RAND Does What the TSA Won't: Try To Figure Out What Makes Air Travel Safer


Body scanner

The Transportation Security Administration has repeatedly been dinged by critics, including the Government Accountability Office, for taking a scattershot approach to air travel security. The TSA is notorious for buying equipment and signing on to approaches without ever fully investigating the efficacy of its shiny new toys, and without effectively deploying what it has acquired. Now the RAND Corporation, that grand-daddy of all think tanks, has turned its attention to the issue in an effort to determine not just approaches that improve the safety of air travel, but those that do so cost-effectively. Not surprisingly, its report concludes that much of what the TSA does may well be counterproductive. (Note: the Reason Foundation's own Robert Poole contributed to the study.)

One of the impressive tasks attempted by the authors of Efficient Aviation Security: Strengthening the Analytic Foundation for Making Air Transportation Security Decisions (PDF) is to consider inconvenience costs and annoyances inflicted on passengers above and beyond easily quantified dollar amounts. These are important because:

[V]arious researchers have documented changes in passengers' preferences and behaviors regarding use of the air transportation system, at least in part due to the increased "hassle factor" associated with new security measures …

Meaning, there's some evidence that many people are avoiding air travel because they don't enjoy that little taste of East German nostalgia they associate with the process. This sort of analysis necessarily gets a little subjective, but it logically concludes that relatively invisible procedures — like inspecting checked luggage — piss people off less than in-your-face security, and that the total annoyance caused by layers of security is greater than the sum of its parts (but that layers of security are, nevertheless, important).

So … What doesn't work? For one thing, relying on technological fix-alls, like scanners and sniffers.

[T]he introduction of body scanners may lead transportation security officers or behavioral detection officers to be less attentive in identifying unusual behavior or as vigilant in searching. …

The introduction of body scanners could cause security screeners to feel that they do not need to be as vigilant and can therefore shift more of their attention to increasing throughput or better interactions with passengers. This could reduce their ability to detect dangerous materials.

Also, while layers of security can improve the chances of detecting threats, they can also annoy passengers to the point that everybody starts displaying warning behavior.

For example, the prospect of being subjected to enhanced pat-downs may raise the anxiety or agitation level for all passengers, which would make it more difficult for behavioral detection officers to detect the anomalous behavior characteristics of potential terrorists.

Another way security elements could interfere with each other is if an element requires more resources than anticipated, for example, by generating a large number of false alarms. Resolving these alarms would create a burden on security staff that could reduce their effectiveness in operating other security elements.

The scientists among you will recognize the phenomenon of observation changing the nature of what is being observed.

The report also points out the important point that, as you increase the number of TSA officers and others involved in security, you also increase the likelihood that one of those insiders will prove to be a threat.

The RAND report does suggest that some approaches may be effective. These include, despite their high cost, Federal Air Marshals — both for deterrence and for their ability to react to events on the scene. Ultimately, the study stops short of saying that air marshals are cost-effective, because that depends on an unknown: how many attacks they've deterred.

The report's authors also favor trusted traveler programs.

While proponents of a trusted traveler program often focus on the convenience benefits to the passengers holding such status, trusted traveler programs also present the potential for security benefits. The screening resources that would be freed from screening trusted travelers could instead be applied toward screening the general passenger population.

For anybody looking for a firm "do this, don't do that" approach to air travel security, Efficient Aviation Security is a little frustrating. The report is short on bullet points and firm recommendations. But, by at least giving some thought to how security procedures should be assessed and what might or might not work, it's way ahead of the people actually patrolling the airports.

Now, if somebody would just assess the value of not shoving one-security-approach-fits-all down our throats.

NEXT: Should Ann Romney Have Skipped the Part About Early Struggles with Mitt? Yes - and the Rest of it Too.

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  1. The sooner Americans realize the TSA is a make-work jobs program the better.

    If you need further evidence, look at the amazing amount of mission creep that has happened the last few years. The motherfuckers are frisking people going to baseball games now.

    1. They are? I had not heard this.

      Perhaps a TSA agent could be stationed outside the front door of every domicile in America and frisk everyone as they enter and exit their homes……

        1. Be careful what you wish for…

          This all comes after two Capital High School students, sisters, filed a lawsuit saying they were groped by a security agent at Capital High School’s prom last month. On Friday, the court ordered Santa Fe Public Schools and the security company ASI to provide at least one TSA certified person at the Santa Fe High School prom and the Capital High School graduation

          1. That judge needs an enhanced secondary anal probe from a smurf.

      1. The Constitution gives you the right to be secure in your houses, not to be secure coming out of your houses. Clearly the fourth amendment was never meant to cover something like that. And the TSA aren’t military personnel, therefore it’s perfectly legitimate to compel you to provide a room for your personal groper to stay in.

