Illinois professor improves airport security systems

By Trishala Bhagat, Staff Writer

For many years, most people didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to get through airport security. It was a standard, one-size-fits-all security system; everyone was screened the same.

It wasn’t until the events of Sept. 11, 2001 that the government increased airport security and changed the process. In 2011, airports introduced Transportation Security Administration precheck, a process developed with the help of work done by Sheldon Jacobson, professor in Engineering.

TSA precheck is a background check on fliers prior to coming to the airport, allowing them to go through a different security line with a different screening process and saving a lot of time. Risk-based security matches the risk of the passengers with the security resources they need at the airport, meaning people are treated differently during the security process. 

While TSA precheck has been used since 2011, some of the fundamentals behind it had been developed several years before by Jacobson.

With a doctorate in operations research, Jacobson worked with aviation security problems before and after the incidents of 9/11.

“Before Sept. 11, aviation security was fairly pedestrian in this country,” he said. “It wasn’t a burden to get through security checkpoints. After, the government kept the one-size-fits-all security at a higher level. This became much too onerous for people to actually actually implement. It was expensive, it was time consuming, travelers didn’t like it, airlines didn’t like it, nobody liked it, but nobody knew what else to do.”

Jacobson decided to work alongside three doctoral students on mathematical models to help understand the implications of differential, or “risk-based” screening. One of the main questions they addressed was if it actually would make the system more secure.

Jacobson and the graduate students showed the risk-based approach made the system more secure and required fewer resources. Around 2008, they shared their findings in several papers with the TSA, but they never heard anything back.

Finally, in 2011, Jacobson saw TSA precheck introduced, similar to their proposal. It went by the name multilevel passenger pre-screening instead of risk-based security.

It wasn’t until 2018 that Jacobson and his team were nationally recognized for their contribution. They were awarded the Informs Impact Prize by Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. Their work was used to justify why TSA precheck was eventually adopted and is in use today.

This process is becoming more common for frequent fliers, even though many people are still not registered for TSA precheck. Adults, families and children are using it to help make their travel experience smoother.

Several students on campus use TSA precheck while traveling with family, commuting to or from school, or going to work.

Ian Katsnelson, freshman in LAS, uses TSA precheck every time he goes home from school. He has experienced airport security with and without TSA precheck. 

“I got it specifically for college because I knew I’d be going through the airport more often, in order to get through faster,” he said.

After completing an online application, he received an appointment to an application center for TSA precheck and said the whole process took about 15 minutes.

The time he saves is the biggest benefit to him. Katsnelson says he has never had to wait in the TSA precheck line for more than 10 minutes.

“I was the only one in my family who had TSA precheck,” Katsnelson said. “I went to a seperate line and it took them 35 minutes to go through security, and it took me about two.”

Katsnelson isn’t the only student who finds the reduced time in security to be very beneficial.

Anya Neuberger, freshman in LAS, uses TSA precheck for vacations when she and her mom travel.

“I’ve noticed the wait time is definitely different than when you’re not TSA pre-checked, and the lines move much faster, which is pretty nice,” Neuberger said.

The first time she used TSA precheck nearly three years ago, she didn’t even know she was registered; the idea of not taking off her shoes or opening her bag to remove items and worrying about misplacing something was a huge difference.

“It helps a lot with my mom, who has a really bad ankle,” she said. “She has to wear a brace, so it really helps because she would always get stopped at the airport because of it. That’s a huge benefit for my family.”

While Neuberger and her family still arrive at the airport a few hours in advance, the quick security process provides an advantage to Katsnelson when scheduling his buses to the airport and his flights home.

“The biggest benefit for me is I don’t have to go to the airport two hours early anymore,” Neuberger said. “I can now get through TSA precheck security in less than 10 minutes.”

The introduction of TSA precheck and the concept of risk-based security that came about very shortly after Sept. 11 has changed the way people fly.

“From the airline’s point of view, passengers are happier and can get through security more efficiently and effectively,” Jacobson said. “From the nation’s point of view, you have a more secure air system because you’re not spending time focusing on passengers who have no or low risk but rather the groups that have risk suspicions or those you don’t know anything about.”

However, the change from one-size-fits-all to people being treated differently at the airport was a very difficult concept. Jacobson believed there were a lot of political issues around it.

“Many times, in the government, people have good ideas, and TSA precheck was a good idea, but you need some kind of external validation, often from academia, to get people to accept it,” Jacobson said. “There was a great deal of resistance to doing differential screening. It wouldn’t be politically acceptable. It wouldn’t be viewed as being fair to all people. And people were concerned about security, but he was able to take our work and show that the academic research supports this concept.”

He said the team’s contribution to TSA precheck was the responsibility of overseeing the idea and providing that academic support. He also said precheck can be taken to higher levels, not just aviation security. With an increasingly dangerous society, he wants to treat this as a universal precheck system where it can cover many facets of society, as it has provided several benefits.

“It’s really a win-win situation: better security, lower cost for everybody,” he said. “It is the single most valuable manifestation of risk-based security.”

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