Airport security checkpoints will not only have to grow in size and capability but also in efficiency, especially at the nation’s largest and busiest airports. Fortunately, improvements in technology and the ways in which TSA has professionalized the security screener job over the years are making checkpoints far, far more capable than was the case in 1973, 2001 and even just a couple of years ago.
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.