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Reason Foundation

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #5

Topics include: the registered traveler pilot program, cargo plane doors, and baggage theft.

Robert Poole
September 1, 2003

In this issue:

Whatever Happened to Trusted Traveler?

It seemed like such a logical idea. Since some people fly a great deal, and the value of their time is high, offer them the opportunity to get a "security clearance" in advance so that they can bypass the long line of amateur travelers and go quickly to their flights (after proving that they really are the person who holds the clearance). That was the idea behind the Trusted Traveler concept, and Congress liked it enough to authorize the TSA (in the ATSA passed in November 2001) to test out the idea.

Unfortunately, the idea seems to have sunk into a black hole at TSA, despite their having asked the airline industry more than a year ago to develop a plan for a Registered Traveler pilot test. That plan was submitted in August 2002, and most people expected an initial test (involving air crews and airline employees, to begin with) to begin last spring. No such luck. What appears to have happened is that TSA got caught up in grandiose, Big-Brotherish plans for a CAPPS-II that would sort out low-risk as well as high-risk passengers. But with CAPPS-II being slowed down and scaled back in response to justifiable civil-liberties concerns, there's all the more reason to revive the Registered Traveler project.

How much of a difference could such a system make? Until now, there has been no serious effort to quantify the benefits. But a team of graduate students in operations research at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) did that job last spring. The result is a very impressive piece of work. Under the direction of Prof. Alfred Blumstein, they defined and modeled an RT program called SWIFT (Short-Wait Integrated Flight Travel), using Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) as a hypothetical test site.

Here are some of its highlights. First, using both an Air Transport Association survey and their own survey of passengers at PIT, they estimated that nearly 40% of all originating passengers on a given day would enroll in SWIFT if it were offered at a $50 enrollment fee. Next, they designed a model of passenger flow through the checkpoint lanes at PIT, and validated it by simulating current passenger flow. Then they applied their SWIFT design (hardware, policies, and procedures) to the PIT checkpoint model and simulated its operations. First-class and elite frequent fliers, who already have access to a priority lane, would have their average throughput time cut from 2.5 minutes to 1.35 minutes. But coach passengers joining the program would have their average wait slashed from 19.5 minutes to 1.35 minutes. And because 40% of all passengers would be moving to the SWIFT lanes, the regular (non-member) coach passengers would see their average wait cut from 19.5 minutes to just 12.1 minutes. These changes would also permit re-allocation of some screeners to more intensive secondary screening. For the hypothetical installation at PIT, they estimated that the first-year benefits would exceed the first-year costs by $2 million. Note: If you would like to obtain a copy of the CMU students' excellent report, contact Gretchen Hunter (ghunter@andrew.cmu.edu).

While the Carnegie Mellon students used a plausible hardware design on paper, an actual technology platform for a Trusted Traveler program has been in everyday use for more than a year, processing real passengers, at Newark, Amsterdam, and Buenos Aires airports. Developed by ICTS, the IP@SS system features a biometric smart card (using fingerprints and photo) and provides for interface with government watch lists and various databases. It's currently being used for Continental flights between Newark and both Amsterdam and Tel Aviv; next month it will make its debut at Chicago O'Hare for a daily KLM/Northwest flight to and from Amsterdam.

Bulletin: We have just learned that TSA now appears ready to move ahead with testing the Registered Traveler pilot program proposed a year ago by the airlines. At a meeting with airline security people last week, the agency said the test program will include background checks, biometric authentication, and streamlined processing at the checkpoints. Expectations are that a several-airport test will begin within the next few months. While long overdue, better late than never.


TSA Gets It Right on Cargo Plane Doors

Ever since 9/11, the aviation security pattern all too often has been: regulate first, analyze later. And that seems to have been the case with the TSA's original rule (January 2002) requiring that all cargo aircraft with cockpit doors must have them reinforced like those on passenger planes. But after receiving 11 requests from cargo carriers for exemptions, the agency in July issued revised rules, allowing for the alternative of developing TSA-approved, airline-specific cargo security programs.

One of the major problems with the 2002 rule was its inconsistency. As it turns out, the majority of cargo aircraft do not even have cockpit doors; out of 1,205 such planes (from 727s through 747s, plus DC-10s, A-300s, etc.) only 540 have cockpit doors. The original rule would have required airlines to spend an estimated $66.5 million on modifications to those 540 planes, plus another $80.4 million in increased operating costs over 10 years-while leaving the remaining 665 planes unchanged! This makes no sense at all. But because retrofitting partitions and doors into those other 665 planes would cost far more than $66.5 million, nobody even contemplated requiring that.

Far better to do as TSA is now allowing: beef up security procedures for air cargo, tailored to the specifics of each carrier (domestic vs. international, types of cargo, types of shippers, etc.). And also address the legitimate concern raised by the Air Line Pilots Association about airport and ramp areas for cargo operations having been given less security attention than those around passenger terminals. There's a lot of room for improvement in those areas, and that would be a far better use of scarce security resources.


Baggage Theft and Hassles Stimulate Entrepreneurs

Talk about secondary effects! Since the first of the year, when TSA notified the flying public that it must leave checked bags unlocked so they can be opened for explosives-inspection, the agency has received 11,000 claims from passengers seeking compensation for missing items. Admiral James Loy points out that this is an infinitesimal fraction of the 400 million bags it inspected through July 31st, but it's still a big problem for those affected-and an increasing worry for all air travelers. While airlines and TSA try to figure out how to parcel out responsibility for missing items, entrepreneurs are developing alternatives for worried passengers: send your bags ahead by a secure courier.

