Basic and Applied Science to Improve Airport Security Screening

Examining factors that impact the visual search performance of TSA screening agents

Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate

Every day, approximately 1.9 million people fly within the United States. To keep passengers safe, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses a layered security approach to deter and stop acts of terrorism on commercial flights. Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) and Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) are an integral part of this approach.

TSOs make up most of the TSA’s workforce and are arguably the most visible part of airport security systems. These officers conduct screening activities at airport checkpoints—checking boarding passes, advising passengers about what they can and cannot carry through metal detectors, and inspecting passengers and their baggage for prohibited items. In 2015, according to one study, TSA agents screened 1.6 billion carry-on bags and discovered 2,600 guns and hundreds of other prohibited items at checkpoints.

BDOs also perform screening tasks at airport checkpoints. BDOs visually scan crowds of passengers, looking for indicators that may suggest an individual is higher-risk. Their job is to identify these travelers and subject them to additional screening, while also protecting their civil liberties.

Both types of tasks require officers engage in a form of visual search, but what they search for and how they search differ. And while the search process may seem deceptively simple, research shows people can have a hard time performing these searches accurately, especially if they’re required to find rare and infrequently occurring objects. Successful performance requires the ability to sustain attention over prolonged periods of time, block out distractions, and remember and recognize an ever-growing list of prohibited items.

Identifying Factors that Improve Airport Screening Performance  

As part of our ongoing research with TSA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), RTI gathers evidence to better understand the factors that impact how accurately airport security personnel conduct visual searches.

In collaboration with Duke University, DHS, and TSA, we identified predictive markers of visual search success and explored differences in performance between professional TSOs and novice searchers (college student volunteers). Findings from this initial study showed that TSOs were more deliberate, slower in their searches, and ultimately, more accurate than novices.

In a series of smaller studies for DHS, we investigated additional questions about the visual search performance of TSOs, such as

  • Do personality traits, experiences, and preferences impact visual search performance?
  • Does screening in a remote location improve visual search performance compared to screening at an airport checkpoint?
  • What strategies do TSOs use when they search luggage images? How successful are these strategies?
  • What immediate training and operational steps can TSA take to improve visual search performance?

Our key findings and recommendations included the following:

  • Cognitive abilities—such as visual working memory capacity and non-cognitive traits such as openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness—were associated with better performance.
  • Screening in a remote location did not provide any benefit to performance.
  • The TSA should provide TSO’s with more feedback about their visual search performance, tailor training to individual needs, and use operational data to evaluate onboard training programs.

Using Data to Develop Studies Focused on Improving the Performance of Behavior Detection Officers

Additional studies compared the visual search performance of BDOs with that of TSOs to identify and develop new tests tailored to the BDO position. After collecting data from 300 BDOs and TSOs and examining whether certain cognitive and non-cognitive traits predicted performance, the research showed that TSOs and BDOs are both highly accurate in their searches and that factors such as spatial ability and conscientiousness impacted visual search accuracy.

We are now working with TSA to develop and validate a new set of assessments that can be used to screen and select BDOs. The goals are to

  • Develop a battery of visual search assessments that can be used to measure the screening skills of BDOs
  • Identify and develop criteria that reflect on-the-job behavior detection performance of BDOs
  • Conduct a validation study to see if performance on the visual search battery and outcomes of individual assessments correlate with behavior detection performance.

Laying the Groundwork for a Safer Travel Environment

We are developing a new suite of behavior detection and visual search assessments that will be used to assess core constructs required for successful behavior detection performance. We are also working with TSA to understand and identify metrics that are currently collected to measure job performance of TSA officers trained in behavior detection and to develop new measures that might better capture the core indicators of visual search performance. Finally, we are working with TSA to examine links between performance on the battery of assessments, individual characteristics, and successful job performance.

Our results will allow the TSA to improve training for officers and make better hiring decisions. With evidence-based training, TSA officers will be better equipped to spot security risks among passengers and prohibited items in luggage. The result will be a safer environment for all travelers who pass through American airports.