Establishing the correct level of security is a difficult feat in today's aviation environment. While almost everyone who has flown recognizes the need for security measures, many people and companies still feel overly burdened by some policies. Recently, a series of issues have arisen highlighting this balancing act between security and efficiency. Depending on how these issues are resolved, traveling by air may become easier and safer, or it may become even more onerous and expensive. This article looks at three issues that will be at the forefront of aviation security in the coming months: new and improved screening checkpoints, a proposal requiring airlines to fingerprint all foreign nationals flying out of the U.S. and a law mandating that 100% of air cargo be screened by 2010.

New Checkpoints: Better, Stronger, Faster?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) professes a multi-layered approach to commercial aviation security, which uses technology in combination with intelligence data and law enforcement personnel to prevent terrorist attacks. TSA tests new checkpoint designs and screening technology in an effort to increase efficiency at the checkpoint. One such comprehensive redesign is entitled the Checkpoint Evolution, which seeks to present to passengers a calmer, quieter screening environment. The idea behind the Checkpoint Evolution is that if the traveling public is calm, TSA officers will be more easily able to spot possible terrorists who will be ill-at-ease. After an evaluation of various checkpoint ideas, TSA has installed at a checkpoint in Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport soothing lights and music, more and different signage and additional areas to prepare for and recover from screening. This pilot program has not yet been completed and thus the effectiveness, if any, of these new measures is unclear.

In addition to its attempts to ease the screening process, TSA is introducing new technology to improve security screeners' ability to locate prohibited items. One promising new piece of equipment currently being tested is a millimeter wave machine. These machines create a three-dimensional image of the passenger's body revealing other objects on the body. These machines would be used in lieu of physically intrusive pat-downs as a way to detect weapons, explosives and other threat items concealed under clothing. While these machines do provide a way to inspect a person without physical contact, privacy concerns have been raised due to the clarity of the image of the passenger's unclothed body. In an attempt to reduce these concerns, TSA blurs the facial features on the image and requires the TSA officer who views the images to be in a remote location.

A recurring complaint from many travelers is the length of time a passenger must wait in line before undergoing screening. TSA has instituted various programs in an effort to reduce this waiting time. Two programs are at the forefront of this effort; the first is known as Diamond Lanes. Diamond Lanes adopts the signage of ski resorts and divides lanes based on the traveling experience of passengers. Black Diamond lanes are for experienced travelers, Blue Square lanes are for infrequent flyers and the Green Circle lanes are for families and other travelers needing extra time to undergo the screening process. This program allows passengers to self-select the lane they believe they belong in. Some critics of this program point out that this is simply redistributing wait times; while experienced travelers may spend less time in line, families and inexperienced travelers will spend more time in line. Critics also question the efficacy of allowing passengers to self-select their lane.

A different program, available at several airports, addresses the security lines in a different manner. The Registered Traveler Program allows passengers to undergo a background check, which then permits them to use lanes that are dedicated to registered travelers. Registered travelers will undergo the same screening as other passengers, but the dedicated lines are intended to allow these frequent travelers to move through the security line faster. An International Registered Traveler pilot program has just been announced, which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hopes will allow U.S. citizens returning from international locations to move more rapidly through customs.

Please Return Seatbacks to Their Upright Position . . . and Give Us a Fingerprint

The US-VISIT EXIT Program will implement the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 § 711. The law requires all non-U.S. citizens to submit biometric information upon flying out of the U.S. in order to catch non-U.S. citizens who have violated the terms of their visas. The law allows DHS to determine the manner of collection, and DHS has recently proposed a rule that would require the airlines to collect this biometric information and transmit it to DHS. Only commercial airlines would be required to collect this information, and air carriers (whether scheduled passenger or charter) that employ fewer than 1,500 employees would be exempted. Even limiting this proposal to large airlines, a host of issues are raised, including privacy and operational concerns.

Privacy concerns are raised because under the DHS proposal, certain individuals would have access to this very personal information of aliens. These employees would probably need to undergo heightened background checks, and the airlines would need to install additional safeguards to protect this sensitive information. One operational issue is that requiring airlines to collect this information may add significant time to the check-in process for each international flight. The added time would affect all travelers, not just aliens, and might lead to increased missed connections and flight delays. Finally, the current proposal would impose significant costs upon the airlines. One estimate puts the cost to the airlines of collecting fingerprints at $6.1 billion. (Air/Sea Biometric Project, Regulatory Impact Analysis, DHS-2008-0039-0002, April 17, 2008). This additional cost, at a time when airlines are already reeling from high fuel prices, might require airlines to pass the cost of this proposal on to the traveling public.

All Air Cargo Must Be Screened by When? 

Approximately 50,000 tons of cargo is shipped by air every day and about one quarter of that cargo is shipped via domestic commercial passenger carriers. See more information here. At the moment, passenger carriers are required to screen a certain percentage of non-exempt cargo, while all-cargo airlines must screen 100% of their cargo that is over a certain weight. However, Congress has mandated that by 2010, 100% of all air cargo traveling on passenger planes must be screened.

Even though some air cargo is already being screened, several issues remain and will be addressed in the coming months. First, operational and technological barriers exist as more and more cargo is slated to be screened. Current methods of screening cargo can include x-ray systems, explosives-detection systems, explosive trace detection, explosive detection by canine teams or physical searches. If 100% of air cargo were required to be screened today, it would cause massive delays in the shipment of goods. In order to develop workable remedies, TSA has pilot programs operating that are examining different technologies and processes to determine the most effective manner to screen cargo without slowing airline operations. If passenger airlines are required to screen 100% of air cargo without workable processes, flights could be delayed and make transporting cargo unprofitable for passenger airlines. For certain airlines, air cargo provides a steady stream of income that is all the more necessary in today's current environment.

Another issue affecting the screening of air cargo is that currently, cargo coming into the U.S. from other countries is not subject to screening. This lack of screening has been identified both by members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) as a security vulnerability. As such, GAO recently recommended that DHS develop a strategy to address this inbound cargo and to delineate the various roles of TSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). As with the screening of outbound cargo, screening of inbound cargo could cause delays in the transportation of goods.


Checkpoint innovations are attempts by TSA to improve the screening of airline passengers. These improvements are not only directed at improving security but also at reducing the time passengers must spend in security areas. Anyone who travels commercially will immediately notice any changes TSA makes at a security checkpoint. While domestic travelers may not immediately notice government policies relating to the fingerprinting of foreign nationals or cargo screening, these policies also directly affect travelers. Collection of biometric information and the screening of cargo may negatively affect airline operations by increasing costs or delaying flights. While everyone acknowledges that sufficient security measures must be installed, the U.S. government and the aviation industry must ensure that this is achieved without unduly impeding air carrier operations or travelers.