Is Common Sense Coming to Airport Security?

Even the head of the Transportation Security Administration knows that the TSA’s approach to passenger screening is messed up. The one-size-fits-all mindset, the inexperienced guards, the pat-downs of children—it’s not a sustainable model, TSA chief John Pistole admits. So this fall, he’s going to try to introduce just the slightest bit of intelligence and flexibility into his agency’s system.

The goal, as Mr. Pistole told the Aspen Security Forum late last month, is to carry out airport security in a “more informed fashion to try to recognize that the vast majority of people traveling every day are not terrorists.” The question is: Will the politicians, the press and his own employees let him?

When Mr. Pistole took over the TSA in July 2010, he inherited an agency gripped with fear of another 9/11. Any possibility of a threat, no matter how absurd, was taken as a potential catastrophe. Grannies got accosted on the off-chance they were al Qaeda sleeper agents. Until November, even pilots had to go through those bomb-spotting body scanners, as if they couldn’t just crash the plane on their own.

Worse, the TSA focused mostly on interdicting terrorist weapons, like box cutters and shoe bombs, instead of on stopping the terrorists themselves. Every time an al Qaeda disciple tried a new trick, we’d all have to suffer some fresh hassle or indignity—forever. One guy from Nigeria tries to blow up his underwear, and passengers now get felt up before every flight.

Enforcing all these rules were officers who only needed a high school equivalent degree and a year as a rent-a-cop to qualify. Not surprisingly, they were told to follow the checklist, strictly. Judgment calls were left to the bosses.

None of this jived with Mr. Pistole’s 26 years with the FBI, where G-men constantly made their own decisions. Nor did the TSA’s unthinking approach take into account a decade’s worth of improvements in tracking potential terrorists. A series of new databases now means that we have a much better sense of who is flying when. “We have an opportunity to change,” Mr. Pistole said in Aspen, “to try to apply some more common sense to the process.”

Earlier this month in Boston, for example, TSA “behavior detection officers” began asking passengers a few quick questions to see if they’re acting shady. At the moment, it’s a supplement to—not a substitution for—other screening techniques. But Mr. Pistole sees it as the beginning of a shift of focus: on the person, and away from the objects that the person’s carrying.

At four select airports beginning this fall, “trusted travelers”—elite-level members of American and Delta Airlines’ frequent flier programs—will be able to skip some of the sillier security protocols. The airlines know who they are, the thinking goes, and they travel constantly. So the chances that one of them is carrying a bomb are vanishingly small. Some travelers may keep their shoes on; others may not have to remove their laptops from their cases. People enrolled in the Customs and Border Patrol’s “Global Entry” program will get similar treatment. If it goes well, the pilot project will expand beyond Atlanta, Detroit, Miami and Dallas-Fort Worth, and include more airlines.

“Pistole’s move makes sense,” said former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who sits on the board of Clear, a registered travel program that hopes to speed its members through security. “Air travel risk management means recognizing that we ought to focus on higher-risk travelers.”

The TSA chief is promising even more changes ahead. Children won’t get felt up quite as often. “I think we can do a different way of screening children that recognizes that, in the very high likelihood, they do not have a bomb on them,” he said. TSA officers may get more flexibility to bend those maddening rules about which items are banned from a flight. The focus is going to be on stopping those weapons that can actually bring down a plane, not just nick a stewardess. In the long run, the new approach will demand more highly qualified officers. To Mr. Pistole, that’s just fine.

Even the “advanced imaging scanners” are being dialed back, with a new algorithm that shows potential bombs without displaying a passenger’s naughty bits. Yes, it’s a response to privacy concerns. But it’ll also free up officers for more useful work: Under the old system, a TSA agent had to examine the revealing images in a private room, away from the passengers.

The promise of common sense is already making some TSA workers nervous, especially since the program’s details haven’t been finalized. What if they blow a call? And the Chicken Littles in the press are already clucking. At Aspen, one reporter accused Mr. Pistole of “creating a horrible vulnerability” for daring to let a few passengers keep their shoes on.

Mr. Pistole noted that our current system “doesn’t eliminate risk” either. Then he pointed out that more than 15 billion people have flown world-wide since 9/11. The vast majority didn’t have their shoes screened, and not a single footwear bomb has gone off.

Besides, fixating on penny loafers only guards against what the terrorists tried yesterday. The smarter move is to focus on who the terrorists are, and what they’ll try tomorrow. “The best layer of security we have,” Mr. Pistole said, “is intelligence.”

It was a sensible, measured statement. Coming from the head of the TSA, it was nothing short of shocking.