The new head of the Transportation Security Administration has called for a broad review of the nation's air security system to update the agency's approach to threats and reduce checkpoint hassles for passengers.
Edmund S. "Kip" Hawley, an assistant secretary of homeland security, directed his staff to propose changes in how the agency screens 2 million passengers a day. The staff's first set of recommendations, detailed in an Aug. 5 document, includes proposals to lift the ban on various carry-on items such as scissors, razor blades and knives less than five inches long. It also proposes that passengers no longer routinely be required to remove their shoes at security checkpoints.
Agency officials plan to meet this month to consider the proposals, which would require Hawley's approval to go into effect.
Since his confirmation in June, Hawley has told his staff that he would reevaluate security measures put in place since the terrorist attacks in 2001 and ensure that they make sense, given today's threats. The TSA is struggling with new cuts in the screener workforce imposed by Congress while its new leaders hope to improve the agency's poor reputation among air travelers by introducing more customer-friendly measures. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff signaled the effort when he announced that the agency would eliminate a requirement that forced passengers to remain in their seats during the first and last 30 minutes of flights using Reagan National Airport.
"The process is designed to stimulate creative thinking and challenge conventional beliefs," said TSA spokesman Mark O. Hatfield Jr. "In the end, it will allow us to work smarter and better as we secure America's transportation system."
The TSA memo proposes to minimize the number of passengers who must be patted down at checkpoints. It also recommends that certain categories of passengers be exempt from airport security screening, such as members of Congress, airline pilots, Cabinet members, state governors, federal judges, high-ranking military officers and people with top-secret security clearances.
The proposal also would allow ice picks, throwing stars and bows and arrows on flights. Allowing those items was suggested after a risk evaluation was conducted about which items posed the most danger.
If approved, only passengers who set off walk-through metal detectors or are flagged by a computer screening system will have to remove their shoes at security checkpoints. The proposal also would give security screeners the discretion to ask certain passengers "presenting reasonably suspicious behavior or threat characteristics" to remove their shoes.
The proposal also would give screeners discretion in determining whether to pat down passengers. For example, screeners would not have to pat down "those persons whose outermost garments closely conform to the natural contour of the body."
The memo also calls for a new formula to replace the set of computer-screening rules that select passengers for more scrutiny. Currently, the system commonly flags passengers who book one-way tickets or modify travel plans at the last minute. The new TSA plan would give TSA managers assigned to each major airport the authority to de-select a passenger who has been picked out by a computer system.
Some security analysts praised the agency's proposal, saying that security screeners spend too much time trying to find nail scissors and not enough time focused on today's biggest threat: a suicide bomber boarding an airplane. The TSA has very limited capability to detect explosives under a person's clothing, for example, and is trying to roll out more high-tech machines that can protect against such threats.
K. Jack Riley, a homeland security expert at Rand Corp., said hardened cockpit doors, air marshals and stronger public vigilance will prevent another 9/11-style hijacking. "Frankly, the preeminent security challenge at this point is keeping explosives off the airplane," Riley said. The TSA's ideas, he said, "recognize the reality that we know that air transportation security has changed post-9/11. Most of these rules don't contribute to security."
Douglas R. Laird, former head of security for Northwest Airlines, said the proposal was a step backward. Laird said exempting certain categories of passengers from security screening would be dangerous because trusted groups have occasionally abused the privilege. "In an effort to be customer friendly, they're forgetting that their primary requirement is to keep airplanes safe," Laird said. "Either you screen everybody or why screen anybody?"