        At any rate, the Constitution isn’t a suicide pact and even it was, it was written by slaveowners who used old words filled with ungoodthink that no one can understand.

        1. Serious question:

          Do you have any functioning brain cells above the cerebellum?

          1. On a related note to the whole brain cell issue, exactly how over the top stupid would I have to make that before you got that it was satire?

            1. Obviously, more.

        2. Really? What part of persons, houses, papers and effects do you not understand?
          Your second paragraph makes it abundantly clear that you are the victim of a public school “education”.

          The 4th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:
          “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    2. The motherfuckers are frisking people going to baseball games now.

      To be fair they only search the people who arrive early for Dodger games.

    3. Unfortunately, I have some otherwise intelligent friends who would support it more as a make-work jobs program than anything else.

      1. Why don’t we just give them all hammers and make them smash windows instead?

    4. Not only a make-work program, but a make-votes program for more govt and less liberty. Win-win.

    5. That’s unfair. It’s also a make-graft cronyism program for the security-industrial complex.

  2. Not surprisingly, its report concludes that much of what the TSA does may well be counterproductive. (Note: the Reason Foundation’s own Robert Poole contributed to the study.)

    That is fantastic news. Poole knows his stuff.

  3. I am never first.

    1. Except in our hearts……..Ok, that was a lie.

  4. No reference to the vaunted Israeli system?

    1. Jesus, enough with the Israeli system already. It won’t work here for many reasons.

      Metal and bomb detectors… we’ve already locked cabin doors and we have an informed, alert populace. Everything else is a waste.

  5. I live in the Boston area but often travel to southwestern CT, NY city and state, NJ. For any trip further than Hartford CT, Springfield MA, Concord NH I would normally fly, especially into Fairfield and Westchester counties, but since the ridiculous and time consuming TSA screening process it is now time cost effective for me to drive or take the train to those destinations. My company is happier because a train ticket and some fuel for my car is a lot cheaper than a plane ride. I’m happier because no one is groping me, i’m not being blasted with some sort of ray machine, and I can listen to music or talk on the phone to my hearts content.

    1. Train gropes are metastasizing. You can kiss that one goodbye shortly.

  6. Meaning, there’s some evidence that many people are avoiding air travel because they don’t enjoy that little taste of East German nostalgia they associate with the process.

    I wouldn’t avoid flying completely, but my threshold for driving distance has been increased greatly. If I can get there by car in the time allotted, that’s how I’m going.

    1. Yeah, that’s how we look at it. The last time I flew (not for work) was an emergency flight to NC after my dad’s stroke. We drove to Atlanta (from Houston) for a 3 day weekend to make my uncle’s funeral.

      This just means a whole new generation of Americans will have those happy memories of long car trips with siblings.

    2. Back in the Northeast, everything was drive-able; Whether it was going up to the camp in Maine or over to Springfield to go to the Student Prince or into Vermont or New Hampshire to go skiing. But out here in the Pacific NW, only Portland or Vancouver is drive/train sensible; even Spokane is 6 hours away (and I have no reason to there anyway). Anything else is too long a drive. So planes it is.

      And no matter much I might want to drive there, the only way to get to Hawaii is by plane. And nothing is going to be keeping me from Hawaii.

      1. And nothing is going to be keeping me from Hawaii.

        Not even a transvaginal ultrasound?

        1. Nope. They tickle.

          1. What if they have to make a vagina so they can rape-wand it?

            1. I’m sensing the potential for a Cronenberg-style movie plot here. Vaginadrome?

              1. “And he did fuck the flesh he created, and felt that it was tight.”

                1. “Long live the new flesh-hole.”

      2. *** snaps Nitrile glove ***

      3. the only way to get to Hawaii is by plane

        Holland America seems to disagree.

        1. Diana Nyad seems to disagree.

      4. “the only way to get to Hawaii is by plane”

        I saw a car with a Hawaii license plate somewhere in the contiguous. I wonder how it got there. The only way it could have happened is by plane- there is no such thing as a ferry or a personal watercraft that could get people and belongings to and from Hawaii.

