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Reason Foundation

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #53

Refocusing aviation security, Gwinnett County airport privatization, unionization of TSA screeners, and more

Robert Poole
January 7, 2010

In this issue:

Refocusing Aviation Security on Bad People, not Banned Objects

In response to the Christmas Day underpants bomber incident, I wrote a piece for the Reason.org website that got picked up as a New York Post op-ed and led to a number of radio interviews. (http://reason.org/news/show/are-we-going-to-get-serious-ab ) The thrust of the piece was that the current system focuses far too much on keeping banned objects off planes, rather than detecting and interdicting bad people. My recommendations for a more risk-based approach included policy changes that would put a larger fraction of the 550,000 names on the Department of Homeland Security’s TIDES database onto the currently tiny (14,000 names) selectee list. And it would make body-scanning standard practice for all selectees.

Much of the debate in the past two weeks has concerned body-scanning machines, with the usual privacy and radiation concerns getting aired once again. On the latter, the current millimeter wave machines produce no radiation, and the possible next-generation terahertz (T-ray) technology is equally harmless. So the radiation concern is mistaken, period.

On privacy, what is now planned is, if anything, less intrusive than the pat-down searches that are supposedly standard for secondary screening today—especially given the safeguards being built into current machines. Remember, it is not possible with today’s production-model body-scanners—at least those now approved by the TSA—to use them for all air travelers as a substitute for the magnetometers everyone is required to walk through at present. That’s because the current body scanners require 30-40 seconds to examine each passenger, who must stand still for the process. As the International Air Transport Association recently pointed out, adding that kind of time delay to every passenger’s screening would cause major airport delays. Hence, current body-scanners are well-suited for secondary screening of a small percentage of total passengers—and are fully justified as a tool for keeping concealed explosives (a real threat) off of passenger planes.

In the pipeline, however, are next-generation walk-through body scanners, which could readily be substituted for magnetometers. On effectiveness grounds, changing to that approach would likely increase the number of bomb components detected, since intelligence information that leads to putting certain people on the selectee list will never be 100% perfect. The relevant question, however, is the cost-effectiveness of doing this. Walk-through body-scanners, at about $150K apiece, are far more costly than the $10K metal detectors they would replace. To put them at all 2,200 checkpoint screening lanes would cost $330 million. Would the small increase in detection probability from this change be worth the dollar cost, as well as the potential embarrassment to some fraction of travelers? We don’t need to answer that question today, but it’s one worth pondering as the technology comes closer to being available.

A Further Thought on Banned Objects

Any reader of murder mysteries or spy thrillers knows that murder can be committed with any number of common objects, not just knives and guns. So the idea that we can keep planes safe by banning such items has been ludicrous from the start.

A recent paper in the American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology by Roger Byard of the University of Adelaide (and colleagues) tested the vulnerability of major neck blood vessels to common household items. Among them were an ordinary ballpoint pen, a plastic knife, a broken wine bottle, and a broken wine glass. They were tested on euthanized pigs, and “With relative ease, these items could be inserted into the necks of the pigs next to the jugular veins and carotid arteries.” The authors go on to note that despite bans on metal knives, nail files, etc. in various aviation security regimes, “objects are still available within aircraft cabins that could be used to inflict serious and potentially life-threatening injuries.” And although one could imagine a policy change to ban any form of glassware and wine bottles, “given the results of a relatively uncomplicated modification of a plastic knife, it may not be possible to remove all dangerous objects from aircraft.”

Moreover, even if all such objects were banned, a woman’s scarf or thin silk belt, or even a headset cord, could be used as a garotte. The list is almost endless, especially if the person has been trained in deadly assaults.

Consequently, the authors suggest that “Security systems may therefore need to focus on measures such as increased surveillance of passenger behavior, rather than on attempting to eliminate every object that may serve as a potential weapon.”

Repeat after me: Target bad people, not banned objects.

(http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17325460?itool= EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPalen.Pubmed_RVDocSum&ordinalpos=257)

Registered Traveler on Hold, Again

One of the key features of a more risk-based approach to aviation security is to identify lower-risk travelers and spend less time and money on them each time they fly—letting more of the security budget be spent on higher-risk travelers. That was the concept behind what was originally called Trusted Traveler, later renamed Registered Traveler. Unfortunately, the TSA never really got behind the concept. What they ended up authorizing was a program that let private companies enroll frequent flyers and equip them with biometric ID cards—but did not vet the participants by putting them through a serious background check. Because TSA refused to do the background checks, it could maintain with a straight face that RT was an identification program, not a security program, and therefore require RT members to go through exactly the same checkpoint hassles as non-members. No wonder the three RT companies had trouble signing people up!

Erroll Southers, the Obama administration’s nominee for TSA Administrator, has stated in congressional testimony that he favors a real RT program with background checks. But it appears that the acting Administrator and her underlings are unwilling to do anything along those lines without Southers being in place. Thus, when a large airport in the Midwest was ready to resume RT service with one of the former companies, I’m told by a knowledgeable source that the response from TSA headquarters was that TSA no longer supports RT and that no such program currently exists. House Homeland Security Committee chair Bennie Thompson (D, MS) has written a letter to TSA questioning this position.

