Airports Try New Screening To Focus On Threats

The airline industry Thursday forecast a slight decline in the number of holiday air travelers this year.

The projected 2 percent drop is not likely to make a noticeable difference at airport check in and security lines.

But the Transportation Security Administration is tweaking the screening process to make it less onerous and more focused on people more likely to pose threats.

‘Pre-Check’ Lines For Elite Status

Behind the scenes at the Delta terminal at the Detroit Metro Airport, bags zip through a maze of conveyor belts to X-ray machines. Officials brag that a traveler’s suitcase will arrive at his flight before the passenger does. But if that traveler is a very frequent flier, it may be more of a race.

Detroit is one of four airports testing a new program the TSA calls “pre-check.” Frequent fliers, with so-called elite status who fly more than 200,000 miles a year with Delta, can use a special security lane. They can keep their shoes on, and their laptops in their bags.

“It’s really utilizing this program for those folks that use an airplane like you and I use a car — they’ve traveled that much,” says Robert Ball, the TSA’s security director at Detroit Metro.

The TSA says it feels it knows these travelers — they fly so often, and are unlikely to pose a security threat.

Not surprisingly, the pre-check lanes are a big hit with frequent fliers, like Mark Swett, a rock band tour manager, who is on the road a lot.

“I love it,” he says. “I think it’s great. For a frequent traveler, it means everything to be able to get through a little quicker — the convenience factor is amazing. I like not having to take my laptop and printer out — that’s a big bonus. It just speeds everything up.”

So far, just the elite travelers from Delta and American can use the pre-check program at airports in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Miami. If all goes well, the TSA plans to expand it to other major airports and airlines.

Watching For Behavioral Ticks

The TSA is testing another program in Detroit, based on watching behavior. Passengers at one gate are asked some questions as the TSA checks boarding passes and IDs — where have you been, where are you going, that sort of thing. Some are calling the interviews “chat downs.”

The TSA’s Robert Ball says the officers are trained to listen and look.

“The underlying part of the program is that there are involuntary actions that you and I give off that they are trained to recognize no matter what is going on with them,” he says. “And then if they can’t resolve it, there is a step to bring in law enforcement.”

The program is similar to — but far less intensive than — the questioning done by Israeli airport security. It hasn’t caught any terrorists, Ball says, but has led to some arrests.

“Certainly there have been individuals that have had illegal drugs on ’em, that have had outstanding felony warrants,” he says. “There are those behavioral ticks that come up and our officers’ intent is to try to resolve them and when [they] can’t, bring in law enforcement.”

Some passengers didn’t seem to mind the brief questioning. Conceita English said it wasn’t all that different from dealing with a pesky reporter. She says she was asked why she came to Detroit.

“Didn’t bother me,” she says.

The new screening questions and the pre-check program are small steps towards making the security process less focused on detecting troublesome objects and more focused on detecting troublesome people. It’s something critics who deride the screening process as security theater say is long overdue.

“The current TSA system treats us all like potential terrorists,” says Noah Schachtman, a scholar with the Brookings Institution who blogs for Wired Magazine. “You know, treats the little old lady and the 10-year-old kid and the guy with a long rap sheet as all kind of like equally possible terrorists and that’s just not a good way to go. And so they’re trying to introduce the smallest teeny tiniest bit of sanity and intelligence and reason into the system.”

And for those passengers traveling with small children, kids 12 and younger don’t have to take their shoes off at all anymore as they go through screening. It’s another step in TSA’s efforts to make the process less intrusive and smarter.

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