The TSA and their process

(DISCLAIMER: Whilst I used to be a very regular traveler both in Europe and the US, it is now almost 3 years since I took a flight anywhere so have not had to subject myself personally to any of the upgraded electronic security reviews. I have, in my time, been subject to the 'removal of belt, shoes and jacket' review as well as the 'open laptop and start it up', and the 'No liquids to be brought on board' review)

There is a lot of discontent brewing across the US - and possibly the rest of the world - in relation to the TSA scanners which use new-fangled technology to see through people's clothes.

The issue as far as I see it is this: The scanners were sold to the public on the promise that a) there would be no way of aligning the scanned images with any individual and b) None of the images would be saved.

It now transpires that both of these statements are untrue. There are stories of TSA agents radioing in to the person doing the scan that "There's a hottie' coming through", and saved copies of scans have been obtained through freedom of information act requests and released on the internet. Naturally this is causing a lot of people a lot of consternation. Allied with this is the fact that whilst it is allowable to refuse to go through a scanner when asked, any person refusing to do so is then being subject to a fairly intimate physical 'frisk' which some say is akin to sexual assault.

But being the process person that I am I can't help thinking that maybe the issue is what I call 'if all you have is a hammer then every problem is a nail' syndrome.

Let me explain.

Security checks at airports have been around for many, many years. El-Al, the Israeli airline instituted  them back in the 1970's to counter Palestinian hijack attempts and since then there have been no terrorist alerts on Israeli planes. Since September 11th US airlines have reacted to potential security threats by implementing a series of tougher and tougher checks on passengers prior to boarding. The aim of these has been two-fold a) They attempt to offer some protection against future terrorist attacks b) They offer re-assurance to the public that the authorities are attempting to combat terrorism in our skies.

However, a number of high profile 'misses' by the security checks have resulted in tighter and tighter standards being implemented at airports. We are now at the stage where - in many cases - the security checks prior to boarding the plane are taking longer than the flights themselves.

As a means of improving this the TSA implemented the full body scanners. These were meant to be attempts to speed up the security process by removing the need to individually check shoes, belts, underpants (!) etc. In theory the concept is sound. but in practice it has raised a whole new set of issues.

I am of the opinion that the TSA are viewing these scanners as 'the tool that will help the process go quicker'. This is akin to saying "I have Microsoft's Excel package on my PC therefore that's what I am going to use to run my accounting system". It isn't necessarily, the right tool for the job although it will do the job. If all you have is a hammer then every problem is a nail

The TSA have fallen into the trap of thinking that the tool they have is the right one for the job when in fact it is just a tool. There need to be processes around the tool to ensure it is appropriately implemented and managed.

Let me be perfectly clear about this before I go any further: I think that security checks at airports are a vital and necessary part of flying. The events of 9/11 (and multiple hijacks prior to that) have illustrated that this is the case. Where I differ with official opinion is in how these checks are performed.

Earlier on in this article I mentioned that El-Al have had stringent security checks in place for over 30 years. They do not involve full body scans, nor do they involve intimate physical body searches. But they have been successful in eliminating any type of terrorist attack on Israeli planes since they were instituted. Yes, the security checks take some time. Yes they do, often, involve racial profiling. But they also use old-fashioned method such as existing metal detectors, face-to-face questioning and baggage scans prior to loading.

If one of the most security concious (and successful) airlines in the world doesn't use body scanners, why should any other?

Let's look at this from a process point of view (which is what El Al have done). Airlines want to identify and eliminate any potential threat as early as possible. This is done through intelligence prior to booking, research once passenger names are known, vigilance and questioning at the airport and surveillance on-board. The whole task of frisking passengers for dangerous articles is only a minor part of this. So why is it taking on such significance?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't most US airlines follow this process at the moment anyway? At the end of the day the objective is to stop someone either hijacking a plane or setting a bomb off on board. Identifying potential hijackers prior to boarding is preferable to identifying them on board. Cockpit doors are now reinforced and locked. Sky Marshalls now board all (?) planes in the US. Since 9/11 there has not been a single terrorist attack on a plane. Of course there have been several attempts (The shoe bomber and the underpants bomber, for example) But these have all been  stopped by passengers and none of them have been caught by the airport security checks.

Whichever way you look at it the process is broken.

Thoughts and comments below please.

Reminder: 'The Perfect Process Project Second Edition' is now available. Don't miss the chance to get this valuable insight into how to make business processes work for you. Click this link and follow the instructions to get this book.

All information is Copyright (C) G Comerford  
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