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Outgoing head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) John Pistole spoke at the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute last week and received glowing reviews of his tenure.
He’s got plenty of reason to enjoy the praise: The once beleaguered agency just enjoyed one of its best years on record and relative calm is returning to the airport security world.
Part of the stability comes from Pistole’s original approach to move the agency towards threat-based security. On one hand, that strategy targets specific intelligence and changes security procedures to match that threat. In July, for example, the TSA briefly required that some international passengers verify the functionality of their electronics in response to specific intelligence. That restriction quietly faded away as the threat de-escalated.
The other side of threat-based security enforcement involved identifying and reducing the risk from trusted travelers. This year saw record growth in the Known Crewmember and TSA PreCheck programs, with over 750,000 passengers currently enrolled in the latter. The sum of those two initiatives led to shorter security lines across the board and naturally, less agitated customers.
Improvement in the security situation has come so far that Pistole has even hinted at returning liquids larger than 3.4oz to airplane cabins, though that may be only limited to PreCheck passengers.
This isn’t to say that the TSA still hasn’t got room for improvement though. In addition to the continuously evolving threat from worldwide terrorists, the agency faces constant scrutiny from both the American public and the sensationalistic media. Just this past Thanksgiving, Chicago Midway’s security team took heat for playing home to lines over a mile long. Even Comedy Central’s Key and Peele have jumped into the fray, teasing the agency over its perceived arbitrary restrictions.
Still, high times remain for both the TSA and the consumers subjected to their ever evolving strategy. Perhaps the biggest risk that the agency faces is the fragile peace that it holds over the current airport security ecosystem.
Pistole has been fortunate to command the TSA through a period in which no dramatic airport threats have led to serious security incidents — and whether by design or luck, that lack of activity has single handedly led to the best year in the agency’s history. Once an incident does happen, however — and it will — the true test will be in whether the progress that has been made over the last years remains in place.