Friday, November 19, 2010

Americans, Airport Security...and Surveys

It seems as if airport security--especially the introduction of new body scanners--is making the news. In fact, we will be talking about the difference between Israel airport security and U.S. airport security in the news segment on Saturday's program.

But is the concern over the new security procedures just a tempest in a teapot? Are Americans really upset about the new body scanners and enhanced pat-downs being rolled out in American airports? According to a recently released CBS News Poll, 81% of Americans support the use of full-body x-rays at airports. And if the vast majority of Americans are for the new procedures, why are people making such a fuss?

Let's take a closer look at the CBS News Poll, which I think has some serious flaws.

First, the survey was not limited to people who actually fly. According to the U.S. Travel Association less than half of all Americans travel by air in any given year. If the CBS News Poll was truly a random sampling of Americans, then we can assume that half those surveyed were not bothered by the new security regulations because they don't fly. (I'm not bothered by Singapore's ban on chewing gum, but I've never traveled to Singapore either!)

Second, the survey assumes people have enough knowledge of--or experience with--the new security measures to provide an informed response. I fly more than many, though I'm not a hard-core frequent flyer. In the past two months I've flown on eight different flights, going through airport security six times in four different airports. And thus far I've only had to go through one of the new body scanners once. The reality is that the machines are still being installed, so relatively few people have had experience with one. I think the survey would have been more helpful had the results reflected responses based on flyers who have actually experienced the new enhanced security procedures.

Third, the survey asked a question that supposedly focused on the one option to the current procedures for enhanced security--profiling. Specifically, it asked if racial or ethnic profiling is justified, and the overwhelming response was no. But I think it would have been more realistic to ask if people supported an enhanced version of behavioral profiling. (The U.S. currently employs a form of behaviorial profiling as part of our airport security.) This is a key part of Israel's airport security, and anyone who has flown out of Ben Gurion airport knows the difference between Israel's approach to security and that practiced by the U.S. (For those who have never been to Israel, you don't have to remove your shoes...but you definitely feel more secure when you board the plane!)

Fourth, one issue the survey did not address is the actual impact of the new procedures on travelers. Those who have experienced the new procedures have expressed extreme discomfort at the potential for increased exposure to radiation, at the invasion of privacy (body scanners can look beneath clothing and the enhanced pat-downs approach the level of groping), and at the additional time required for the new procedures. (In my case, the amount of time per passenger was at least double, and the lines were twice as long as a result.) This year's Thanksgiving and Christmas travel season could turn into a nightmare for travelers. And it will only get worse as additional airports transition to these new machines and procedures over the next year.

Fifth, our airport security always seem to be reacting to what has happened, rather than preparing for what is next. Just as we start spending billions of dollars to install body scanners in airports, terrorists are experimenting with sending bombs through the luggage and packages loaded underneath the plane. The passengers are more hassled, but are they any safer than they were before? I'm not so sure.

I have a suggestion for CBS News. Wait until after the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays and then redo the survey. But ask a few additional questions to segment travelers who actually have experienced the new security procedures. I think you will find that more than 20% find them unacceptable.

I also have a suggestion for TSA. It's time to consider adopting additional behavioral profiling procedures to identify would-be terrorists, rather than hassling all passengers just to give the illusion of safety. Stop buying body scanners and spend the money on additional equipment to make sure the cargo going underneath the plane is free of explosives.

And if you want to know what all this could look like, take a trip to Israel!

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