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Reason Foundation

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #20

Topics include: dealing with the missile threat to airliners; "bad object" follies continue; checkpoint explosives screening; and registered traveler progress.

Robert Poole
August 1, 2006

In this issue:

Steps in the Right Direction on Aircraft Missile Threat

There's no question that the existence of hundreds of thousands of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) around the world, some of them in unknown hands, poses some degree of threat to commercial aviation. It does not help when rabble-rousers like Rep. Steve Israel (D, NY) make statements like the following: "More than 750,000 of these (missiles) are proliferating in the hands of 27 separate terrorist organizations, and we're still studying the complexity of the problem." (USA Today, July 18, 2006) Note how Israel has artfully twisted a GAO finding to produce that howler. A May 13, 2004 GAO report estimated that as many as 7,000 of the 700,000 known MANPADS may be in the hands of terrorist groups. That's a factor of 100, folks.

Fortunately, Israel has not yet persuaded Congress to legislate first, analyze later, as it did on 100% checked baggage inspection and nationalization of airport security screening. Instead, it has allowed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to do serious research to figure out what various countermeasures might cost to acquire, operate, and maintain´┐Żand how effectively they would do their job. So during the past two years competing producers of airborne directed infrared countermeasures, BAE and Northrop Grumman, have been testing their systems under $45 million contracts. The phase 2 results, announced in July, were not encouraging. In actual operation, the units break down after just 300 to 400 hours, about 10% of the performance goal. They fire by mistake too often to be used on passenger planes in civilian airspace. And their estimated life-cycle cost is $365 per flight, well above the targeted level. Phase 3 testing is continuing.

Meanwhile, DHS is set to spend $10 million on contracts to analyze other approaches to the MANPADS threat, including ground-based systems such as the Raytheon "Vigilant Eagle" system discussed in Issue No. 15 of this newsletter. The company's initial estimates are that this set of microwave weapons installed around the perimeters of airports could be installed and operated at 30 airports covering 70% of air traffic for less than $1 billion, about one-tenth the cost of protecting the same amount of air traffic using onboard devices. But we don't yet know how effective or how reliable it would be.

Another promising approach to the MANPADS problem has been proposed by Rep. Ed Royce (R, CA). His proposed Shoulder-Fired Missile Threat Reduction Act of 2006 calls for sanctions on governments that fail to safeguard MANPADS or prevent them from falling into questionable hands. The sanctions would affect both foreign aid and military assistance programs.


"Bad Object" Follies Continue

Two recent news items and a personal travel experience all concern the continued nonsense of paying an army of TSA passenger screeners to search for bad objects in people's carry-on luggage . . . while the threat of explosives being smuggled aboard gets short shrift.

First, my own experience. Twice in the past two weeks I had enough time between flights at DFW to have a sit-down meal. Both times, at different restaurants, the tableware consisted of a plastic, round-end serrated knife and a stainless steel fork. Obviously, the TSA has decreed that no metal knives are allowed in the secure area past the checkpoints, hence the plastic knife. But I ask you, as a reader of mysteries or spy thrillers, couldn't you wreak far more mayhem with a metal fork than with even a metal, round-end serrated knife?

Next was an AP news item (July 31) on a Southwest flight making an unscheduled landing after one passenger threatened another with . . . a ball-point pen. Again, any mystery reader would know that a ball-point pen is easily used as a deadly weapon. If scissors are defined by TSA as bad objects, how on earth did ball-point pens slip through?

Third was an item from Airport Cities (May-June 2006) about security screening at Copenhagen Airport. There, too, authorities are complaining about the mountains of cigarette lighters they have to confiscate. But get this: the rule in Denmark is that passengers are allowed only one lighter each. If a person has two, but has a traveling companion, it's OK to give the second lighter to the companion, evening things out!

Fortunately, TSA chief Kip Hawley continues trying (all too cautiously, in my view) to change this nonsense. Recently he's been urging Congress to lift the ban on lighters, noting that they constitute 80% of the confiscated items and account for a huge amount of screeners' time that would be better spent on other things.

But the ban on lighters is the only bad-object designation by Congress (which enacted the ban in 2004 in response to Richard Reid, the shoe bomber). All the other bad objects have been designated as such by TSA itself. Thus, if Hawley is really serious about moving to a risk-based approach to screening, it is entirely within his power to, say, allow metal cutlery back on planes, as some other countries have done.

Personally, I'd feel a lot more secure if we could all go back to carrying our trusty Swiss Army Knives.


