The TSA is expanding its expedited screening program to 60 new airports, it announced Wednesday.

The growth of PreCheck should be welcome news for travelers, and is a sign that the agency is finally embracing an intelligent approach to airport security.

Bad Reputation

In a Gallup poll from August 2012, 42% of Americans rated the TSA "only fair" or "poor." Since then, its agents have:

confiscated a lightsaber-like cane from a "Star Wars" actor denied a report it made a wounded Marine remove his prosthetic legs and try to walk let an undercover inspector past security with a fake bomb in his pants stopped a 3-year-old girl in a wheelchair on her way to Disney World arrested an advertising agent for wearing a watch that looked like a bomb

That's an abridged list.

A July 2013 report revealing that cases of misconduct by TSA officers have skyrocketed in recent years didn't help matters.

Part of the problem is the TSA's heavy-handed approach to security, which has long been to screen every passenger as if they presented the same level of danger. Erik Hansen, the director of domestic policy at U.S. Travel Association, said that the "one size fits all method" didn't include risk analysis.

In an interview, Hansen explained that in the years after the TSA was formed, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the agency was reactionary. Every time a novel threat popped up, it came up with a new security procedure.

Richard Reid packed explosives into his shoes and tried to detonate them on an American Airlines flight in December 2001. Now, American travelers take off their shoes at security. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hid explosives in his underwear, and failed to detonate them on a Northwest flight in December 2009. We keep our underwear on at security, but were subjected to body scanners that turned out to be a big waste of money.

"There didn't always seem to be that forward-thinking process," Hansen said. Rafi Ron, the president and CEO of New Age Security Solutions (NASS), had harsher words. Making passengers take their shoes off in response to the "shoe bomber," he said, is "an extremely unintelligent conclusion."

The Israeli Example

Ron is the former director of security at Tel Aviv Ben-Gurion International Airport, in a country notorious for its strict and effective security procedures.

He told Business Insider that relying only on technology will "always leave loopholes" that attackers can exploit.

Israel, he said, rejects the idea of "100% total security," the idea that being very thorough means that every possible threat will be detected.  

So how is it that there hasn't been a successful attack against Israeli aviation since the early 1970s?

"We embrace the idea that security cannot be delivered in a uniform manner across the board," Ron explained, "because that dictates a very low level of security processing."

Instead of putting everyone through a rigorous but flawed screening, Israel picks out travelers it deems the most threatening, and concentrates its energy on them. Those choices are made based on background checks that go beyond criminal records to examine traveler behavior.

In April, the Israeli attorney general even allowed the country's security agency to check tourists' email records, according to the Middle East Monitor.  (Visitors can consent or go home.)

American Progress

Ron acknowledged that Americans would not stand for such an intense screening process, and that an attempt to copy Israel is "not realistic and doomed to fail."

But he called PreCheck "an excellent idea." The TSA program is an inverse version of the Israeli approach: Instead of picking out the most dangerous passengers and focusing on them, it will pick out the least dangerous, and not waste time looking at them.

Travelers who sign up for PreCheck (and pay $85 for five years) will get a ticket out of the myriad of indignities imposed at American airports. No taking off your shoes, belt, and jacket. No removing your laptop or little bags of liquids from your bag. And no fumbling to get everything back in place while a line builds up behind you.

The goal, TSA press secretary Ross Feinstein told Business Insider, is to focus "less on the people we know more about, and more on the people we know less about." The expansion of PreCheck is part of a shift toward risk-based security, as the TSA recognizes that "one size fits all is not the right approach here."

Benefits For Everyone

Hansen credited the TSA for "becoming more sophisticated, more risk-based, and that's beginning to improve the system."

The advantages of PreCheck should be felt by those who don't enroll as well as those who drop the $85. "It speeds up the entire process," Feinstein said. The more passengers who take the PreCheck line, and fewer there are untying their shoes in the regular line.

Faster security means less stress, and likely fewer annoyed passengers like the woman who told a gate agent she was carrying an atomic bomb in March, in what may have been an ill-advised attempt at mockery.

It means travelers don't sacrifice time away from home or the office to get to the airport hours early, and those who do will have more time to spend money in airport shops.

And it means TSA officers will have more time, energy, and resources to focus on the travelers who pose the most serious security risks.

See Also:

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