I have learned that at least four airports (including the one noted above) are prepared to resume RT operations, once TSA gives the go-ahead. But it now looks as if that go-ahead is unlikely to happen before Southers is confirmed by the Senate and takes office.

Three companies are bidding for the assets of the defunct Clear provider, Verified Identity Pass—primarily its membership list. If Henry, Inc. wins the bidding, it hopes to begin with the original (and largest) Clear location, Orlando, though reportedly without making use of a biometric ID card. FLO Corporation, which provided RT service at Reno/Tahoe airport, in December announced an agreement with Cogent Systems, under which they would offer more than 1,000 RT enrollment locations nationwide, which would be a significant improvement on the Clear model, which relied on airport locations for enrollment. FLO also announced imminent start-up of service at several unnamed airports by January—plans which are now on hold due to TSA’s latest position on the issue.

The consequences of not implementing a serious, risk-based RT program would be severe. As the economy recovers and air travel resumes normal growth, security lanes will become more and more crowded—and wait times will increase. If this increased hassle-factor shifts just two or three people per flight into teleconferencing, driving, or taking the train instead, AirlineForecasts analyst Vaughn Cordle estimates a revenue hit to U.S. airlines in excess of a billion dollars per year, “nearly all of which would come off their profit bottom lines.”

On the other hand, the “leverage” of a popular RT program could be very large. On any given day, let’s assume that 50% of those showing up at a typical airport are frequent business travelers, the prime prospects for RT. If half of those travelers signed up with an RT provider and got expedited, low-hassle processing at checkpoints, that would reduce the load on the regular lanes by 25%. Innovative, competing private-sector RT providers are just what we need to figure out how to market such a program to frequent fliers. But the appeal of RT to a large audience depends critically on low-hassle checkpoint processing, not merely being able to go to the head of the waiting line (under the old non-risk-based program). Thus, a precondition for this kind of program succeeding is TSA doing serious background checks and approving expedited checkpoint processing. I hope Southers is serious about putting something like this in place.

Gwinnett County Airport Privatization Plan Has Potential

Since Congress enacted the Airport Privatization Pilot Program in 1996, quite a few privatizations have been proposed, but few have made it past the preliminary application stage. So naturally I was skeptical when I reported last issue that a start-up firm called Propeller Investments was offering to buy and develop Briscoe Field in metro Atlanta’s bustling Gwinnett County into a general aviation airport with short-haul airline service. But after further research, I think this project has potential.

First, the company appears to be credible. Its principals have considerable aviation experience (as well as Georgia roots), and one of its advisors is Hollis Harris, former president of Delta and former CEO of Continental and Air Canada. It claims access to $4 billion in investment capital (which is plausible, given the $100+ billion amassed by various infrastructure investment funds over the last several years).

Second, the proposal to add limited commercial service—in planes up to the size of 737s—seems reasonable. As their www.whyprivatizebriscoe.com website points out, Atlanta is one of the few major metro areas without a secondary commercial-service airport (consider New York, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami—if you include Ft. Lauderdale), and the more upscale portion of the metro Atlanta region is to the north and east of downtown, including Gwinnett County. Moreover, ATL is primarily a transfer hub airport, leaving many origin & destination passengers potentially longing for a closer, smaller, faster alternative for short/medium-length trips.

Third, although a number of previous proposals to start commercial service at large general aviation airports in major metro areas have foundered due to grass-roots opposition, my impression is that Gwinnett County is more pro-growth than, say, metro areas in California, Massachusetts, or New Jersey where previous proposals got shot down. The website refers to polling data indicating strong support for privatization and commercial air service, and a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (on the Airport Business website) quotes the chairperson of Gwinnett Citizens for Responsible Government as being positive about the proposal.

So it’s conceivable that this effort could succeed. And if it does, it might inspire similar efforts to provide a secondary-airport alternative in other large metro areas with only a single commercial-service airport—e.g., Charlotte, Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle. The FAA recognizes 274 reliever airports around the country, including Briscoe Field. Some of them might make equally good candidates.

Unionization of TSA Screeners?

The nomination of Erroll Southers as TSA Administrator is being held up by a Republican Senator over the issue of Southers’ alleged support for unionization of the TSA screening workforce. While I have no objection to people forming unions to represent them in dealing with management, I think permitting unionization of TSA screeners is a very bad idea, from a security perspective. Here’s why.

Back in 2002 when the legislation that would create the Department of Homeland Security was first being crafted, the interagency planning group stressed modern management tools and flexibility (as recounted in Steven Brill’s history of developments post-9/11, After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era ). The three key issues were seen as the ability to pay people based on performance rather than via rigid civil service scales, the flexibility to reassign people around the country as needed, and the power to remove people based on misconduct or poor performance. A considerable political battle ensued in Congress over these principles, with modifications to protect whistle-blowers, allow legal challenges to personnel actions not  based on merit, and to include an inspector general in the new department. The final bill, enacted only after the GOP regained control of the Senate in 2002, preserved much of the above, to the ongoing dismay of government employee unions.

