Aviation Security:

Risk, Experience, and Customer Concerns Drive Changes to Airline Passenger Screening Procedures, but Evaluation and Documentation of Proposed Changes Could Be Improved

GAO-07-634: Published: Apr 16, 2007. Publicly Released: May 7, 2007.

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The Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) most visible layer of commercial aviation security is the screening of airline passengers at airport checkpoints, where travelers and their carry-on items are screened for explosives and other dangerous items by transportation security officers (TSO). Several revisions made to checkpoint screening procedures have been scrutinized and questioned by the traveling public and Congress in recent years. For this review, GAO evaluated (1) TSA's decisions to modify passenger screening procedures between April 2005 and December 2005 and in response to the alleged August 2006 liquid explosives terrorist plot, and (2) how TSA monitored TSO compliance with passenger screening procedures. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed TSA documents, interviewed TSA officials and aviation security experts, and visited 25 airports of varying sizes and locations.

Between April 2005 and December 2005, proposed modifications to passenger checkpoint screening standard operating procedures (SOP) were made for a variety of reasons, and while a majority of the proposed modifications--48 of 92--were ultimately implemented at airports, TSA's methods for evaluating and documenting them could be improved. SOP modifications were proposed based on the professional judgment of TSA senior-level officials and program-level staff. TSA considered the daily experiences of airport staff, complaints and concerns raised by the traveling public, and analysis of risks to the aviation system when proposing SOP modifications. TSA also made efforts to balance the impact on security, efficiency, and customer service when deciding which proposed modifications to implement, as in the case of the SOP changes made in response to the alleged August 2006 liquid explosives terrorist plot. In some cases, TSA tested proposed modifications at selected airports to help determine whether the changes would achieve their intended purpose. However, TSA's data collection and analyses could be improved to help TSA determine whether proposed procedures that are operationally tested would achieve their intended purpose. For example, TSA officials decided to allow passengers to carry small scissors and tools onto aircraft based on their review of threat information, which indicated that these items do not pose a high risk to the aviation system. However, TSA did not conduct the necessary analysis of data it collected to assess whether this screening change would free up TSOs to focus on screening for high-risk threats, as intended. TSA officials acknowledged the importance of evaluating whether proposed screening procedures would achieve their intended purpose, but cited difficulties in doing so, including time pressures to implement needed security measures quickly. Finally, TSA's documentation on proposed modifications to screening procedures was not complete. TSA documented the basis--that is, the information, experience, or event that encouraged TSA officials to propose the modifications--for 72 of the 92 proposed modifications. In addition, TSA documented the reasoning behind its decisions for half (26 of 44) of the proposed modifications that were not implemented. Without more complete documentation, TSA may not be able to justify key modifications to passenger screening procedures to Congress and the traveling public. TSA monitors TSO compliance with passenger checkpoint screening procedures through its performance accountability and standards system and through covert testing. Compliance assessments include quarterly observations of TSOs' ability to perform particular screening functions in the operating environment, quarterly quizzes to assess TSOs' knowledge of procedures, and an annual knowledge and skills assessment. TSA uses covert tests to evaluate, in part, the extent to which TSOs' noncompliance with procedures affects their ability to detect simulated threat items hidden in accessible property or concealed on a person. TSA airport officials have experienced resource challenges in implementing these compliance monitoring methods. TSA headquarters officials stated that they are taking steps to address these challenges.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Following the release of GAO's report, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that it planned to continue to perform operational testing of proposed Standard Operating Procedure modifications, when practicable, as a method for determining impact on passenger checkpoint security effectiveness and efficiency. TSA stated that it was committed to using sound methodological techniques when conducting these operational tests. As of April 2011, TSA had provided us with documentation associated with two operational tests conducted since our report was issued in April 2007 - one of proposed X-ray procedures and another of proposed explosives trace detection (ETD) procedures. For the first operational test, TSA sought to determine whether the three proposed x-ray screening procedures would improve passenger throughput and increase the number of images Transportation Security Officers could view in an hour, and TSA collected and analyzed the necessary data to answer this question. For the second operational test, TSA described the specific ETD procedure that would be tested, identified at which airports the test would take place, and the duration of the test. However, TSA was not able to provide documentation that explains the intended purpose of the proposed ETD procedure or the type of data TSA plans to collect or how the data will be used to decide whether to implement the procedure. Considering that TSA was not able to provide such documentation, there is no evidence that TSA designed this operational test in a way that is consistent with our recommendation. Given that TSA used a sound evaluation methodology for one of its operational tests, but not the other, we are closing this recommendation as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen TSA's evaluation of proposed modifications to passenger checkpoint screening SOPs and TSA's ability to justify its decisions to implement or not implement proposed SOP modifications, in the March 2007 report that contained sensitive security information, GAO stated that the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for TSA to develop sound evaluation methods, when possible, that can be used to assist TSA in determining whether proposed procedures would achieve their intended result, such as enhancing TSA's ability to detect prohibited items and suspicious persons and freeing up existing TSO resources that could be used to implement proposed procedures when operationally testing proposed SOP modifications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a number of substantive changes to passenger screening procedures have been considered since GAO issued its final report. TSA reported that the Office of Security Operations initiated a process to track information on all substantive proposed changes to passenger screening procedures. TSA provided matrices from October 2007 and November 2008 that were used to track the status of proposed checkpoint screening procedures. The matrices include a source column, which, consistent with our recommendation, identifies who recommended the proposed change; an issue column, which explains the potential need for and purpose of the proposed change; and a "notes" or "disposition" column, which includes TSA's rationale for implementing or not implementing the proposed procedure. By tracking this type of information for proposed checkpoint screening procedures, TSA has implemented our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help strengthen TSA's evaluation of proposed modifications to passenger checkpoint screening SOPs and TSA's ability to justify its decisions to implement or not implement proposed SOP modifications, in the March 2007 report that contained sensitive security information, GAO stated that the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for TSA to generate and maintain documentation to include, at minimum, the source, intended purpose, and reasoning behind decisions to implement or not implement proposed modifications for future proposed SOP modifications that TSA senior leadership determines are significant.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Transportation Security Administration

 

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