TSA saves money through risk-based passenger screening

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Transportation Security Administration’s move from a one-size-fits-all to a risk-based model in airline passenger screening in recent years is saving the agency money, TSA Administrator John Pistole said Monday.

Reviewing the past year’s accomplishments in a speech at the National Press Club, Pistole noted that TSA’s recent fiscal 2013 budget request represents a nearly $200 million decrease over the previous year’s. He also sought to assuage public concerns about inconvenience and infringements on privacy by promising an expansion of the trademarked TSA Precheck program, and other trusted traveler programs, that allow select passengers to preregister to reduce wait times at airport security checkpoints.

“Less than one month ago . . . over Presidents Day weekend in February, our officers detected 19 guns in carry-on bags at various checkpoints around the country,” he said. “In total, 1,306 guns were detected at airport checkpoints in 2011,” an average of three or four daily.

Even one decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, he noted, passengers -- most of them not motivated by terrorism -- try to bring on board planes such objects as ceramic knives and exotic pets under clothing or in hollowed-out books. “These ‘good catches’ as we call them, illustrate how effective our people, process and technology are at finding concealed metallic and nonmetallic items concealed on a passenger or in their bags,” he said. “In an ongoing effort to help educate the traveling public, we highlight many of these good catches every week in blog posts uploaded to TSA.gov.”

Since opening in 2002, the agency has screened 6 billion passengers, and since 2006, it has completed more than 190 baseline assessments of security enhancements in broader transit systems, Pistole said.

He estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of cargo entering the United States now is screened, and the goal is to check it all by end of this year.

What has enhanced efficiency, Pistole said, is the use of “risk-based, intelligence-driven” priorities in determining who and what potential threats get agents’ attention. The TSA Precheck program has been used by 460,000 passengers at nine airports and is slated for expansion to 35 airports by the end of the year, he said.

“By the end of the month, we will expand the TSA Precheck population to include active-duty U.S. armed forces members with a Common Access Card, or CAC, traveling out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport,” he said. “Service members will undergo the standard TSA Secure Flight prescreening and if we are able to verify the service member is in good standing with the Department of Defense by scanning their CAC card at the airport, they will receive TSA Precheck screening benefits, such as no longer removing their shoes or light jacket and allowing them to keep their laptop in its case and their 3-1-1 compliant bag in a carry-on.”

Pistole marked Friday as the 50th anniversary of the Federal Air Marshals Service, noting that while not all flights today are covered by marshals, their existence has a large deterrent effect on terrorists.

Asked how he can justify his relatively large workforce of 60,000, Pistole said, “The bottom line is that it’s a huge job” working at 450 airports, as well as with state and local partners to protect on mass transit. He cited efficiencies such as the fact that 14,000 TSA workers work part time and only at peak periods, and 24 percent are veterans. He said he expects more savings from the move to a risk-based model, but if he were to gain more funding he would focus more on protecting surface transportation and international cargo.

Pistole said he doesn’t think proposals to privatize airline screening save money. Sixteen airports have such programs, the largest being San Francisco International Airport. “The philosophy of the legislation is that TSA is a U.S. government-run organization with a counterterrorism focus,” he said.

He also assured a skeptical questioner that he personally has gone through airport screening anonymously multiple times and found the TSA workers did a good job.

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