Sunday, September 10, 2006

Looking For A Rationale: Expedited Security Screening Of Premium Passengers

As y'all may or may not be aware of, some airports offer special screening lines for passengers which the resident airlines have designated as "premium". The problem with this practice is that there doesn't appear to be any supporting rationale. And before y'all go complaining that I'm just jealous I'll point out that I've medallions on a couple of airlines, so I frequently have the opportunity to use such lines myself. I fully support the right of airlines to have frequent flyer programs, provide expedited check-in, etc. etc. etc. Those are all legitimate marketing tools related to services provided by the airlines themselves. But security screening isn't an airline function; its a security process imposed by the Federal government. So the question, then, is whether expediting security screening for premium passengers somehow furthers the cause of air travel security? That's a no-brainer; the order in which a passenger is screened has exactly 0 bearing on the efficacy of the screening process. You can argue that these special security lines have less traffic and, as such, screeners are more likely to do a thorough screen of each passenger. That may be the case (or maybe not, see below), but in order to make such an argument you must also argue that premium passengers are somehow more suspect, as a whole, than the general passenger population and thus merit special screening. Otherwise you could open up the special security lines to all passengers, thus reducing load on the standard lines and increasing the quality of their screening process. I'd argue the opposite, that premium passengers (at least those that get their status through frequent travel rather than just purchasing a first class ticket) are less of a security risk, since their frequent travel makes them much more of a "known quantity" than a random holiday traveler. But that raises an interesting question, what about people who get premium status through the purchase of a first class ticket? Could this mechanism actually be used to subvert overall security? I think there's a plausible argument that it could. Providing separate screening for premium passengers sends a subtle signal that these passengers merit special consideration. In the context of security this means that screeners are more likely to give them the "kid gloves" treatment; I'll bet you a buck that screeners are less likely to give passengers in the premium line a hard time in comparison to passengers in the cattle chute. Admittedly this is speculation, but its testable speculation and seems to dovetail with the facts on the ground, so let's let it slide for the time being. Assuming, then, that passengers in the premium screening line are less likely to receive a thorough screening, could this be exploited? Yes; as noted above you can buy your way into expedited screening for the price of a first class ticket. The terrorists, as Our Fearless Monkey is fond of telling us ad infinitum, are really resourceful; surely they can swing the cost of a first-class ticket? Oh shit, I shouldn't have just said that! NOW THEY KNOW HOW THEY CAN PWN US!!!1!!11!!!! On the balance the arguments against separate screening lines for first-class passengers outweigh the arguments in favor. This is sort of a "Well, duh" situation; I don't think that anyone argues that premium passengers are being selected for expedited screening to increase security. The TSA permits special lines to grease their relations with airports and airlines. Which probably makes the lives of TSA administrators easier, but doesn't contribute to the cause of security. The TSA has a monopoly on screening; its not like airlines have any choice but to go along. Again, if you're going to seriously propose that the whole airport security thing is anything other than a dumbshow then you need be a totalitarian about it. Everyone needs to get the anal-probing; there can't be ways to game the system. What I do support, however, are things along the lines of Registered Traveler. A person who has submitted to a background check has lowered their risk profile; they require a lesser level of screening than a random traveler. I'm going to sign up for it as soon as it comes to my home airport; the government already has all that crap on me anyway on account of my security clearance, so why not save myself some additional hassle?

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