TSA Airport Screening Puts Travelers on the "SPOT"

SPOT Airport Screening: A New Tactic for TSA Airport Security

The prospect of enhanced TSA security techniques – such as pat-downs and backscatter imaging – can take some of the fun out of scoring the cheapest airline tickets. But a Washington Post/ABC poll showed that 70% of Americans are supportive of the security techniques used by Israel’s El Al Airline, where security agents speak with each traveler.

FareCompare readers traveling from Boston’s Logan Airport will soon discover that TSA screeners are starting to do things a little differently, with a new program based on this type of behavioral-inspection screening.

The Latest In Airport Security Screening

Called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, the new security measure requires TSA screeners to speak to passengers posing a set of routine questions. The screeners are not searching for the correct answers to questions, but instead gauge passenger reactions for signs of distress or agitation. Around 60 TSA workers are taking part in the program.

As passengers hand over their boarding passes, they will be asked simple questions such as “Where are you headed today?” Screeners will then analyze travelers’ involuntary reactions to stimuli, such as avoiding eye contact or having difficulty answering. TSA screeners are taught to look for suspicious behaviors and direct some passengers for more intensive screening.

Boston vs. Tel Aviv

The program at Logan Airport is not identical to the procedures used at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. While SPOT aims to cut down on the number of more intensive screening encounters, such as pat downs, the TSA will still have the option of using them.

In Israel, travelers arriving at the airport go directly to interview lines with security agents who look at passports and ask a few general questions. Some passengers are designated for more intensive security assessment. Passengers who are cleared take their bags to be X-rayed, and there, they may be asked a few more questions. Only then are bags checked at airline ticket counters.

Travelers on El Al then go through a security check that involves metal detectors and X-raying of carry-on bags. But there are no pat-downs or backscatter imagers. After another passport review, travelers proceed to their gate.

TSA Screening: Will it Become More Like Israel’s?

Adopting Israeli-style airport security in the U.S. is simply not practical, for several reasons:

  • The enormity of the American airport system: Israel has two major airports with about 50 flights per day, while the U.S. has around 450 airports and thousands of flights per day. Additionally, the process requires large numbers of security workers, all of whom must undergo intensive training.
  • Concerns about racial profiling: This is a sensitive issue in America, with many people worried about the possible harassment of innocent travelers. It is less of an issue in Israel.
  • Long security lines: Americans do not like it. Israeli’s are far more used to long waits to board a plane, because their security has been tighter than that in America for decades.

In short, it is highly unlikely that the intensive, behavior-based security screening like that used in Israel could work on the scale required in the U.S.

However, TSA screeners are now speaking to travelers at Logan’s Terminal A security checkpoint. It will mark a slight shift from the TSA’s current focus on finding weapons to finding people who are threats, at least at this one airport.

But one thing it is hard to argue with is success: no plane operating from Ben-Gurion International airport has been attacked since 1972.


Published: August 29, 2011