Colin Kenny: We should fix our approach to airport security

If you’ve flown anywhere in Canada recently, there’s a good chance you’ve had to deal with the headache of longer-than-normal wait times at security screening. You also wouldn’t be wrong in thinking wait times are getting worse.

Since 2013, the length of screening times has deteriorated so badly that in its submission to the 2015 Transportation Act Review, the Canadian Airport Council referred to security screening as a being in a state of “crisis.”

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The worst part is that air travellers are paying for better service — they just aren’t getting it. In fact, according to research by the World Economic Forum, Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the world for air travel. Part of those high prices is a fee for the so-called the Air Traveller’s Security Charge.

The security charge is a tax introduced shortly after 9/11 by the Chrétien government to fund the air-transport security system and the newly minted Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. That was the initial intent, at least. In recent years, the revenue generated from the charge has been a major cash grab by the Department of Finance. Since 2011, the budget of CATSA has declined, even though the revenue from the security tax has steadily increased. Between 2010 and 2013, $260 million was siphoned away from airport screening into the black hole of the Consolidated Revenue Fund.

While it is annoying for flyers to wait in long lines, more important is the security risk that lines pose. A new wave of terrorist attacks on airports in Moscow, Brussels and Istanbul have all occurred between the sidewalk and the inspection line before travellers pass through security. Instead of viewing screening lines as a minor annoyance that Canadians should deal with, officials would be wise to view the lengthening lines as a soft spot that terrorists are exploiting.

Another problem with airport security highlighted in David Emerson’s 2015 review is the strange restrictions faced by CATSA. Essentially, CATSA has no control over security screening policy, and this has led to poor service and long wait times. Go figure. The Emerson report recommends adopting the U.S. model wherein a single “agency has responsibility for both regulatory oversight and operations.”

The minister of transport should get with it. Give CATSA the policy authority to make airport screening faster, smarter and safer. Then he should reduce the security charge to match CATSA’s new budget.

Perhaps the greatest failing of the Canadian airport model has to do with our trusted-traveller programs — or rather, lack thereof. Many Canadians are familiar with NEXUS — it’s the background check where travellers volunteer their information to border officials to become pre-screened. They are then deemed “trusted travellers” and are able to be expedited through customs.

NEXUS cardholders are also offered the use of a special line at security screening. The problem is, it’s not that special a line. Unlike when going through customs, NEXUS users are still forced to submit to the same cumbersome screening procedures as other passengers. This raises the question: If our border officials allow these pre-screened travellers to enter the country quickly and safely, why does the same practice not apply at airport security?

Replacing this “one size fits all” approach to passenger screening with a risk-based, intelligence-driven approach was a key recommendation in the Emerson review. The U.S. long ago adopted this model and as a result “trusted travellers” are able to pass through security lickety-split. In fact, the processing rates at U.S. airports are more than double those experienced in Canada.

If policymakers moved in this direction, we could have a security-screening system that works not just for a select few, but for everybody, as it does in the U.S. Trusted travellers would no longer have to take off their belts or shoes or remove their laptops from their bags.

Not only should the government be adopting these systems, it should be doing a better job promoting NEXUS. Lower the application fee — currently $50 — and advertise the program heavily at airports. More pre-cleared travellers means CATSA could devote more staffing resources to the general screening line. This, in turn, would result in faster processing times for all travellers — win-win.

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau has been on the job for almost a year, but has yet to deliver meaningful results on this file.

It’s up to Garneau to make lines safer and faster. He should reinvest the security charge money back into CATSA, establish it as an independent agency, and allow it a role in shaping sensible security policy.


Colin Kenny is former chairman of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.

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