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Transforming Security at Airports: How Can the TSA Improve Itself?

Written & Sponsored by The U.S. Travel Association

The U.S. Travel Association works to make travel safer and easier.
The U.S. Travel Association works to make travel safer and easier.

Since the Transportation Security Administration’s inception in 2001, the agency has been tasked with a difficult but critical job: protect our nation’s transportation systems and travelers while processing them as efficiently as possible. The men and women of the TSA have done a remarkable job keeping America safe for 15 years. The agency’s mission, however, has been rendered more challenging in recent years, thanks to political and budgetary turmoil, resulting in agency staffing shortages, long lines at airport checkpoints and other frustrations. The agency has improved its performance despite the tumultuous policymaking environment, but it must continue to evolve to meet the demands of a constantly shifting security landscape—and in doing so, provide a more streamlined travel experience for all U.S. flyers.

In a new report, the U.S. Travel Association offers achievable steps Congress and the TSA can take right away to improve security and give travelers a better flying experience. “Transforming Security at Airports: An Update on Progress and a Plan for the Future of Aviation Security” provides 15 recommendations outlining how TSA can improve, in seven areas:

  • Funding;
  • Local empowerment and communication;
  • TSA PreCheck improvements and expansion;
  • Technology and innovation;
  • TSA structure;
  • Internal solutions; and
  • Airport risk mitigation.

Here are some of the top solutions we’ve put forward.

Stop spending TSA fees on unrelated programs.

In 2013, TSA fees were raised from $2.50 per flight leg to $5.60 under the Murray-Ryan budget agreement. However, only two-thirds of that revenue actually goes toward securing travel. Under current law, more than one-third of collected airline passenger fees are diverted from the TSA to the General Fund until FY 2025. This means that last year, travelers effectively paid an extra $1.6 billion in fees. Rather than require travelers to pay for aspects of government completely unrelated to TSA’s mission, Congress should reverse this diversion and allow TSA fees to exclusively fund aviation security improvements.

Expand TSA PreCheck to qualified travelers.

At $85 for five years, TSA PreCheck is a fairly cost-effective option for an individual—but prohibitive for some families with children, or many companies that would like to cover enrollment for their employees. This has seriously hindered efforts to expand the program by enrolling large classes of eligible individuals. A U.S. Travel study also found that one in five travelers hesitant to enroll in TSA PreCheck were deterred by a complicated application process. That process should be streamlined to require only one form of identification—like a state-issued, REAL-ID compliant driver’s license.

I like to say that TSA should focus on “Four Ps” when thinking of ways to expand TSA PreCheck: prioritization, promotion, price and process. “Four Ps-focused” steps like fee policies for children, volume discounts, a subscription model for fees and quantity discounts for corporate travel managers—and letting one REAL ID-compliant form of identification suffice for the application—could help the TSA meet its goal of enrolling 25 million travelers in PreCheck by 2019.

End repetitive security checks for bags that have already been screened.

Most international travelers in transit through a U.S. airport must claim and recheck their bags during a flight connection, passing through TSA screening in the process. This is an unnecessary headache for them and a huge expenditure of resources for TSA. U.S. Travel recommends that TSA negotiate an agreement with the European Union modeled on the U.S.-Canadian “Beyond the Border” initiative, which would eliminate re-screening of baggage from international passengers whose home countries utilize TSA-approved explosives detection equipment at their airports.

Assess pre-security vulnerability at 100 percent of commercial airports.

GAO has recommended this since 2009, but TSA and the FBI have only conducted perimeter security checks at about 19 percent of commercial airports in the U.S., which is unacceptable. Passengers are not the only sources of risk in air travel; security experts have become increasingly worried about insider and perimeter threats, in light of recent attacks at foreign airports. TSA should develop and implement a system-wide method for assessing the vulnerability of pre-security checkpoint areas in airports.

Modernize TSA’s staffing tools.

One of the main causes of last summer’s “Queuemageddon” at many TSA checkpoints was failure to deploy TSA staff according to airport traffic and peak travel times. TSA should be using world-class, readily available staffing management resources that would help assess staffing needs and swiftly determine where to send them.

Our recommendations to TSA focus on common-sense approaches to buttress funding and embrace smart security, staffing and screening standards. Streamlining the TSA is crucial not only to the traveler experience and national security, but also the U.S. economy: when our aviation security system is bogged down by dysfunction or excessive wait times, travel declines—threatening the jobs of one in nine Americans.

The good news? U.S. Travel research has found that reducing TSA hassles without compromising security would encourage more travel and add 888,000 more jobs to our economy.

Washington can change travelers’ lives for the better and improve security in the process. We’re here to help achieve that. Read all of U.S. Travel’s recommendations at ustravel.org/TSAreport.

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