News & Resources

Op-Ed

And Now a Word from the Private Security Sector about Airport Safety

By Robert S. Tucker

January 05, 2011

The safety and privacy of air travelers are not mutually exclusive. But you would never know that from the furor that has been raging over current security measures at airports around the country. That the discussion of airport security and the safety of millions of passengers is being framed by the general public rather than by security experts is cause for concern.

So as a security professional in the private sector, I would like to weigh in by suggesting that instead of the government reactively trying to overhaul American airport security overnight, we seek incremental improvements that can be clearly explained and realistically implemented. In the process we must regain the confidence of the traveling public in our ability to protect both their safety and their dignity, while still keeping them free from harm.

An important first step is for the American people to recognize and accept the fact that the threats we face from militants and extremists intent on causing us harm are real. When a flu epidemic is declared, most people take flu shots as a protective measure. When the risk of aircraft terrorism is elevated, people should be willing to take preventive measures, as well.

This does not necessarily mean the arbitrary exposure of every single traveler to body scans or pat-downs. A preferable option is to institute a pilot program - the Passenger  Security Assessment Program - that provides for layered screening that can successfully separate the vast majority of harmless travelers from the person who, intentionally or unwittingly, is carrying weapons or explosives and poses a specific risk to an aircraft.

Passenger Security Assessment entails the deployment of specially trained security screeners at the start of the boarding process to talk to travelers while they are standing in line waiting for further screening  and clearance to the gates. This is where the private security industry could be very useful – in the training of screeners in initial threat mitigation. The screeners assigned to this first layer of scrutiny are taught to recognize verbal and behavioral signals that suggest the passenger’s intentions may be suspect and present potential risk. The training includes examples of how terrorists operate, how to assess passports and tickets to determine inconsistencies, and how to look for visual clues at check-in areas. At present, out of 376 major commercial airports in the U.S., only 161 use TSA SPOT officers trained to perform verbal and behavioral screening. Otherwise, TSA simply checks ID to confirm that it is consistent with the name on the boarding pass. The 3000 TSA SPOT officers currently deployed need to be augmented by additional specially trained screeners and this group would serve in a Passenger Security Assessment Program at the most susceptible airports.

Using this expanded and enhanced screening method, if a passenger raises suspicion he or she would then be sent to a special security screening line for additional assessment, undergoing further questioning, going through a scanner or having a pat-down. The passengers who did not raise suspicion would continue on their way to the traditional screening through the magnetometer and X-ray checkpoint before proceeding to the gate. Such methods as pat-downs and scanning would then occur only on a for-cause basis, not on a routine or random one, exempting the vast majority of honest travelers from the rigorous scrutiny that would be reserved for the small number of passengers who present themselves as suspect.

This is not a wholesale solution to airport security or passenger privacy nor does it guarantee the elimination of terrorist risks.  Extremists will surely continue in their efforts to impose death and destruction on America in the skies and on the ground. But instituting a pilot program of expanded Passenger Security Assessment, facilitated by a public-private training partnership, could be a positive step toward providing an additional level of informed judgment and decision making in the screening process. It could also relieve a multitude of travelers from procedures that may be unnecessarily intrusive and help regain the cooperation and confidence of passengers for the airline travel experience.

Robert S. Tucker is Chairman and CEO of T&M Protection Resources, a security and investigations company headquartered in New York, with an extensive global network of security partners, and several affiliated security companies in Israel. He also serves as Vice Chairman of the New York State Security Guard Advisory Council and President of the Associated Licensed Detectives of New York State.