It is widely believed that the union-friendly Obama administration will push hard to allow TSA employees to unionize, but the loss of the current management principles would, in my view, be very negative for security. A security agency like the TSA needs to be able to dismiss employees for poor performance and reward especially good ones for superior performance. Even more important, it needs the flexibility to change both in the short term (altering airport screener workforce size in response to the ever-changing airline market) and in the longer term. On the latter point, a rigid, bureaucratized passenger and baggage screening system could become a kind of 21st-century Maginot Line that consumes resources while failing to provide effective defense against changing threats.

I thought about this need for nimbleness when I read a late-December comment by House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson: “If TSA is to become the kind of nimble, responsive organization the American people deserve in times like these, it will need a Senate-confirmed Administrator.” I fully agree with the chairman’s goal for TSA, but unionizing that agency’s workforce just about guarantees that TSA will not become a nimble, responsive organization.

News Notes

San Juan Airport Privatization Application Approved

The FAA announced this week that it has accepted the preliminary application filed by the Puerto Rico Airports Authority to lease the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport under the Airport Privatization Pilot Program. There are two other applications at the FAA: Chicago Midway (which has until Feb. 1 to submit a new timeline) and New Orleans Louis Armstrong International Airport.

Five Myths about Terrorism

Stephen Flynn, formerly of the Council on Foreign Relations and now heading the Center for National Policy, penned this thoughtful piece in the Jan. 3, 2010 Washington Post. Among his key points is that technology, though important, can end up being part of the problem.

 (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/31/AR2009123101159.html)

More Montana Airports Seek Security Opt-Out

Following the course set by the Glacier Park airport in Kalispell (see Issue No. 51, November 2009), the airports in Butte, Missoula, and West Yellowstone are also seeking TSA permission to replace their TSA screeners with TSA-certified screening companies. Butte airport director Rick Griffith has told reporters that TSA has a hard time keeping many part-time screener positions filled—and he thinks private screening firms do a better at handling that kind of thing. “This is another way to keep our facilities viable, improve customer service, and keep a high level of security.”

Prague Airport Privatization Apparently Cancelled

Last month the Czech parliament’s lower house passed a bill requiring that Prague Airport be owned either by the state or by a company owned by the state. The government’s original intention had been to sell 100% of the airport by the end of 2009, a plan that was delayed by the credit markets crisis. But that economically liberal government was replaced mid-year by a caretaker government, pending elections in spring 2010. And the current prime minister had already said he opposed proceeding with the privatization during an economic slump. It’s unclear whether Czech law would permit a long-term lease rather than an outright sale.

Increased Airport Security May Reduce Crime

Larcenies and other thefts at O’Hare International Airport fell after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001 and have remained lower than before the attacks. A study by Brian Johnson of Grand Valley State University reviewed theft statistics at the airport from 1999 to 2005, documenting the decrease. Johnson attributes the decline to beefed-up security at the airport.

What Israel Can Teach Us About Security

This short article by Cathal Kelly in TheStar.com is one of the best I’ve read on the contrasting approach of U.S. and Israeli airport security policies. It reinforces my oft-stated point about focusing on bad people rather than banned objects and stresses the importance of highly trained security staff. (www.thestar.com/article/744426)

Correction to Article on Airport Parking

Last month I wrote about airport parking innovations, including a system at BWI Airport in Baltimore. A reader emailed to let me know that, contrary to what I reported, the SignalPark system at BWI does direct an incoming vehicle to an empty parking space. I’m happy to set the record straight.

Quotable Quotes

“Another goal is to once and for all get started down the path of looking at how the government regulates airports economically. It’s looking at the regulations that were established during the Nixon era . . . . We need to take another look and see if they still make sense. For example, the historical calculations for how you establish airfield rates and charges. Why not allow airports to establish landing fees based on hour of day? Allow airports to manage congestion with that economic tool.”

--Hardy Acree, Director of Airports, Sacramento County (and incoming chair of Airports Council International-North America), Airport Business, January 2010, p. 13.

“The 100 percent scanning requirement [for ocean shipping containers] has distracted us from the broader imperative to evolve a risk management system that keeps pace with the nature of the threat and the importance of the overall system.”

--Stephen T. Flynn, senior fellow in national security, Council on Foreign Relations, in The Journal of Commerce, Dec. 14, 2009, p. 12.

“[There is] something fundamentally wrong with how our society deals with risk. Of course 100% security is impossible; it has always been impossible and always will be. We’ll never get the murder, burglary, or terrorism rate down to zero; 42,000 people will die each year in car crashes in the U.S. for the foreseeable future; life itself will always include risk. But that’s OK. Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy our country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage.”

--Bruce Schneier, “Bruce Schneier on TSA Absurdity and the Need for Resilience (http://jeffrey.goldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/12/bruce_schneier_on_the.php)


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


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