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Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #59

Belly cargo screening deadline, congestion pricing and TSA security hassles

Robert Poole
July 19, 2010

In this issue:

Belly Cargo Screening Deadlines Won't Be Met

Several years ago Congress mandated that the Transportation Security Administration physically screen all cargo carried on passenger airliners ("belly cargo") no later than August 1, 2010. This mandate applies both to domestic cargo and to "inbound" cargo that arrives from overseas. As August 1st approaches, the TSA still maintains that it will meet the deadline for domestic belly cargo, though not for inbound cargo. But a careful reading of the Government Accountability Office's June 2010 report on the subjects suggests the domestic cargo deadline will not be met, either.

In its report ("Aviation Security: TSA Has Made Progress but Faces Challenges in Meeting the Statutory Mandate for Screening Air Cargo on Passenger Aircraft," GAO-10-466), GAO provides much useful context before getting into the details. The cargo in question, about 20 million pounds per day, is only 16% of all air cargo, the bulk of which is carried on all-cargo planes. The easy stuff to screen is what's carried on narrow-body planes; because of its small size and discrete units, it can mostly be handled by the same types of screening devices as passengers' baggage. By focusing on the easy stuff first, airlines and freight forwarders were able to meet the interim deadline of screening 50% of belly cargo by February 2009. The much bigger problems are dealing with the large pallets and containers used on wide-body planes, and the inbound cargo (for which TSA has no control over how the originating countries inspect).

Mostly to deal with the wide-body cargo, TSA created a program under which freight forwarders and originators of cargo who don't want their pallets unpacked (e.g., frozen fish processors, pharmaceutical companies, electronics companies) can become Certified Cargo Screening Facilities (CCSFs), using background-checked inspectors and TSA-approved technology to screen the cargo at their own facilities and maintaining a secure chain of custody for delivering it to airline cargo centers. The GAO team discovered a number of problems with this program thus far, including non-vetted and poorly trained employees, inadequate or non-existent TSA inspections, and not-ready-for-prime-time equipment, as well as far fewer participants than would be needed by August 1st.

But the big deal in the GAO report, which I have yet to see anyone else point out, is the misleading numbers that TSA has been putting out about progress toward the Aug. 1 deadline. Based on TSA data, GAO presents a bar graph (Fig. 4) showing the percentage of domestic cargo screened each month, from Feb. 2009 (59%) through March 2010 (68%). But about seven pages later, GAO takes up the subject of screening cargo on pallets and in containers. Wide-body belly cargo, most of which is in this form, constitutes 76% of all domestic belly cargo. There is no commercially available technology that can meet TSA's explosive detection requirements for pallets and containers. And TSA made a policy decision in May 2010 (the reason for which was not disclosed) that the use of canine teams for primary screening of pallets and containers is no longer allowed. Thus, TSA's reported March 2010 overall figure of 68% of belly cargo screened must have relied on canines for the pallet and container portion. But if neither canines nor any available technology can screen the 76% of all domestic cargo that is mostly pallets and containers, then the 68% figure is unlikely to be the case today. Yet TSA put out a news release at the beginning of May claiming it had reached 75%. TSA air cargo manager Douglas Brittin told the Journal of Commerce (May 17) that palletized shipments are being broken down and taken apart to be inspected piece by piece. But to do that on the massive scale needed for all wide-body cargo by August 1st seems highly unlikely.

The inbound cargo situation is even worse. GAO estimates that 96% of inbound cargo comes shrink-wrapped or banded to pallets. But current TSA policy requires 100% screening only of the 4% that is not shrink-wrapped or banded, and only a nondisclosed "certain percentage" of the shrink-wrapped or banded cargo is to be screened. TSA could not give GAO a precise figure on how much of that inbound cargo gets transferred to a domestic flight, but industry estimates put it at 30-40%. Such transferred cargo does not get re-screened before being put on a domestic flight, and the TSA explanation given in the GAO report is the following: "additional screening of this cargo was not required, in part because an actual flight mimics a screening method that until recently was approved for use." A footnote to this bizarre set of words says the details are Sensitive Security Information.

It looks to me like another fine production of Security Theater will debut on August 1st.