Checkpoint Explosives Screening

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and TSA director Kip Hawley have correctly identified explosives as a far more serious threat to commercial airliners than small knives carried aboard by passengers. But thus far, the only technology being used at checkpoints to detect explosives concealed under people's clothes is the puffer booth. It works by shooting jets of air at the stationary passenger, and analyzing the resulting air in the booth for minute explosive particles. There are three big problems with this approach: the booths are big, slow, and expensive. If you tried to make passage through a puffer booth mandatory for all passengers, the extra time required would make today's checkpoint lines look like nothing.

I've been intrigued for some time by the potential of millimeter wave technology, which can "see" through clothing and even walls, without using ionizing radiation. Several weeks ago I came across a company that has commercialized a system based on this technology to detect explosives and other weapons concealed beneath clothing, unobtrusively, while people walk past an observation point. The system was recently tested for two weeks at a PATH transit station in Jersey City, NJ. For the test, two BIS-WDS Prime cameras were installed at the entry turnstiles of the Exchange Place Station. The company (Brijot Imaging Systems) says they can process 720 people/hour (12 per minute, or one every five seconds, which is a lot faster than people go through airport metal detectors and way faster than a puffer booth).

The only thing I know about the company, besides the news article that described this field test, is what I got from its website (www.brijot.com). There I watched a short demo video and read the bios of six key executives. Founder and CEO Brian Andrew has apparently commercialized a Lockheed Martin weapons detection system developed originally for the National Institute of Justice. How well it really works, or what it would cost in airport applications, I do not know.

The news article said the transit station test was part of DHS's Rail Security Pilot Project. If this system is actually cost-effective, let's hope DHS considers it for airports, as well.


Registered Traveler Almost Here, Folks—Really!

In our last episode, we were awaiting TSA's June 20th go-ahead for the roll-out of the Registered Traveler (RT) program from the one site now operational (Orlando) to as many as 20 other airports. Alas for us frequent air travelers, that date came and went without the go-ahead, and it still had not been given by the end of July, as I write this. The media have been filled with articles, often inaccurate or contradictory, but there is still progress to report.

Sources tell us that TSA approval of its privacy policy appears to be only days away, at which point the leading provider, Verified Identity Pass, will begin on-line enrollments for passengers in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and San Jose, whose airports have signed on with the company. After that, the only remaining hurdle is release of TSA's inter-operability specs, which is also thought to be imminent. More than 20 airports have applied to be in the program, reportedly including Denver, Los Angeles, and both Washington Dulles and Washington Reagan.

Several concerns have made some airlines and airports unsure or unfriendly about RT. First, some contend that since the most likely travelers to sign up are frequent business travelers (like me) who travel with laptops, and since TSA has not relented on requiring both shoe removal and laptop removal for RT members, the processing time per passenger may be higher, rather than lower, in RT-only lanes. Verified and its partner GE have been working diligently on that, with new technology that modifies the kiosk where RT members have their identity verified. The new device, now in lab testing at TSA's facility in Atlantic City and in field testing at Orlando, would check both shoes and fingers for explosives while the member is at the kiosk. If TSA approves the device, and Verified installs it at all its airport locations (which it plans to), then shoe and jacket removal would no longer be required of RT members at those locations.

Related to the above "problem" of slower processing time in RT lanes, some airline and airport people were worried that TSA would have to open additional screening lanes, thereby incurring additional costs, or shift screeners from regular lanes to RT lanes, thereby making regular lines longer. Contrary to a misleading USA Today article (June 21) that claimed TSA would charge RT companies several hundred dollars an hour to staff the RT lanes, this would only be done if an additional lane is added because of the RT program. But assuming that technology like that just described is approved and becomes standard for RT participants, the RT lanes should indeed move faster than regular lanes, hence not requiring any additional TSA screeners.

Once the program is finally up and running, it will be interesting to see if announced providers Saflink and Unisys actually proceed to sign up airport partners. So far, the only announced agreements have been between airports and Verified.


New Study and Speaking Appearance

My call for a serious rethinking of TSA's function and structure last January caught the attention of the Heritage Foundation's senior homeland security expert, Jay Carafano, Ph.D. He approached me about collaborating on a paper that would focus on the need for legislation to implement the approach set out in my Reason policy study. Since Heritage is very well-connected on the Hill, I was glad to agree.

The new paper has just been published. You can download "Time to Rethink Airport Security," by Robert W. Poole, Jr. and Jay Carafano from: www.heritage.org/Research/HomelandDefense/bg1955.cfm.

Heritage is hosting a panel on the subject on Friday, Sept. 15. Carafano and I will be joined by one or two other knowledgeable people to discuss "Focused Security: An Alternative Approach to Air Security and Beyond." It takes place at 11 AM at Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Ave., NE, Washington, DC 20002. Hope to see you there.


Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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