Dan Corkery: Why wait in line if you're not the bad guy?

Dan Corkery: Why wait in line if you're not the bad guy?

Sheldon Jacobson thinks most air travelers should not have to wait in long security lines.

Screening all passengers, their carry-ons, shoes and coats is time-consuming and expensive.

And it isn't making flying safer.

Dating back to 1996, the mathematics-trained engineer has been studying aviation safety and developing strategies to find the terrorist needle in the haystack.

"Then Sept. 11 happened," said Jacobson, who has been at the University of Illinois since 1999. "And it actually changed my life considerably, because at that time there were very few academics who were working on aviation security."

In the 15 years since terrorists commandeered four airliners and killed 2,996 in New York, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania, life in America has changed dramatically — especially for the flying public.

The Office of Civil Aviation Security, which grew out of hijackings in the 1960s, became the Transportation Security Administration two months later. And passenger screenings, which had been a necessary nuisance, turned into hourslong waits.

Each person, most of whom presented no risk, had to screened.

"The vision that we had — this is talking weeks after Sept. 11, just to give you the perspective — is that we can't do 'one size fits all,'" said Jacobson, a computer science professor and the director of the Simulation and Optimization Laboratory. "We started to do the research to create what we now know as PreCheck."

If you fly frequently, or even occasionally, you should consider enrolling in TSA PreCheck.

For $85, you turn over personal information and submit to an interview and fingerprinting. If the background check determines you are a low security risk, the government issues an ID good for five years. You bypass regular security and go through the expedited PreCheck line. No taking off your belt and shoes. No clear bag with toothpaste, shampoo and mouthwash. All done in five minutes.

By spending less time on trusted travelers and more on high-risk or unknown passengers, TSA says it can improve security and the passenger experience.

The agency got the idea from Jacobson's published research.

"They called it PreCheck. We called it multilevel systems," he said. "But the roots of it are based right here at the University of Illinois."

If PreCheck is the answer, why do security lines continue to be long?

Not enough people have signed up; many travelers would rather wait in line than spend $85.

"But the problem is that those people add up and until we get to around 70 to 75 percent of the enplanements — which are people going through security and getting on a airplane being in PreCheck — the full benefit is not realized."

About 3.5 million fliers are enrolled now; 25 million is the magic number, Jacobson said.

His solution: create an incentive and drop the $85 fee (which covers the cost of the background check). TSA's labor and equipment savings would more than offset the lost revenue.

Even with better security procedures, the risk of terrorism doesn't go away.

The bad guys can attack wherever people gather, whether that's waiting in line at the airport, attending a sporting event or shopping at the mall.

"The real challenge in the United States now ... is the 'lone wolf,'" Jacobson said. "They have no history. ... And if there is a history, it's rather murky."

What America must maintain, he said, is its "resiliency and response."

"There is a unique resiliency built into the texture of Americans and that is one of our greatest assets," he said. "That's why anytime you get on an airplane right now you have to become an air marshal. You're a de facto air marshal. Everybody on the plane is. That provides a tremendous amount of protection whether we realize it or not."

Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. His email is dcorkery@news-gazette.com.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion

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pattsi wrote on September 11, 2016 at 10:09 am

One might be tempted to think there is correlation and causation between speed and money and implementation as described in this article when it has been totally impossible to change the method of loading a plane to one of speed and efficiency. The latter has been concept known, researched, and knowledged for years, but not once implemented. :-)