Companies & Industries

The TSA Needs to Adapt


Dick Jacobs, 76 stands in a full-body scanner as he passes though an airport security check with his shoes and jacket on at Portland International Airport

Photograph by Natalie Behring/Getty Images

Dick Jacobs, 76 stands in a full-body scanner as he passes though an airport security check with his shoes and jacket on at Portland International Airport

Let’s hope the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) doesn’t overreact—as is its habit—and use the CIA’s recent thwarting of an attempt by al Qaida to bring down a U.S. airliner with “undetectable” underwear explosives as an excuse for draconian new measures that make air travel even more unpleasant and inconvenient.

Every frequent flier wonders why the TSA screening process lacks common sense. For example, I can take five 3.4-ounce bottles of liquid in a ziplock bag through security, but not one 4.5-ounce bottle. Go figure.

Former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, in a new book, Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security, says his old agency’s patchwork policies have created an “unending nightmare” for U.S. air travelers. His candor should give us hope.

Hawley, who headed the TSA from 2005 to 2009, believes the current screening process is basically broken. Security efforts, he says, should focus on weapons, such as explosives or toxins that can be used to take over or take down aircraft. Focusing on things such as knives, which can be used against individuals but not to commandeer or destroy aircraft, is a distraction and misuses resources, he contends.

Finally, some common sense.

Hawley, touting his new book in a series of public appearances, has said the change of focus would increase security while reducing lines, and could be implemented by Memorial Day. He doesn’t think, however, that the current TSA administrator has the latitude to make such a change. “The holdup isn’t the technology; it’s really making the judgment and standing behind it.”

If Hawley is right that we can tighten security and at the same time reduce the hassles that the flying public has to endure, we need to ask: Why hasn’t the TSA done so already?

Some would argue that Hawley is being deliberately provocative in an effort to boost book sales. Then again, as any frequent flier can attest, the TSA spends an inordinate amount of time swatting at mosquitoes—that is, looking for minor infractions—while terrorists focus on adapting. Shouldn’t the TSA also adapt faster?

Hal_sirkin
Harold L. Sirkin is a Chicago-based senior partner of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and co-author, most recently, of The U.S. Manufacturing Renaissance: How Shifting Global Economics Are Creating an American Comeback (Knowledge@Wharton, November 2012).

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