Thus far, there are high-end companies and mass-market companies in this newly emergent market. High-end firms-such as Universal Express, Sports Express, and Skycap International-pick up your bags from home or hotel and ship them to your destination via Fedex or a similar service. Needless to say, this is not cheap: prices range from $80 to $110 for two-day delivery of a 50 lb. bag, New York to Los Angeles (and even more for overnight service).

But a mass-market version is also starting to appear. Actually, it was pioneered in Las Vegas several years ago by startup Certified Airline Passenger Service (CAPS), which offered flight check-in and baggage pickup at 12 Vegas hotels and one car rental location by its second year of operation, 2001. It delivered the bags to the passenger's airline baggage system at the airport, for a $6 charge. CAPS had to get security approval from the FAA to offer this service. But after 9/11, that approval was withdrawn. By the time the new TSA issued its own regulations, CAPS had run out of money and folded.

New start-ups are now picking up where CAPS left off, with newer technology. First in operation is Baggage Airlines Guest Services (BAGS), which plans to offer secure multi-airline check-in services at hotels and other off-airport locations. BAGS is using ARINC's "iMuse Express" system, which creates a virtual airline check-in desk wherever there is an Internet connection. For $10 per passenger, BAGS checks in the bags and issues a boarding pass. It holds the bags in a secure room and delivers them to TSA screening at the departure airport. BAGS began service in Orlando in August, with TSA approval, with three airlines (American, Continental, and Delta) and one hotel to begin with.

On the west coast, California startup BaggageDirect (BD) offers a somewhat more elaborate model. BD's patented process brings airline check-in and baggage handling to the customer's doorstep, like the high-end services. Passengers can check in up to 24 hours before departure, receive a boarding pass, and have their bags couriered to the airport for security screening. BD's couriers deliver the bags to the airport during off-peak hours, so they can be screened in advance of the passenger's arrival. If the bag needs to be opened, the passenger can be summoned to be physically present. Upon arrival at the destination airport, the passenger can pick it up or have BD pick it up and deliver it to their hotel, office, or other destination. BD is working with SITA to incorporate their common-use technology into the process. On August 26, TSA approved a pilot test of the services for passengers using Burbank and John Wayne Airports in Southern California . BD estimates its average price will be under $25 for two full-size bags.


Reducing Terrorists' Ability to Bring Down Planes

The threat of shoulder-launched missiles in the hands of terrorists is a real one. But before we commit to spending $3 million apiece to equip all 6,800 U.S. commercial airliners ($20 billion), as some members of Congress propose, we need to step back, take a deep breath, and look at the larger picture.

The initial threat, post-9/11, was of terrorists taking over planes and turning them into (suicidal) guided missiles. We've addressed that threat by multi-layered efforts to deny access to cockpits: beefed up cockpit doors, armed pilots, and sky marshals (as well as supposedly improved screening to keep bad guys from boarding flights).

The second threat, of which shoulder-launched missiles is a subset, is creating terror by blowing up planes in flight. There are multiple ways of attempting this: (1) put explosives into checked luggage, (2) bring aboard explosives on one's person or in a carry-on bag, (3) put explosives into cargo shipped on either a passenger or cargo plane, or (4) launch a heat-seeking missile at the plane. Any of these could work, and a coordinated effort to bring down a number of planes on the same day would have devastating consequences.

So far, the vast majority of TSA resources have been devoted (by congressional directive) to foiling method (1). Now some in Congress would mandate an even larger effort on method (4). But before we go off half-cocked again, doesn't it make sense to also look carefully at methods (2) and (3)?

Passenger screening is much less rigorous than checked-baggage screening. TSA will not certify high-speed x-rays for screening checked bags-yet that's all we use on most carry-on bags. The only thing we screen passengers' bodies for is metal-but plastique cannot be picked up by a magnetometer. Does it really make sense to spend $20 billion on missile defenses but leave these huge loopholes unplugged?

Then there's the question of access to aircraft on the tarmac. Airport perimeters are "secured" in name only, and planes are not well-secured at night. And as one letter-writer to USA Today asked, "If something can be removed from a piece of luggage that has been screened and judged to be safe, then how easy would it be to plant something inside a piece of luggage that has passed TSA inspection?" In the same vein, Aviation Daily (Aug. 19) noted in passing that "a large percentage of [runway] incursions . . . involve ground vehicles that are not authorized to be on airport property." You see my point?

I don't know how much we should spend (if anything) at this point on anti-missile defenses for 6,800 commercial aircraft, but it would be totally irresponsible to spend $20 billion on that one problem while leaving such glaring deficiencies unaddressed on the ground. I wrote a short opposing view for USA Today on this point, which I'm attaching to this newsletter in case you missed it.


News Notes

Part-Time Screeners. Last issue, I criticized TSA for using only full-time screeners, which leads to too many people at slack times and too few during peaks. Shortly thereafter the agency announced plans to recruit 1,300 part-time screeners at 30 airports. It's not clear to me that peaking problems exist only at 30 airports, but this is a big improvement on previous practice.

Food for Thought. From an article on game theory, as applied to efforts to counter terrorism: "Because terrorists allocate resources to maximize their return-media coverage, political instability, climate of fear-they have multiple ways to achieve the same end. 'Terrorists will always identify the weakest link and send out the team most likely to succeed,' [Prof. Todd Sandler] adds. The best move is not to protect targets. If you secure Disneyland , terrorists may go after SeaWorld. The effective strategy is to reduce terrorists' resources: Go after training camps and arms caches, choke off financing, infiltrate networks." --Sharon Begley, Wall Street Journal's Science Journal, 5-16-03


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


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