Back in July 2001, I was a cub reporter eager to specialize. I had spent a couple of years covering press briefings across a variety of subjects and going where editors wanted me to go, never really feeling like I was making much of a difference with my reporting.
I asked my publisher at the time if I could focus on a particular area and found that all the sexy subjects like military operations and geopolitical intelligence were spoken for, by journalists with far more impressive careers than mine. So I was told I could take transportation security because “we should do it but nobody really wants to”. Two months later, everyone wanted the transportation security beat.
When I first took up the role, transportation security was relatively lax but not entirely non-existent. Hijackings were a known threat of course and had been for some time. As such, airports had been screening for potential hijackers since the late 1960s following a spate of attacks where commercial airlines were diverted to Cuba. In addition, after Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, airports began to acquire explosives detection equipment and manufacturers renewed efforts in this area, although neither at the rate it was needed.
However, travelers could bring pretty much anything through airport security, including four-inch blades and un-ticketed guests to wave them off to create those movie moments. The technology that was in use, and there wasn’t a lot of it, was mostly a far cry from what we see today. Some airports had a perimeter fence, some had a barrier at the entrance to the boarding bridge, some had wand scanners, some had walk-through metal detectors, some even had everything available. And others had nothing functional at all.
Then 9/11 happened, changing the world, and transportation security, forever. It was an entirely air-based attack using commercial aircraft. First, American Airlines Flight 11 was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Seventeen minutes later at 9:03 am, the World Trade Center’s South Tower was hit by United Airlines Flight 175. The third aircraft, American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles International Airport, was hijacked over Ohio. It crashed into the west side of the Pentagon shortly after 9.30 am. The fourth, and final flight, United Airlines Flight 93, was flown in the direction of Washington, D.C. and was the only plane not to hit its intended target, crashing in a field at 10:03 am.
Prior to 9/11, airport security was the responsibility of private companies – airport operators or the firms they employed. But the events of that fateful day led to the creation (less than two months later) of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which has arguably been one of the greatest terrorism defenses ever. For a long time, a repeat of 9/11 was at the very top of terrorist groups’ wish lists. And make no mistake, every group and every extremist individual still wants to recreate those scenes. But they know it will never be as easy as it was in September 2001, thanks in no small part to the continual efforts of TSA to stay one step ahead.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for TSA and global airport security as a whole. There was a great deal of kickback from travelers when biometrics were first introduced. And my notepads are still full of comments from industry executives who complained that airports had bought their equipment but were not using it, or not using it properly. I still remember one supplier telling me that he had offered to send someone to provide free training and installation, and he’d pay for their air fare and accommodation too, he just wanted the kit used and not “shut away in a broom cupboard”. The problem was of course that airports knew they had to react to the events of 9/11 so boards quickly purchased the available equipment, and then let the operations management worry about using it, often with very little communication meaning that they did not necessarily purchase the right equipment for their needs. At the same time, manufacturers were developing their systems to respond to changing threat intelligence, which created some confusion. This is one area where TSA’s creation really brought everything together and created a synergy not just within a single airport but across the country. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen and created the level of airport security that we see today.
… and now
TSA has rolled out new tech at an impressive rate, and invested heavily in the research and development of many emerging technologies. The pandemic has allowed the component to install new checkpoint screening and credential authentication technology at an even faster rate than planned and satisfied travelers looking for a no-contact process. Industry has been ready to develop new technologies and produce solutions as new threat intelligence becomes available. It’s easy to see why terrorist groups have adjusted their targets.
Airport security in the U.S. today is light years ahead of what it was 20 years ago, and TSA has also considered the traveler experience as well as protection and detection. The PreCheck program is an excellent example. Registering in advance allows PreCheck members to pass through security faster and without the need to remove shoes, toiletries and electronics.
So as TSA approaches its 20th anniversary, what technology does it have on its wish list for fiscal year 2022?
Altogether, the fiscal year 2022 budget request is set at $8.9 billion, and is an increase of $47.7 million over the previous budget. TSA has earmarked the bulk of its procurement budget request for checkpoint baggage screening ($104.5 million) with a smaller request for checked baggage screening ($30 million). The fiscal year spending request for 2022 procurement is exactly the same as it was the previous year. However, TSA intends to spend more on the research and development of new technologies than it has done in the last two fiscal years, due largely to the addition of a new R&D program that will examine the use of mobile/digital driver’s licenses.
TSA is interested in mobile driver’s licenses because, compared to physical driver’s licenses, mobile driver’s licenses could provide greater security to TSA and all federal agencies verifying an individual’s identity, stronger privacy protections to individuals, and health and safety benefits to all users by enabling touchless identity verification. A request for information, issued earlier this year, solicited comments and input regarding technical approaches, applicable industry standards and best practices to ensure that mobile driver’s licenses can be issued and authenticated with features that ensure security, privacy and identity fraud detection. TSA said at the time that responses to the request for information will support future rulemaking to update the REAL ID Act implementing regulation to accommodate mobile driver’s licenses.
The fiscal year 2022 budget request for R&D also includes emerging alarm resolution technologies and on-person detection/next-gen Advanced Imaging Technology. Both of these were new requests in fiscal year 2021 and the amount requested for 2022 is unchanged. Also unchanged is a request for the research and development of checkpoint automation. TSA’s Innovation Task Force is also set to receive a good chunk of the budget to work with key stakeholders in developing other emerging technologies.
Guaranteeing the proper maintenance of TSA’s screening equipment is also essential to preserving the operational capabilities of passenger and baggage screening at all federalized airports. Fiscal year 2022 funding of $35.8 million will therefore support preventive and corrective maintenance activities associated with complying with mandatory screening requirements.
Ultimately, TSA’s backbone is its screening operations staff. It doesn’t matter how good the technology is if nobody has the skill to operate it. The budget consequently intends to re-baseline and properly align the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) workforce, while continuing to support the second year of TSO Service Pay initiatives. Additional funding for training has also been provided.
It is impossible to guess what TSA and airport security will look like in another 20 years from now, but the last two decades have shown that both have adapted admirably to the myriad threats and challenges, not least in these past eighteen months. This must continue if aviation is to stay one step ahead of bad actors as they too adapt their plans and arsenals in search of another 9/11.