ARLINGTON, Va. — As Catherine Lillie was designing a futuristic airport checkpoint that would calm stressed passengers, she faced a crucial decision: classical music or New Age?
Listening to soundtracks in a warehouse at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Lillie's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) team debated which tunes cast a more serene aura.
"We ran a couple of classical music tracks at one point that were simply too musical," Lillie said. "They take over, and you start focusing on the music."
The New Age instrumentals were "spa-like and soothing" — perfect to make passengers relax as they line up at a metal detector. "It's like aural wallpaper," Lillie said.
Nine months of Lillie's handiwork will be tested starting in May at Baltimore/Washington International Airport and could be adopted at airports around the country.
The checkpoint prototype is part of the TSA's effort to ratchet down the tension of airport screening. If passengers are more relaxed, screeners who specialize in behavior observation will have an easier time spotting potential terrorists who look tense or are acting suspiciously, TSA Administrator Kip Hawley said.
The road to relaxation draws heavily on industrial psychology. Lillie studied how banks align furniture to deter robbers and how restaurants use color schemes to stimulate eating.
"Research shows that the cooler ends of the spectrum, blues and greens, have a calming effect," Lillie said. Her checkpoint line is bathed in the glow of mauve lights.
The line itself is tight and boxed in by portable wall sections — better for screeners to chat up passengers and watch their expressions and body language as they reply to friendly questions.
"Now it's very easy to move through a checkpoint and not talk to someone. From a security perspective, that's far from ideal. We want interactions," Lillie said.
Other features include belts that return security bins to the front of an X-ray machine; a counter near the checkpoint line where passengers can stop to put their bottles in bags; and headsets to be worn by screeners so they can talk quietly to each other instead of barking over radios. Photo displays with biographical information about local screeners are posted to make screeners more human and sympathetic to passengers, Hawley said.
The other benefit of the new checkpoint: "This should be faster," Hawley said.
KINDLER, GENTLER: TSA tests new screening process
The checkpoint prototype culminates a two-year push by Hawley to focus airport security more on passenger behavior and to rely less heavily on metal detectors and X-ray machines to find weapons. That reflects TSA's new thinking that terrorists reveal their intentions through behavior, and an old reality that checkpoint machines can miss a lot of explosives, detonators and other bomb parts.
Government testers have repeatedly passed through checkpoints with fake bombs and bomb parts — some of them small or seemingly benign — hidden under their clothes or in briefcases.
"The technology is not there where I'm comfortable finding bombs. The best way to find bombs is looking in the eyes of people," said Randall Larsen of the Institute for Homeland Security. "That means getting more TSA people in front of the X-ray machine instead of behind it and having them trained in behavior profiling."
David McIntyre, director of Texas A&M University's Integrative Center for Homeland Security, questioned whether screeners can identify odd behavior in a line of diverse travelers. "You mix people who do this all the time with people who don't speak English well, I would think it would be very difficult in today's circumstances to spot anomalous behavior," McIntyre said.
Although the TSA has designed the new checkpoint, it will not pay for airports to adopt the lights, soundtracks, counters and other features not used to screen passengers. "If it achieves its objectives, we'll market it, and the airports and airlines will pay," Hawley said.
The TSA will pay for new security equipment such as screener headsets and possibly bin-return machines.
Airports will be watching the test in Baltimore, said Charles Chambers of the Airports Council International. "I'm sure you'll find airports that are willing to pay the costs of test the equipment," Chambers said.