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TSA Failed to Consult Key Stakeholders in 2013 Decision to Allow Small Knives

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) failed to adequately consult with key aviation stakeholders in the development of its decision to allow small knives on aircraft — a decision that was ultimately reversed after strong outcry from external stakeholders, according to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report.

TSA maintains a public list—the Prohibited Items List (PIL)—of items that passengers are prohibited from carrying onto aircraft. TSA announced that it would modify this list in 2013 to allow small knives as well as certain sporting equipment onto aircraft. After aviation industry groups complained, however, TSA rescinded the rule change.

“Proposals to add or remove items from TSA’s PIL can have critical impacts, not just for the security of millions of air travelers each year, but on the efficiency and effectiveness of passenger screening at airport security checkpoints and perceptions of risk by external stakeholders,” GAO said.

GAO found TSA did not obtain input from the Aviation Security Advisory Committee, TSA’s primary external advisory group for aviation security matters. TSA also failed to solicit feedback from flight attendant groups which expressed strong opposition to the proposal and significantly contributed to the reversal of TSA’s decision to modify the PIL.

After reviewing TSA’s procedures for modifying the PIL, GAO determined TSA did not effectively solicit feedback on its 2013 PIL decision from relevant external stakeholders. By not taking the necessary steps to consult with external stakeholders, TSA unnecessarily invested in training and resources to implement a change to the PIL that never went into effect.

“Having a defined process and associated procedures in place to communicate with relevant stakeholders earlier in the decision-making process could allow TSA to ensure appropriate consideration of their perspectives in the decision-making process,” GAO stated.

GAO said, “Use of a defined process and associated procedures could also allow TSA to better avoid rescission of any future changes after investing resources in training screening personnel and informing the general public of the change—as happened in the case of TSA’s 2013 PIL decision.”

Moreover, while TSA generally considers several factors when determining whether to modify the PIL, GAO found TSA does not have policies that require a specific process to be followed.

TSA said the agency generally considers the following four factors when determining whether to modify the PIL: the security risks posed by each carry-on item; opportunities to improve screening operations and passenger experience; harmonization with international security standards and practices; and stakeholder perspectives.

While TSA considered these factors when making the 2013 PIL decision, the agency did not conduct a sufficient risk assessment. TSA believed that by allowing small knives, screening personnel could focus on higher-threat items such as explosives. However, TSA never conducted a risk assessment to determine whether the risk of allowing small knives would result in a reduction in risk to passenger safety from an explosive.

This is not the first time GAO found fault with TSA’s evaluation methods for operationally testing proposed modifications to checkpoint screening procedures. In April 2007, GAO recommended TSA strengthen its evaluation methods when considering modifications to the PIL. However, TSA has inconsistently followed this recommendation.

GAO stated, “While we commend TSA’s efforts to consider the risk posed by each item on the PIL, and potential screening efficiencies that may be created by allowing small knives and other items to be carried onto aircraft, conducting the analyses to demonstrate the potential efficiencies and to show that such efficiencies would offset the added risk presented by allowing small knives to be carried on board aircraft would help ensure that critical changes to the PIL will have the intended impact on both security and efficiency.”

The Department of Homeland Security concurred with GAO’s recommendation that TSA establish a formal process for soliciting input from external stakeholders on proposed modifications to the PIL before changing it.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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