The Transportation Security Administration has long been criticized for reacting to threats, rather than proactively preventing them: Someone tries sneak a liquid bomb onto a plane, so TSA limits the amount of liquid travelers can carry on. A guy disguises a bomb in his underwear so TSA installs bodyscanners at airports. But yesterday, the head of TSA was in Charlotte pitching a more targeted approach to airport screening. WFAE's Julie Rose reports:
More than 600 million people went through TSA screening at U.S. airports last year, removing shoes, belts and coats. Laptops in a separate bin. Liquids and gels in trial sizes only. Standing still for bodyscanners to check beneath their clothes.
TSA Administrator John Pistole admits thoroughly checking every single passenger makes little sense.
"We're looking for that needle in a haystack – that one in a billion, that terrorist who may be trying to do something," says Pistole. "If we can reduce the size of the haystack to make it a job that's more focused and precise for us – our security officers – then we feel like we can provide better security and do it in a more humane fashion, if you will."
Pistole believes a new pre-screening program called TSA Pre Check is the answer. At the moment it's open to global travelers who pay $100 and submit to a background check with U.S. Customs. Active duty service members, airline crew members and elite travelers chosen by the airline can also qualify.
The pay-off? Less rigamarole at the airport: shoes and belt stay on, liquids and laptop stay in the suitcase.
Last year, TSA started letting children under 12 and seniors over 75 through security with less hassle, too.
Pistole says 10 percent of travelers at the Charlotte airport go through expedited physical screening - the highest percentage in the country.
The challenge now is, "how can we encourage people to volunteer - in exchange for some really limited information for a more expedited physical screening?" says Pistole. "It makes our job better from a security standpoint because we're managing and focusing more precisely on risk."
In the coming months, Pistole says TSA will open Pre Check to more travelers, but he knows it'll take some convincing to get a significant number of people signed up. Many are skeptical of surrendering personal information to the government, so TSA is also exploring the possibility of having private companies do the background checks to TSA specifications.
Could a woman in a headscarf or a man in robes clear the check? Absolutely, says Pistole.
What about someone with a criminal record or a mental illness? That's unclear, because Pistole says the exact criteria haven't been determined.