Time For Airport Security To Relax?

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Some 24 million people were expected to fly this Thanksgiving holiday. Audie Cornish talks with the head of the Transportation Security Administration, John Pistole, about what's new with airport security and what the TSA is doing about its image problem.


An estimated 24 million people are flying this Thanksgiving holiday, with millions more to follow before the end of the year. So we thought, why not spend a few minutes talking about airport security? For all of you who squeezed that last bit of shampoo into a travel-sized container or laid out your best socks for the security walkthrough, you may have wondered is all of this is still necessary? John Pistole says it is. He's head of the Transportation Security Administration. While he says the limit on liquids and other items is still key to the TSA's air safety strategy, he points out that some rules have been relaxed.

JOHN PISTOLE: Well, so part of what we're doing, really over the last two years, and it's a gradual process because we want to make sure we're doing it right, is what we call risk-based security, risk-based, intelligence-driven, recognizing that we want to move away from the one-size-fits-all construct that was set up after 9/11 by necessity to make sure that nobody, as a possible terrorist, would be getting on a flight. And so the idea is to try to expedite those, such as the elderly who - although there are a few on the terrorist watch list, they are fundraisers, not bomb throwers or operatives. And of course, children 12 and under are not that either.

We've also initiated what we call TSA pre-check, which is a known, trusted-traveler type of program. We started that last year. And now we are in 32 airports. So anybody who's in TSA pre-check is either elite frequent flyer or has signed up for the Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry program. So we know more about them. We know travel patterns, history, background, things like that. They can go to a dedicated lane. They keep their shoes on, keep their belt on, keep a light jacket and then go through expedited physical screening because we've done pre-screening of them. So we're moving away from that one-size-fits-all, allowing our officers to, we think, provide the most effective security in the most efficient way.

CORNISH: What are some of the difficulties in focusing on risk, which I can imagine is more subjective, involves more training? And we've heard reports that terrorists are looking for, quote, unquote, "clean operators," people who would survive these kinds of registrations and checks.

PISTOLE: Yeah. So the whole idea is to have multiple layers of security so there's not a single point of failure. So, for example, we have detection officers who are at airport checkpoints and in and around the airports to look for suspicious activity. We have bomb-sniffing K-9s in some locations. We have explosive trace detection, the swabbing of hands that we may do in a random and unpredictable way. Sometimes we'll do something actually at the departure gate, just to make sure that we're not too predictable in what we do so terrorists can't game the system.

CORNISH: But is this you taking to heart the criticism that the TSA in the past has essentially been a reactive organization?

PISTOLE: Yeah. We're mindful of those complaints and concerns. And I would say there has been something to it, that we have been reactive. And that's we have moved and shifted the paradigm from the one-size-fits-all to the risk-based security initiative.

CORNISH: At times, it seems like travelers just don't like the TSA, that there's a, you know, a severe image problem. Do you understand that image and what role you guys have played in it?

PISTOLE: Yes. And clearly, we have created part of that in terms of how we have gone about doing our work. And when we look at the sheer numbers, Audie, I think we see some of the challenges in terms of having 100 percent customer satisfaction every day. We, on average, 1.7, 1.8 million people a day that go through screening, over 50 million a month and then over 630, 640 million people a year. So twice our national population go through airport screening every year. The notion that literally every single person will be 100 percent satisfied with their screening experience, I don't think, is realistic. And that being said, our goal is to provide, I'll say, the most effective security, but in the most professional, courteous way. And so when we don't meet that mark, we take that to heart and look at ways that we can adjust.

I will say that, oftentimes there is a complaint and we will go back and look at the footage of it. And it's not necessarily how it's been alleged. And so that's very helpful for us in terms of knowing how we need to adjust it, and if we made a mistake, to apologize and move forward to make sure we can, again, provide that effective security constructively.

CORNISH: Well, John Pistole, thank you so much for explaining it all to us.

PISTOLE: You bet, Audie. Good to talk to you.

CORNISH: John Pistole is head of the Transportation Security Administration.

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