In the United States, the development and adoption of new aviation security technology is often the result of a complex process involving not only airports, airlines, and technology manufacturers – but most notably the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and theU.S. Congress. To help make sense of this often-confusing dynamic, we turned to Michael Higdon, founder and CEO of consulting firm A1.9 Strategies LLC. Prior to starting A1.9, Higdon worked for a top 10 Washington lobbying firm and was chief of staff to U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.). In total, Higdon spent 14 years on Capitol Hill working with Congressional appropriations subcommittees including Homeland Security, Transportation, Energy & Water, Defense, Interior-EPA and Agriculture.
DeteCT: Michael, thanks for joining us. First of all, for those of us not immersed in the mechanics of Washington, DC, can you briefly explain why the U.S. Congress – and key committees within it – are so important to aviation security? Doesn’t US TSA make all the important decisions?
MH: TSA is in the lead and on the front line of aviation security: they largely decide how aviation security policy is implemented and enforced and, as part of that they select what technology will be deployed. But the U.S. Congress also has a key role: it provides oversight on aviation security policy and it has ultimate control over TSA’s budget.
DeteCT: Not long ago, many people didn’t know “CT” stood for Computed Tomography. Now, in recent Congressional hearings, there seems to be widespread agreement between the new TSA administrator and Congress that checkpoint CT should be a cornerstone of aviation security.
MH: Absolutely. The rapid change in thinking has been pretty remarkable. A year ago, policymakers were asking, “What is checkpoint CT and why do we need it?” Now everyone understands checkpoint CT has multiple advantages over current X-Ray systems. The question now is, “How fast can TSA deploy it?” There is a certain sense of inevitability now – it is just a matter of time before we see checkpoint CT systems replace legacy X-Ray at US airports. That change in attitude is a big step forward for the technology.
DeteCT: What happened to cause the change?
MH: Several reasons. Terrorist threats are more sophisticated, and experts internal and external to TSA agree CT is superior to 2D X-Ray at detecting these threats. When CT is coupled with advanced algorithms and an open architecture approach, the security proposition is overwhelmingly in the camp of moving to CT rapidly. Aviation stakeholders also understand that the high false alarm rates of 2D X-Ray and the promise of ending liquid and electronic divestiture, make CT a far more attractive traveler option. And lastly, movement by foreign airports to embrace CT is causing Members of Congress and the Administration to pay more attention as AT systems start to age out and maintenance and upgrade costs climb.
DeteCT: Got it. So now for the tough question: when do you think TSA will deploy Checkpoint CT in large numbers?
MH: That is the big question. One of the challenges facing TSA is that its current budget was set well before it became clear that checkpoint CT should be widely deployed. So now, the funding – set by Congress – needs to “catch up” to the policy. But on the positive side, there are real indications that Congress and TSA want to find the resources to accelerate CT deployment. 2018 should be a turning point year for Checkpoint CT. In fact, in early December, TSA Administrator David Pekoske suggested TSA may test and procure checkpoint CTs in 2018, at a greater quantity than the President’s spring budget request called for.
DeteCT: We’ll keep our fingers crossed. Michael, thanks for your insights.