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Screening at Canadian Airports should be Faster, Smarter, Safer

Montreal Gazette - October 19, 2016

Sault Star - October 21, 2016

Sudbury Star - October 21, 2016

St Catharines Standard - October 21, 2016

London Free Press - October 21, 2016

Kingston Whig Standard - October 21, 2016

Belleville Intelligencer - October 21, 2016

Chatham Daily News - October 21, 2016

Brantford Expositor - October 21, 2016

Victoria Times-Colonist - October 22, 2016

Vancouver Sun - October 22, 2016

Regina Leader-Post - October 24, 2016

Huffington Post - October 27, 2016

Hill Times - October 31, 2016

Calgary Herald - November 11, 2016

Charlottetown Guardian - November 14, 2016

The Province (Vancouver) - November 15, 2016

By Colin Kenny

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 their submission to the 2015 Transportation Act Review, the Canadian Airport Council referred to security screening services as a being in a state of “crisis”.

The worst part is that air travelers 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 Traveler’s Security Charge (ATSC).

The Air Traveler’s Security Charge is a tax introduced shortly after 9/11 by the Chretien 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 dollars 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 travelers 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 US 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 authorities 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 traveler programs – or rather, lack thereof. Many Canadians are familiar with NEXUS– it’s the background check where travelers volunteer their information to border officials to become pre-screened. They are then deemed “trusted travelers” 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 of a line. Unlike when going through customs, NEXUS users are still forced to submit to the same cumbersome screening procedures as other passengers. This begs the question: if our border officials allow these pre-screened travelers 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 US long ago adopted this model and as a result “trusted travelers” are able to pass through security lickety-split. In fact, the processing rates at US airports are more than double that experienced in Canada.

If policy makers 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 US. Trusted travelers would no longer have to take off their belt or shoes or remove their laptops from their bags. This would be particularly beneficial to the elderly and disabled who are currently forced to submit to unnecessary and embarrassing screening procedures.

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

Why is Minister Garneau dithering on this file? He’s been on the job for almost a year now but has yet to deliver any meaningful results. 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 policy.

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