Green Light for Airport Congestion Pricing

Last issue I reported on a new report from the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP Report 31) on dealing realistically with airport capacity shortfalls in the coastal mega-regions. The report's most important recommendation was "for all the major parties to recognize demand management as a legitimate alternative to [physical] capacity expansion as a means of ameliorating airport congestion problems." By far the most practical form of demand management is runway congestion pricing-charging a price for runway use that is high enough, for any given block of time during the day, to affect airline scheduling decisions.

Back in 2007, the U.S. DOT explored both runway pricing and slot auctions as possible remedies for congestion at the New York metro area airports. And Ben Dachis and I, drawing on work by George Donohue and colleagues for the FAA-funded NEXTOR research consortium, made a detailed proposal for congestion pricing at Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark. (http://reason.org/news/show/congestion-pricing-for-the-new) Our modeling showed significant reductions in departure queues as a result of charging prices that would (1) apply to both take-offs and landing, (2) vary significantly by time of day, based on demand, and (3) be the same for all planes, regardless of size or weight.

The DOT's proposal to auction off a small fraction of the slots at these airports was challenged in court and was withdrawn by the new Obama administration before the court case could be resolved. But the Mary Peters DOT also promulgated a change in the DOT's airport rates and charges policy, authorizing airports to charge by time of day as well as by the traditional aircraft weight-i.e., they could add a variable component to the existing weight-based landing charge. That provision, too, was challenged in court-but was upheld on July 13th by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The three-judge decision dismissed the petition for review filed by the Air Transport Association. The decision was applauded by the Airports Council International-North America, which had supported the revised policy during the two-year legal battle.

A recent analysis of 2009 flight delays from the DOT's Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows how important runway pricing could be for the New York area's congested airports. BTS reviewed nearly 3,400 scheduled flights and ranked them by how often they were delayed (measured by late arrivals). Of the 50 most-delayed flights in the country, 41 originated or terminated at the New York airports. These 50 delay-prone flights were an average of 74 minutes late, and 14 had longer delays than their flight times. New York area flights make up 12% of operations at the 35 largest U.S. airports but account for nearly 50% of all delays. The Air Transport Association estimates that in 2009 alone delays cost U.S. airlines about $17 billion-and that's not counting the additional cost and inconvenience to air travelers.

Because of the central role of the New York airports in delays, I was pleased to see the June 29th launch of the Better Airports Alliance, spearheaded by New York's Regional Plan Association. RPA estimates that current airport congestion is costing the region $2.6 billion a year, and has projected this will add up to $79 billion by 2025. Some 25 organizations have joined thus far, including leading airlines and the ATA. I hope the group's non-airline members can make some headway with the airline members on the issue of runway pricing.

Recent developments at Chicago O'Hare (ORD) suggest that airport should also be looking into runway pricing in the wake of the Circuit Court's decision. ORD has encountered strong resistance from major carriers American and United over large increases in rents and landing fees to help pay for the O'Hare Modernization Project, which is adding runway capacity to this congested airport. A Chicago Tribune article noted that part of the airport's problem stems from lower landing fee revenues due to the soaring use of regional jets. Back in 2000, American operated two mainline jets for each RJ operating under its brand; today it's two RJs for every mainline jet. For United, the situation has gone from one RJ for every three mainline jets in 2000 to two RJs for every mainline jet. Thanks to weight-based landing fees, ORD's revenue mix has been skewed heavily downward. A congestion-charge system would likely lead to some "up-gauging" of flights (substituting one mainline jet for two or three RJs), while also increasing the revenue generated by each RJ flight. That revamped revenue mix would help to pay for the Modernization Project-and might ease congestion enough that one or more of the planned runway projects could be deferred.

Airline Service from General Aviation Airports

Most of America's population now lives in urban regions. But unlike traditional European cities, or some older and more-centralized northeastern cities, most of these metro areas are huge, with their population and employment centers dispersed widely over hundreds of square miles. Although the largest metro areas have multiple airports with airline service, many do not. Atlanta, Seattle, and San Diego are notable examples of one-airport metro areas. But in all three of them, entrepreneurs are now seeking to change that, by bringing short-haul commercial air service to what are now general aviation (GA) airports.

Perhaps the best-known example is Gwinnett County, Georgia, part of the affluent northern suburbs of Atlanta, a long and congested drive from the south-side location of Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The prospect of luring shorter-haul, low-fare airline service to Gwinnett County is the underlying thrust behind the proposed privatization of Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville. On July 8th, Gwinnett County issued a request for qualifications to firms interested in leasing the airport under the federal Airport Privatization Pilot Program. Responses are due by August 16th. The company that sparked the privatization proposal, New York-based Propeller Investments, envisions a 10-gate terminal and dozens of flights per day by planes as large as a Boeing 737. The plan would include a 500-foot runway extension, making it 6,500 feet long.