        1. Well, if you want to be stupidly pedantic (same applies to you, T), I will rephrase: “the only reasonable way for me to get to Hawaii considering my schedule and work situation is by plane”.

          It amazes me that I had to clarify that. Well done, dipshits. You’ve out-pedanted everyone else. You must be so proud.

          1. That new vagina of yours got sandy awful fast, Epi.

            1. Well, I was talking about the beach after all. There’s a lot of sand there.

              And no, NutraSweet, you can’t fingerbang it. Yet.

          2. Pedantry is its own reward. I would have thought you, of all people, would understand that.

            1. Pedantry is its own reward.

              So is pederasty.

      5. We’re visiting family in the northwest in a few weeks. We live in the southwest. We could save 4 days of travel if we flew, but because of the TSA we’re opting to drive.

        Short of an emergency, I refuse to fly until we see a policy change at the TSA. Sucks – probably would have been to Hawaii a few times since I stopped flying… guess I’ll keep my money in the local economy instead.

      6. I was in Spokane recently – the river walk area is quite nice. And, being weird, I did enjoy those 150 miles through the wheatfields on Rte. 2 from Spokane to the Columbia.

      7. 6 hours to Spokane? From Seattle??? you western washington drivers … the thingy on the right makes the car go faster.

  7. Given the current political climate I doubt that we will see a change anytime soon despite the obvious failures of the TSA. I think we would be far better off giving up on institutional responses and giving individuals more latitude in dealing with threats.

    But I can’t imagine that happening in my lifetime; too many people (including some people here) are convinced that more Big Government is the only possible answer. And yes, letting individuals actually exercise their rights is not a perfect answer. When Big Government comes up with a perfect answer that will matter. That’s something else that won’t happen in my lifetime.

  8. To be an employee of “TSA”, you have got to be an absolute piece of human debris.

    Could you imagine living next door to one of these pieces of feces?

    1. Ann Romney lived next door to one while Mitt was going to school.

    2. To be fair, some of them are pretty cool–but I’ve found they’re typically the ones matching your ID to your ticket, which takes no effort at all.

      If I got paid to sit around all day and do nothing but ticket-ID verification, I’d probably be pretty friendly to everyone, too.

    3. It depends on the airport. The TSA goons at LAX are a class of cretin somewhere below dog shit. In contrast, the surprisingly pleasant TSA crew at the much much smaller airport in Santa Barbara is actually somewhat helpful. Even though the airports are about equidistant from me, I’ll happily pay the extra $100 or so to fly out of SB where the parking is closer, the lines are 1/20th as long, and the goons are considerably less murder-inspiring.

  9. Is this actually a study with actual evidence and testing? The sections you quote sound like a bunch of hypotheses that may well be true, but there’s no evidence provided one way or another.

    1. Like most RAND studies, it’s a lot of evidence, a lot of math and a lot of hypotheses building on the evidence and math. So it takes data and then shoots for the moon.

    2. Alternately, you could, like, read the entire study yourself.

      1. Yeah I could, but I don’t really feel like. I’d rather post here and have someone else give me the answer.

        1. I’d rather post here and have someone else give me the answer.

          Just make sure you repeat what they say as if you read it in the report. It’s how we all get more factier.

  10. Meaning, there’s some evidence that many people are avoiding air travel because they don’t enjoy that little taste of East German nostalgia they associate with the process.

    The only plane trip I took in the last few years was to the LP convention this year. And the TSA made the trip back home pretty nasty:

    Google “McCarran international and the FN tsa Hawaii” and the top search result is my writeup.

    1. Actually it isn’t. The top search result leads to this post on Reason. Booyah.

  11. Being on the no-fly list is going to make business travel hard for the RAND folks.

    1. *cough*charteredjet*cough*

      1. Not for government contracts.

  12. With rare exceptions I stopped flying commercial airlines about three years ago, and I was and am a frequent flyer. TSA isn’t the sole reason, but it’s a significant one.

  13. The Transportation Security Administration has repeatedly been dinged by critics, including the Government Accountability Office, for taking a scattershot approach to air travel security

    Not only do they take a scattershot approach to air travel security, but they take a roving, open-ended scattershot approach to national law enforcement as it pertains to every community in the nation.

    Since it’s now considered ok (even in some libertarian circles) to ask you how you intend to spend your vacation, long after the plane has landed and is no longer in any way playing a part in their mandated zone of control, they are the defacto ‘stop-and-frisk’ force for the entire country.

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