From patting down grandmas to pre-check: Retiring TSA chief looks back on legacy

Power Players

Power Players

When you think about airport security these days, do you think about long lines and babies being patted down? Or has your view of the Transportation Safety Administration softened? The man who thinks he has changed the “TSA brand” is retiring.

“Our protocols were such that we were literally doing a pat down of a 95-year-old great-grandmother with cancer in a wheelchair, because she might be a terrorist,” TSA Administrator John Pistole told “Power Players.” “So, what we've done is replace some of those policies that, frankly, didn't make any sense, with a policy of saying, ‘Let's try to pre-screen as many people as we can.’”

Pistole said expediting the security process for certain categories of people, such as high-level government employees or those who have undergone screening through TSA pre-check, not only makes the security lines faster; it makes flying safer.

“There's whole groups of people that are benefiting from these changes we've made, which allows us to be more precise and more focused, possibly looking for that one-in-a-billion terrorist in the haystack. That needle in the haystack, that's our mission,” he said.

Though Pistole assured that Americans are “very safe” in the skies today, he said the thought of a terrorist slipping under the radar still keeps him up at night.

Pistole described his nightmare scenario: “A clean scan, lone wolf, somebody who just hasn't been in contact with others that somebody might figure out is a terrorist and who has access to this nonmetallic IED that has been used in several attempts coming out of the Middle East in the past five years. … And they're able to get on up on an airliner and bound for the U.S. and blow that plane up.”

Though it may be a nightmare scenario, the threat of terrorists coming from abroad is a very real one.

“Right now, we have in place extra protocols, security protocols in certain airports in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, and that's because of intelligence over this past year that indicates there [are] many a terrorist trying to get on a plane bound for Western Europe or the U.S. with that type of nonmetallic IED,” Pistole said.

While TSA has already seen a series of reforms on Pistole’s watch, he said there are many more changes to come that he hopes will make airport security less of a hassle for the passengers it serves.

For one thing, he hopes to increase the number of pre-check lanes as more people sign up.

“That will become the new norm, where the majority of passengers going through TSA pre-check in five minutes or less,” he said.

As for all those restrictions on carry-on liquids and gels, don’t expect them to go away anytime soon. But Pistole said they’re working on it.

“Longer term, I believe that we will have many more people being able to carry on those liquids, aerosols and gels,” he said.

“We actually have the technology to do it. It just is not efficient,” Pistole added. “So there might be a two-hour wait time at a checkpoint where everybody wants to bring through their bottles, liquids, aerosols, gels and things.”

For more of the interview with Pistole, and to hear if he's ready to join the ranks of ordinary passengers in the airport security lines, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Richard Coolidge, Ali Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Mark Stoddard, and Ed Jennings contributed to this episode.