In the Seattle metro area, the focal point is Paine Field (Snohomish County Airport), on the northern end of the metro area near Everett. Airline service from there would spare northern residents the long, congested drive to SEA-TAC airport, well to the south of downtown Seattle. For several years Horizon Air has wanted to provide short-haul service from Paine; its current proposal is four flights per day to Portland and two to Spokane. Also proposing to start service is Allegiant Air, with twice-a-week flights to Las Vegas. The airport has three runways, the longest of which is 9,000 feet and used by planes from the adjacent Boeing plant. A 2008 Horizon Air proposal was endorsed by the Everett City Council, but the current plan has aroused vocal opposition from residents of nearby Mukilteo. The FAA is considering the proposal.

And in San Diego County, entrepreneur Ted Vallas has filed with the U.S.DOT for a certificate to launch California Pacific Airlines, aiming to offer service from McClellan-Palomar airport. That airport is 35 miles north of downtown San Diego (where San Diego International (SAN) is located). Vallas says 40% of the air travelers at SAN live in the affluent northern suburbs. His plan calls for service using Embraer 170 and 190 aircraft to Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Cabo San Lucas. McClellan-Palomar has a 4,900 foot runway, but has room to extend it to 5,900 ft.

I don't know if any of these proposals will succeed, but this looks to me like a smart way to add shorter-haul service to one-airport metro areas. Given the need for more airport capacity in urban regions, I hope the FAA is fully supportive.

TSA Slammed on Behavior Detection

Several years ago when the TSA announced it was launching its SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques), I was of two minds. On one hand, I was glad to see some evidence of a shift from seeking out bad objects to seeking out bad people, like Israeli security does. On the other hand, knowing TSA's track record, I was concerned that SPOT could turn out to be a useless boondoggle. The GAO has given us at least a preliminary answer, and it's the latter. There is so much wrong with this program, as documented in GAO-10-763 (May 2010), that I scarcely know where to begin.

Let's start with a few basics and then cut to the chase. SPOT rests on the theory that mal-intent can be spotted by facial and body-language cues-a theory with some but not much academic support. Starting in 2007, TSA began hiring and training Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) who work in pairs, observing passengers waiting in security lines and looking for a memorized list of cues. If they observe a specified total number of these cues in their average 30-second observation of a passenger, they take that person aside, after he or she passes through the metal detector, for "referral screening"-search and questioning. If the passenger's behavior "escalates further," the BDO must call for law enforcement officer (LEO) assistance. If one is available, the LEO can then run a criminal history check using the FBI's computerized NCIC system and decide whether the person should be released or detained.

After a small-scale startup, but without doing any meaningful testing or analysis, TSA then hired, trained, and deployed about 3,000 BDOs, who now work at 161 TSA-regulated airports, at an annual cost of $212 million. In its usual systematic way, the GAO did a two-year investigation to find out whether the program "works," whether TSA has its act together regarding its effectiveness, and whether there are glaring flaws that could be corrected (my summary of their language).

One of the most obvious questions is whether SPOT has spotted any terrorists. Out of 2 billion passengers boarding planes at SPOT airports, the BDOs took aside 152,000 people, and referred 14,000 to LEOs, of whom 1,100 were arrested (0.7% of all SPOT referrals). And what were they arrested for? Well, 39% as illegal aliens, 19% for outstanding warrants, 15% for having phony documents, 12% for drug possession,12% other, 1% undeclared currency, and 1% "no reason given." Not a terrorist in the bunch. As GAO drolly puts it, "TSA officials did not identify any direct links to terrorism or any threat to the aviation system in any of these cases."

But wait-it gets worse. The GAO investigators also looked into the question the other way around. Of people who were nabbed as aviation terror subjects and who had passed through SPOT airports, how many were identified by BDOs? With help from Customs & Border Protection and the Justice Department, GAO reviewed the travel history of individuals allegedly involved in six terrorist plots uncovered by various agencies. At least 16 of those people moved through eight different SPOT airports, six of which were among the 10 highest-risk airports in TSA's current airport threat assessment. Those individuals "moved through SPOT airports on at least 23 different occasions." But there is no evidence that any of them were identified as suspicious by the BDOs at those airports.

