Last week, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held a hearing reviewing TSA screening procedures 10 years after 9/11. The buzz word of the hearing was “risk-based.” This has been characterized in some reporting as TSA’s newest screening strategy. In fact, risk-based screening has been attempted at TSA and DHS for years.
The “news” is TSA’s public re-commitment to risk-based screening after several check-point screening miscues went viral. Public confidence in TSA waned when it blamed standard operation procedure for the pat-downs of small children and the infirm. The public and Congress bristled at this one-size-fits-all attitude towards screening. To its credit, TSA recognized it strayed at the checkpoint from its fundamental security philosophy.
The testimony and opinions voiced at the hearing suggested that depending on which seat one occupied, the understanding of “risk-based” varied. TSA may have opened up a can of worms in its attempt to rehabilitate its credibility by emphasizing its risk-based approach. Travelers experience unpredictability-based anxiety the minute they walk out their door: Will there be traffic? Will there be a line for the kiosk? How long is the security line? Is the flight on schedule? The weather in Chicago and Atlanta?
Human instinct pushes us to remove unpredictability from our lives. In our society, confidence and competence rejects randomness. We strive for certainty in all aspects of our lives because certainty represents security. Yet, the DNA of a risk-based system embodies randomness and unpredictability.
TSA’s success in rehab will be determined, in part, by how it manages traveler’s expectations. Especially when those travelers do not believe they are personally a threat to aviation. In practical terms, travelers should never expect to be screened in one particular manner. They should continuously be forewarned.