Opinion Screening at Canadian airports should be faster, smarter and safer

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If you’ve flown anywhere in Canada recently, you will have noticed that wait times are getting worse. Since 2013, the length of screening times has deteriorated so badly that the Canadian Airport Council referred to security screening services as a being in a state of crisis.

Not only are we waiting more, we are paying more. And getting less service. According to the World Economic Forum, Canadians pay some of the highest air travel prices in the world. One part is a fee for the so-called Air Traveller’s Security Charge (ATSC).

The Air Traveller’s Security Charge was introduced after 9/11 by the Chrétien government to fund air transport security and the newly minted Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. Instead of improving security, it has turned into a major cash grab by the Finance Department. Since 2011, the budget of CATSA has declined even though ATSC revenue has steadily increased. From 2010 to 2013, $260 million was siphoned away from airport screening into the Consolidated Revenue Fund.

While it’s annoying to wait in long lines, more important is the security risk these lines pose. A new wave of terrorist attacks on airports in Moscow, Brussels and Istanbul have all occurred between the sidewalk and the security inspection line. Instead of viewing screening lines as an annoyance, officials should see these lengthening lines as a soft spot for terrorists.  

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

Transport Minister Marc Garneau should get on with it, and 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.

But perhaps the greatest failing of the Canadian model is with our trusted traveller program: NEXUS. That’s the background check where travellers volunteer their information to border officials to become pre-screened. They are then deemed “trusted travellers” and expedited through customs.

NEXUS cardholders are also offered a special line at security screening. The problem is, it’s not that special. NEXUS users are still forced to submit to the same cumbersome screening procedures as other passengers. The question is: If our border officials allow these pre-screened travellers to enter the country quickly and safely, why doesn’t the same practice 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 United States long ago adopted this model. As a result, “trusted travellers” are able to pass through security quickly. In fact, the processing rates at U.S. airports twice as fast as in Canada.

We could have a security screening system that works not just for a select few, but for everybody. Trusted travellers shouldn’t have to take off their belt or shoes or separate their laptops. This would be particularly beneficial to elderly and disabled passengers who are currently forced to submit to unnecessary and embarrassing screening procedures.

The government should also be doing a better job promoting NEXUS. Lower the $50 application fee and advertise the program heavily at airports. More pre-cleared travellers means CATSA can devote more resources to the general screening line. The result will be faster processing times for all travellers — win-win.

Garneau has been on the job for almost a year, but has yet to deliver any meaningful results on this file. The new CATSA Plus pilot project in Montreal, which is supposed to increase efficiency, is merely cosmetic and does not address security issues.

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

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