Many other TSA shortcomings are identified in this report, but for space reasons, I will mention just two. GAO tactfully notes that TSA "has not yet developed measures to gauge SPOT's effectiveness in meeting TSA strategic goals (outcome measures) such as identifying individuals who may pose a threat to the transportation system." But it does use process measures, such as the number of BDOs on the payroll. "The [TSA] official said that since SPOT is [by definition] an added layer of security, additional SPOT staffing would add to security effectiveness."

The GAO report also highlights several examples of the fragmentation of airport security. As noted, the BDOs cannot do real-time background checks or make arrests; they depend for both on law enforcement officers-over whom TSA has no control, and who may or may not be available when needed. GAO also asked about using footage from the checkpoint video cameras "to study the behavior of persons who were later charged with . . . terrorism-related offenses [to] determine whether BDOs saw the behaviors"-a rather obvious check on effectiveness. But they were told that such cameras are owned by the airports or airlines, not TSA, so they are not usually accessible to TSA.

Before reading the report, I was surprised by the very strong language Rep. John Mica (R, FL) used in slamming TSA over the SPOT program. After reading the GAO report, I'm no longer surprised.

Airport Security and Short-Haul Flights

A couple of years after 9/11 and the creation of the TSA, I reported in this newsletter on some preliminary data suggesting that the hassle factor was affecting short-haul airline service. The rationale was that for relatively short flights, the trade-off between driving and flying could be affected if airport security added an extra 30 to 45 minutes to the time for the air trip versus the time for making the same trip by car.

Now it's nearly nine years since 9/11, and travel patterns have pretty much adjusted to today's economy and airport security system. What do the data tell us now about the impact of the hassle factor? In a May 5th article in the New York Times, Matt Wald pored through flight schedule information from OAG comparing 2009 with 2000. Overall, due in part to the recession and in part to airline efforts to boost their load factors, the number of flights has decreased by 18.5%. But the number of short-haul flights is down by 46.9%. Here are some examples of specific markets from Wald's article:

Chicago-Cleveland                 down 58.1%

New York-Washington           down 53.4%

New York-Boston                   down 48.8%

Pittsburgh-Washington          down 47.4%

Atlanta-Jacksonville              down 41%

I've noticed this myself on flights between Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando, where there is nowhere near as much service as there used to be.

Most estimates of the economic burden imposed by the current airport security regime focus only on wasted air traveler time. But the shrinkage of what was a significant portion of the airline business is also an economic cost.

Departure Sequencing Used at JFK

During the reconstruction and widening of its Bay Runway (13R/31L) this spring, New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport devised a way of reducing its departure queues. With about one-third of its runway capacity inoperative, the airport and its customers feared there would be far worse departure queues than usual. Even worse, the closure period included the start-up of the U.S. DOT's new tarmac delay rule, with massive fines for airlines that keep people on a plane waiting more than three hours.

The answer was to develop and implement a kind of metering system, under which flights were held at the departure gate until closer to their actual take-off time, as determined by air traffic control. The system worked well enough that the Port Authority, which operates the airport, has decided to keep it in operation for July, August, and September-the busy summer travel season.

I don't have details on the metering system, but it is apparently manual, not automated, and the Port Authority plans to do a cost-benefit analysis over the summer to determine if it makes sense to keep it in operation on a longer-term basis. But instead of a labor-intensive system requiring additional staff, the PA should look for a technology solution.

Last fall at the annual conference of the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA), I saw a demonstration of the prototype of such a system, developed by Sensis Corp. (whose Aerobahn system provided some of the data for JFK's metering system). Called Departure Manager, it is intended to provide air traffic controllers and airline ramp managers with a "decision support tool" that provides automated departure sequencing recommendations, aimed at minimizing total aircraft taxi-out time while maximizing runway utilization. It makes use of data from any airport surface management system, including Aerobahn. Sensis could not tell me when Departure Manager will become available, but this is the kind of tool congested airports really need.

News Notes

 

Airport Contracts Enforceable in U.K.

UK low-cost carrier bmibaby in 2004 signed a 10-year agreement with Durham Tees Valley Airport to base two planes there for 10 years. Late in 2006, the airline pulled out without warning. So airport owner Peel Airports Group took them to court for breach of contract. And in early May it won. The Court of Appeal ruled that the airline was in breach of contract, and ordered it to pay damages equivalent to the income the airport would have received for the remaining eight years of the contract.

