TSA needs a budget boost to increase the protection of ‘soft target’ areas in airports

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, airports and the U.S. government spent billions of dollars to increase security of ticketed passengers. However, the public use areas, or soft target areas, of the airport — baggage claim, check-in areas, parking lots and curbside drop-off areas — did not experience the same extensive security enhancements. In fact, today these areas remain highly accessible to the non-traveling public with inconsistent layers of security making them extremely vulnerable to an attack. The challenges to these areas due to a number of issues make it very difficult to defend and protect from an attack.

It’s clear that technology has not kept pace with evolving threats. Recent airport-related terrorist attacks in Brussels, Istanbul and Fort Lauderdale, Florida underscore the need for a new approach to hardening the soft target areas of the airport.

As we look to modernize our air traffic control system, investing and updating to newer technologies will be vital to ensure the free and continued movement of passengers. Part of the upgrade is in our nation’s airports and adequate funding should be set aside to improve the overall passenger experience as well as better protect non-secure areas of the airport. While we have done a very good job of ensuring the safety of air travelers during their flight, we have not gone far enough to mitigate pre-and post-security checkpoint vulnerabilities.

The new Public Area Security National Framework collaborative effort recently introduced by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Homeland Security Department (DHS) laid out a guiding outline to enhance the security environment in the public space area, including updating the design of security checkpoints. In the report, it recommends increasing “situational awareness” and offers some examples of current projects and recommendations. While we applaud the call to action, we see additional opportunities for the U.S. government to enhance the security landscape overall and reduce the risks passengers may encounter from reservation to destination.

One way a number of airports are leveraging technology to increase situational awareness, minimize wait times and mitigate crowding in non-secure areas is through queue monitoring and management. By providing real-time dashboards and live video to access current wait times, as well as analysis of real-time information against historical data, airports are able to better predict requirements and allocate resources to avoid bottlenecks.

 Other promising technologies include the use of biometrics to help secure the airport against identity threats. Once a passenger’s biometric details such as facial recognition or fingerprint are captured at the first touch point in the journey, a secure single token in created, eliminating the need to present travel documents at later points in the journey.

As Congress debates the framework for the upcoming TSA fiscal 2018 budget request, it is critical that our legislators consider the role innovative technology can play in protecting soft targets. For example, having access to real-time data on wait times with a meshed network of integrated technologies enhance situational awareness for airport operations and security by helping to optimize the deployment of TSA staff, redirect passengers, move passengers more efficiently to secure areas, and communicate accurate and timely wait time data and information to the traveling public.

Recently, a coalition of U.S. airport stakeholders was formed to support and enhance international standards and recommended practices for airport security through the use of innovative technologies. The Secure Journeys Working Group (SJWG) is looking to identify solutions to common soft target vulnerabilities, passenger screening challenges and concerns posed by insider threats, and recommend the use of innovative technology to address evolving airport security threats.

Secure Journeys’ funding recommendations include:

  • Exit lanes: The administration is proposing to stop staffing exit lanes and turn the responsibility over to the airports. There are technology solutions to address this need and Congress should work on a framework and subsequent funding to support this transition.
  • TSA staffing: Due to forecasted continuing increased passenger volumes, this budget incorporates funding for nearly 2,000 new TSA officers that were added last summer, and also adds funding for another 382 officers. Before continuing to increase funding for staffing, Congress should encourage that TSA make better use of current data in commercially ready and tested solutions to better manage staffing at checkpoints.
  • Innovation task force: The TSA Innovation Task Force has made some great strides in its development and delivery of innovative solutions at airports. The group has strong leadership that has demonstrated a willingness to work closely with airport, airlines and technology partners to rapidly deploy solutions that make travel safer from reservation to destination. We believe the proposed $15 million increase should be significantly larger in order to fund more innovative technologies to improve passenger safety and experience.

Through a collaborative effort, working together with airlines, airports and government agencies, we can address the growing threats our country continues to face.