Three-Stage Compromise On Screening

Every time airport security procedures are tightened, a margin of people who otherwise would have traveled by air decide not to. In some cases, they opt to travel by car instead. For instance, overall airline use declined when the TSA began x-ray screening of carry-on bags. Statistically speaking, car travel is much more dangerous than air travel. So what do you get when you put them together?

…roughly 130 inconvenienced travelers died every three months as a result of additional traffic fatalities brought on by substituting ground transit for air transit. That’s the equivalent of four fully-loaded Boeing 737s crashing each year.

Feel safer yet? How about those investments in the airlines — are you ready to buy stock in Delta or United yet?  In fact, their prices are trending up over the last year or two. But as an investor, do you really think the new TSA procedures are going to help these struggling mega-businesses increase profits? The answer may be “yes,” if the new procedures are implemented judiciously.

I continue to be surprised at finding my own attitudes on this issue to be the ones on the periphery. Maybe I have more body modesty than most people. Maybe I have whipped myself into a needless frenzy and it’s just really no big deal for most folks to have strangers working for the government looking at unsexy pictures of them naked or to be felt up. Maybe it matters to them that the TSA agents doing the screenings are obviously not doing it for their own sexual pleasure. You’ve seen the picture to the left by now, and it’s clear that the agent is not enjoying himself. Gratefully, we can’t see the face of the passenger being screened; the man can retain that much of his dignity. Still, the body language suggests that the passenger isn’t having any fun enduring the search either.

So once again, I suggest a compromise position. We have new technology and a new procedure, and apparently some people are convinced that these are good ideas and not huge impositions on travelers. I think otherwise. Here’s my suggestion — a three-stage process.

Everyone goes through a “primary” screen. That consists of removing one’s shoes and emptying one’s pockets, and walking through a metal detector and chemical sniffing device. Shoes, pocket contents,and carry-on bags go through an x-ray machine.

If the x-ray reveals an object that raises a reasonable suspicion by the security screener, or the metal detector and chemical sniffer repeatedly report the presence of metal or dangerous chemicals, then we go to a “secondary” screen, which consists of unpacking the bag and looking for whatever is setting off the x-ray, or using a metal detecting wand or close use of the sniffer to localize and identify the source of the alarm.

Should this secondary screen not identify the source of the problem, then the TSA can use the full-body scanners or “enhanced” pat-downs. This would be a “tertiary” (or “third-stage”, for those who find “tertiary” hard to pronounce) screen, done rarely.

On its face, this is quite similar to stated TSA policies in place today. The big difference is that instead of randomly picking people for the tertiary screen, the primary and secondary screening procedures are used to weed out people for whom there is no reason to suspect the tertiary screen would yield anything. It incorporates the concept of “reasonable suspicion” into the governmental search. “Reasonable suspicion” is, as criminal and Constitutional law geeks can tell you, a standard more relaxed than “probable cause.”

I would also add that in the case of an enhanced pat-down, an advocate for the passenger could electronically record the pat-down to ensure that nothing untoward was going on. I will exonerate, in advance, the vast number of TSA agents assigned to this task as not taking any pleasure from so doing, and credit to them, in advance, a good-faith desire to only do their jobs. It’s the few bad apples in the bunch that concern me here. And given that everyone in the world now knows what an “enhanced pat-down” involves and what it looks like, there can’t possibly be any security benefit to be derived from prohibiting the recordation of any specific pat-down.

Finally, there should be signs posted and disclosures made whenever someone buys a ticket that they may be subject to these procedures, in clear, simple language. They probably don’t need to reference specific Constitutional rights but they do need to make clear that if you do not consent to the screening procedures, you will not be allowed to board an airplane. To that end, if at any point in the security screen a passenger decides to walk away from the airport and find another mode of transportation, they should be free to go without penalty. It must not be the case that once you’re in the system, you can’t get out. If the purpose of the screen is to assure people that every passenger on the airplane is safe, then allowing someone who refuses to submit to the screen to leave without penalty does not diminish that gloss of safety because the person who wasn’t screened isn’t on board the plane.

Hopefully this would keep the screenings moving quickly and efficiently, result in fewer uses of what I would relegate to a tertiary level of screening, appropriately disclose to travelers what they’re in for and provide them with a meaningful opportunity to not subject themselves to the process. At the same time, it should retain the ability of the government to provide the “feeling” of safety (although not its reality) which seems to be the object of the exercise.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Not at all a bad solution, though canine explosive sniffers would likely be more effective than sniffing machines. I would prefer the Israeli model of behavior profiling AND armed Air Marshals on all flights, though this would probably be impossible to implement in the U.S. (and at foreign airports with flights to the U.S.) given the vast difference between Israeli and U.S. scheduled flight volumes.

  2. To be honest I don't know why we ~don't~ have behavior profiling in the airport like they do in a typical casino. It seems odd to me that a gambling hall does a better job of managing its patrons where the only risk is material, over an air transit hub where the risk is to life and limb.I had a feeling too that more people driving was going to lead to more deaths but I hadn't seen the specific data.I, sadly, am not as kind as you when it comes to the actual TSA workers. I'm very surprised that the "they're just doing their job" is being used to forgive/ excuse/ not expect objection. We still shake our heads at the subjects of the Milgrim experiment don't we? Why hasn't the TSA labor unions stepped up and said "sorry, no, we're not groping 3 year olds"?

  3. Your comment has been saved and will be visible after blog owner approval.New and improved

  4. From the FAQ, which zzi appears to have forgotten:Q: Why didn't you write about [insert subject here]?A: There might by any of a number of reasons for that. Likely candidates include: 1) I haven't gathered enough information about [subject] to feel I have anything intelligent to say about it, 2) [subject] does not interest me at the moment, 3) I haven't found the time to write about [subject], or 4) pretty much everything that's needed to be said about [subject] can be found easily elsewhere. The internet is a big place and you should be able to easily find some discussion or coverage of [subject] if you can't find it here. I reject any moral judgments, whether explicit or implicit, concerning any failure, whether real or imagined, whole or partial, to comment on [subject]. If you think [subject] requires commentary that you do not believe is forthcoming here, well, Blogger and other similar services are 100% free and there is nothing to stop you from commenting on it yourself in your own forum.

Comments are closed.