Listen to the full audio of the Events @ RAND podcast episode with Administrator David Pekoske.
Thank you Terry for the introduction and it's great to be here in Santa Monica, California as we approach December on the East Coast. I’m really looking forward to this opportunity to have a dialogue with you about the Transportation Security Administration; as I do that, I want to tell tale of two stories and the first I think will be very familiar to you and the second one may not be. In fact, I am pretty sure it will not be.
Let’s just say we take a notional passenger and call this passenger John. John is all set to fly to Denver from LAX for a work conference. The night before his flight, John sits down with his son to watch their favorite series on their favorite streaming service. Just as the show starts, John remembers that he needs to check in and get his boarding pass. So he pauses the show and checks in, obtaining his digital boarding pass on his phone.
When John arrives at the airport the next morning – as much as 2 hours early – he checks his bag and heads toward security. He’s been planning to get TSA Pre✓® for a few months but hasn't gotten to it yet. So he enters the standard line, presents his digital boarding pass and ID to the Transportation Security Officer, and starts divesting his personal items – laptop in a separate bin, belt off, shoes off, jacket off and everything out of his pockets.
Then he waits to put those items in the X-ray belt. After he makes it through the AIT machine, which is the machine you go through to check on-body items and collects his things, and puts himself together, he heads for the newsstand for a magazine and a bottle of water.
All told, his time in security takes 20 minutes.
You are all familiar with this story – well hopefully most of you have TSA Pre✓®, so yours is a slightly different experience. But millions of passengers across the country are doing this as I speak. Millions did it over the Thanksgiving holiday, and millions more will do it over the upcoming holiday travel period.
I would be remiss if I did not pause to give a shout out to the Transportation Security Officers and our partners for the great job they did over the Thanksgiving holiday. Between the Friday before Thanksgiving and Monday, we screened 26.2 million passengers. And on Sunday alone, over 2.6 million travelers came through checkpoints around the country, making it the 5th busiest day in TSA’s history! 98 percent of passengers waited less than 20 minutes in line, and 99.85 percent waited less than 30 minutes in line, with no significant security incidents. And I think this is pretty impressive.
And if you were in a Precheck lane, your wait time was likely half this … generally between 5 and 10 minutes … perhaps the shortest wait of your entire journey from curb to gate.
I am impressed not just because of the sheer volume of passengers screened, but also because we accomplished it with enhanced screening in place and in mind. You see, effectiveness is my top focus. I am the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration -- security is our middle name. I truly believe our system today is effective, but understand it’s not perfect. That is why we are working hard every day to innovate in big and small ways – to find processes and technologies that improve the effectiveness of our security and improve the passenger experience.
Now let me tell you about a vision of John’s journey at some point in the future. John may still need to check in with his airline, but he doesn’t need a boarding pass to gain access to airport security. John is a Trusted Traveler, so there isn’t much of a line. He doesn’t have to divest at all; he simply scans his driver’s license or passport, or perhaps he authenticates his identity using biometrics, and walks through a gate.
He is pleasantly surprised to see that there is no traditional checkpoint between him and his favorite spot for airport coffee – just a low, inconspicuous wall he assumes is a scanner. No line, no boarding pass, no divesting, no stopping.
John places his carry-on bags on a belt … no need to remove electronics, liquids or food … and his items are quickly screened by X-ray.
As John walks through on his way to pick up his carry-on bags, he sees that the standard lanes have been reimagined as well. There are 5 passengers placing their items in bins on a conveyor belt at the same time and they don’t seem as rushed. And it looks like people and bags are moving through much more quickly than he remembers.
The technology to realize this vision is within reach. But we need your help to make the vision a reality and to also envision what happens in the generation after this next generation for transportation security.
What Passengers Don’t See
To most passengers like John, transportation security is synonymous with the TSA checkpoint. But what he sees is only a part of the larger security system.
Let’s go back to the night John booked his ticket. The moment he hit the “confirm” button to purchase the ticket, his name was compared against a list of known or suspected terrorists. So when John arrives at the airport we already have confidence that he poses a low threat.
John proceeds through the checkpoint, where a combination of technology and human capital work in tandem as a system to ensure he does not bring anything into the secure side of the airport or onto the plane that could harm others.
He notices the canine team in front of the checkpoint, an important piece of the explosives threat detection system. He notices our Officers of course, but may not know that they are trained to identify suspicious behavior – another important part of the system.
Once on board the flight, there are pieces he does not notice. John doesn’t know that there is a Federal Air Marshal on board protecting the plane from potential attackers. Or that the pilot and flight deck crew may be trained by TSA to protect the flight deck from attack.
Zooming out a bit, it’s impossible for John to see the work TSA and its partners have done to improve the baseline of global aviation security with additional security measures at last point of departure airports for flights destined for the United States. He has no idea how our efforts to improve security in a distant country are making him more secure on his 2-hour flight from Los Angeles to Denver.
And he also doesn’t see the work TSA has done, alongside our partners, to make his transfer to – and ride on – the new light rail into town safe and secure.
And that’s perfectly fine with me. In fact, TSA’s job is to do everything we can to ensure John never has to think about our security efforts behind the scenes.
TSA is an entrepreneurial organization
To meet the security challenges of today, and anticipate the demands of tomorrow – to ensure that John can focus on the destination of his next trip and trust that we have ensured its security – we are constantly reimagining and innovating the transportation security system.
Remember that TSA was started as an entrepreneurial enterprise. We were given significant flexibilities to remain agile in the face of an extraordinary and dynamic threat.
The cornerstone of our organization reads, in part:
“Forged on the anvil of cruel necessity and blood shed innocently, the TSA was built urgently in a time of war, to preserve peace. This vital agency was made not of steel and stone but of innovation, quiet patriotism, steady virtue and the firm resolve of a nation that would not yield to terror.”
Unfortunately, over the past 16 years, as TSA has evolved, it has also become more and more constrained and lost some of that entrepreneurial edge envisioned immediately after 9/11. Our ability to move swiftly and stay on the forefront of technology has been challenged.
Despite our constraints, we are still expected to take the bold risks to stay ahead of tomorrow’s threats.
That is why public-private partnerships are so important to our continued success. Only by working together – by combining our intellectual capital and innovative ideas with our technological capabilities – can we get ahead of tomorrow’s threats and provide the level of security and convenience the public expects.
Our partnerships with industry are the keys to unlocking the innovation and capabilities TSA needs to excel at our mission today and into the future. These partnerships will help bring forth new technology and new ways of approaching training, processes, and leadership. And we enthusiastically welcome your partnership in addressing these challenges.
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you today and I am looking forward to opening this up to discussion.
It is in TSA’s best interest to think boldly and take action– evoke the entrepreneurial spirit by embracing calculated risk taking – to ensure security effectiveness. Join me in embracing the big ideas that will move us forward to meet the threat now and in the future.
We cannot waste energy fighting the “speed of government,” we must redefine what that speed is.