Risk-based policies for airport security checkpoint screening

Laura A. McLay, Adrian J. Lee, Sheldon H. Jacobson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Passenger screening is an important component of aviation security that incorporates real-time passenger screening strategies designed to maximize effectiveness in identifying potential terrorist attacks. This paper identifies a methodology that can be used to sequentially and optimally assign passengers to aviation security resources. An automated prescreening system determines passengers' perceived risk levels, which become known as passengers check in. The levels are available for determining security class assignments sequentially as passengers enter security screening. A passenger is then assigned to one of several available security classes, each of which corresponds to a particular set of screening devices. The objective is to use the passengers' perceived risk levels to determine the optimal policy for passenger screening assignments that maximize the expected total security, subject to capacity and assignment constraints. The sequential passenger assignment problem is formulated as a Markov decision process, and an optimal policy is found using dynamic programming. The general result from the sequential stochastic assignment problem is adapted to provide a heuristic for assigning passengers to security classes in real time. A condition is provided under which this heuristic yields the optimal policy. The model is illustrated with an example that incorporates data extracted from the Official Airline Guide (Official Airline Guide. 1998. OAG Business Travel Planner: North American Edition. Official Airline Guides, Bedfordshire, UK).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)333-349
Number of pages17
JournalTransportation Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2010


  • Aviation security
  • Dynamic programming
  • Markov decision processes
  • Sequential assignment problem

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Civil and Structural Engineering
  • Transportation


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