The Stimulus package currently before Congress has $500 million to $1 billion for explosive detection equipment for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. This will greatly enhance security at our nation’s airports by accelerating the purchase of more checked baggage explosive detection systems; Advanced Technology (AT) X-ray explosive detection for carry-ons; millimeter wave passenger imaging equipment that has the ability to detect plastics and other non-metallics concealed on the body; and hand-held bottle scanners that can detect liquid explosives. Within a year, the AT X-Ray should have an algorithm available that will further enhance liquid detection at airport checkpoints, and could ultimately result in a sunset of the liquids ban (more on this in a future post). This is all tangible progress that will make a much improved system even stronger.

Technology is worthy and more of it can only help, but technology alone cannot stop a terrorist.  We know the terrorists are still interested in US aviation. The human factor is an essential part of the layered security recipe in the aviation environment. That is why the TSA is in the process of a transformational culture change to empower officers to rely on their experience. About 50 percent of the TSA workforce has been with the agency since the beginning 7 years ago. So TSA is capitalizing on their vast knowledge and requiring all 50,000 security officers to participate in two days of experiential training called “Engage.” It gets officers at every checkpoint using the network mentality (yes, the terrorists use this same mindset) to stop possible attacks. When TSA’s senior leadership team developed the training in coordination with the dynamic design firm IDEO and other organizational experts, the intent was to empower officers to be proactive, not just reactive, by engaging with passengers and their teammates.

Don’t be fooled. This is not a customer service technique. While it may result in a better checkpoint experience for the traveler, the training is truly focused on how to stop attacks. It moves away from the original checklist mentality and teaches the officers to adopt a posture of calm confidence and professionalism that raises the level of security. The participatory nature of the training and resulting empowerment has energized the workforce and management.

Behavior detection is another human technique that is very successful in uncovering potential threats in the airport environment. Behavior detection officers work in teams and know the telltale signs of threat, fear and deception that are based in science, not race or culture. This layer of security is flexible and nimble (the best kind) and can be used in front of the airport, at the gate, on the backside of the airport with employees, and of course at the checkpoint in conjunction with travel document checkers. Oftentimes people who are trying to conceal something at the checkpoint are traveling with false documents or lots of cash.

So airport technology funding is a bright spot in the stimulus, but don’t underestimate the human factor in aviation security that is already funded and turbocharged by committed professionals who are on the job today.