By Max Skalatsky

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has come under scrutiny lately as it explores ways to adequately screen passengers. As a consultant, I travel at least twice per month and see longer lines at the airports, less TSA staff to man the posts, and inconsistent procedures enforced across all of the terminals.

Very recently, I started to receive friendly reminders to expect two to three hour wait times in certain airports, even though I am member of the Pre-Check program and usually fly with only a carry-on. On one occasion in Newark, the Pre-Check line actually took longer than the regular line due to TSA agents asking everyone to remove laptops and toiletries, slowing the process by 20 to 30 minutes.

In the wake of the bombings in Brussels and the lost EgyptAir plane, I can understand why TSA wants to take even greater precautionary measures to prevent any catastrophe on U.S. soil. However, is the Administration doing this in the most efficient manner or simply slowing things down to a crawl? TSA is armed with many tools: body scanners, pat downs, bomb sniffing dogs, random selection pull-outs, etc. But these tools are not new or sophisticated, nor do they provide a scalable solution that reduces the head count of TSA employees while adding a different way to attack this problem.

What TSA should do is think of screening in a completely different way: don’t screen just at the actual checkpoint but arm agents with data to vet travelers before, during, and after they fly. Instead of paying many agents to run through the motions of checking IDs and yelling random orders depending on their assignment, attack the bottleneck problem with much better strategic and operational processes.

  • Step 1 – Develop or purchase a database or software that identifies all travelers by running them through a variety of filters: known cities, buzz words, and other attributes
  • Step 2 – Hire qualified professionals to data mine social networks to check everyone who enters the airport perimeter; with roughly 1.5 to 2 million daily travelers, this should be pretty simple to accomplish
  • Step 3 – Create a profile score for each traveler that combines Step 1 + Step 2 + Pre-Check + any other reasonable available data point

Scoring methodologies exist in many industries, including finance, rental, credit, etc. For example, any potential customer who wants to engage a lending company to receive a loan product must provide a social security number to have his or her credit history quickly evaluated to determine risk. If major industries are using technologies to pre-screen individuals, why can’t TSA deploy specific tools to ease the burden and vet people before they enter the airports?

To start the program, I would focus on passengers checking-in electronically within 24 hours, as those individuals are very likely to fly and are equally likely opt-in for a pre-screening. Once the first wave is off the ground and a large sub-set of travelers is vetted through a cadre of new tools, begin educating the remaining travelers on the how shorter wait times, less intrusive checkpoints, and better overall results would greatly improve the air travel experience.

One way to potentially interest the general public is to allow more people to go through the Pre-Check line and then explain how better technology can further that experience. Those individuals should have no problem providing more information to TSA to help them stay ahead of the curve and then promote the message via word of mouth to minimize marketing dollars.

Air travel is a privilege, not a right. TSA should look into any method to modernize the screening approach to enhance the overall experience while saving taxpayer dollars without sacrificing safety or security.

Max Skalatsky formerly served as a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, focusing on international terrorism investigations. The views expressed are his own and may not represent those of the FBI.