For more than a decade since the horror of Sept. 11, commerical air travel in America has meant passengers — young to old — must endure an onerous, and sometimes far too personal, encounter with the Transportation Security Administration. Now an experimental program at Tampa International Airport seems to finally acknowledge the folly of those expensive and universal screenings in favor of smarter, targeted security efforts. This is a welcome example of government pragmatism.
The improvement builds on an earlier foray into common sense by TSA that allows fliers to qualify for expedited screening for up to five years if they pass a background check, an interview and pay a $100 fee. In Tampa, that system has been available only for Delta passengers embarking from Airside E.
But since November in Tampa and Indianapolis — the only two airports involved in the pilot project — individual TSA agents trained in "behavioral detection" have had the discretion to select other passengers who pose no sign of risk or suspicious behavior for expedited screening. That means fewer people having to remove their shoes, open their laptop computers for inspection or remove liquids from their bags. But they still have to pass through metal detectors or advanced imaging scanners, and their bags are still screened by X-ray machines.
This new method is not without controversy, which is why a pilot program is also wise. Behavioral detection remains disputed, and TSA needs to keep vigilant in avoiding racial/cultural profiling in determining who qualifies for expedited screening. Nonetheless, the pilot program remains a welcome innovation given the extraordinary time and treasure that has propped up a wasteful system that now treats all passengers — from the elderly in wheelchairs to rambunctious toddlers — as if they are terror suspects. There has to be a better way, and it now appears TSA is open to finding it.