In Pursuit of "Customer-Friendly" Screening

The U.S. Travel Association has created an expert panel to study and recommend ways to improve the security screening process at U.S. airports. It will study new technologies and best practices around the world to create a more customer-friendly approach. USTA reported in February the results of a survey it had commissioned which found that 84% of travelers negatively equate airport screening with what they experience at their local department of motor vehicles. Members of the panel include former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall, former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, former TSA assistant director for threat assessment Stephanie Rowe, and Thomas Ripp, president of L-3 Security Systems.

Naples Airport on the Block

Ferrovial, the Spanish parent company of BAA, has announced plans to sell its 65% stake in the airport of Naples, Italy. The Italian newspaper Expansion said that the submitted offers ranged between $201 million and $268 million, according to Reuters.

Passenger Database on Baggage Rules and Fees

It's bad enough figuring out how much you will have to pay for bags on a domestic flight, but if you're on an international trip that involves more than one airline, things can get really complicated. So the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has launched a project called Automated Carrier Baggage Rules (ACBR). When operational, ACBR will make it easy for travelers, travel agents, and airline reps to know what rules and charges will apply for itineraries involving multiple airlines. IATA is partnering with Airline Tariff Publishing Company, which will host the database. The aim is to have it ready to go by the end of this year.

Community Challenges to Airport Development

The latest report in the Legal Research Digest series from the Airport Cooperative Research Program provides case studies on various kinds of legal challenges to airport development projects-environmental, constitutional, jurisdictional, PFC-related, etc. It's available online at: http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/acrp/acrp_lrd_009.pdf.

Pro and Con on Airport Passenger Facility Charges (PFCs)

Do various taxes average 21% of the price of a typical airline ticket? How much do airport costs amount to as a percentage of airline operating expenses? And how much do current or the pending (House reauthorization bill) increased PFCs add to ticket prices? The answers may surprise you. These and other aspects of PFCs were debated by Jim May of the Air Transport Association (June 17th) and Greg Principato of Airports Council International-North America (June 18th) in Aviation Daily's occasional "Departures" opinion column. They are well worth reading together.

More Service to/from Branson Airport

Branson Air Express last month announced service to two additional cities from the privately developed Branson (MO) Airport-Chicago Midway and Indianapolis. AirExpress now serves eight cities, including Austin, Houston, DesMoines, Shreveport, Gulfport-Biloxi, and Nashville. AirTran and Frontier also serve Branson, connecting it to their hubs at Atlanta and Denver, respectively.

LAWA to Study Sale of Ontario Airport

Responding to a request from the Mayor pro Tem of the city of Ontario, the Los Angeles City Council on May 17th directed airport agency Los Angeles World Airports, the city administrative officer, and its chief legislative analyst to research the feasibility of selling the airport back to Ontario (from which Los Angeles purchased it many years ago). Ontario officials are concerned about the LA's budget crisis and LAWA's current focus on redeveloping its Bradley International Terminal. The research is to be completed by September 1st.

Corrections re Russian Airport Privatization

Two knowledgeable readers pointed out that I mischaracterized the 30-year concession deal to expand and modernize St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airpot as the "first airport privatization" in Russia. David Bentley of Big Pond Aviation called my attention to the acquisition three years ago of the Ulan Ude/Lake Baikal/Michino Airport in Siberia by Meinl Airports-which deal, alas, later fell apart. And Angela Gittens of Airports Council International reminded me that Moscow Domodedovo (except its runway) is operated under a 75-year lease arrangement by Eastline Group.

DOJ Inspector General Says Justice Department Unprepared for Terror Attack

I have not read the late-May report of the Justice Department's Inspector General, but was alerted to its existence by Peggy Noonan's chilling column in the Wall Street Journal on June 12th. The focus of the report is on response to a terror attack involving weapons of mass destruction. Noonan quotes this from the report: "The Department is not prepared to fulfill its role . . . to ensure public safety and security in the event of a WMD incident." Noonan also cites an earlier report, from the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, which gave the government a failing grade on preparedness for a biological attack. She quoted its executive director, Col. Randall Larsen, as saying of the government, "They just don't see the WMD scenario as most likely."

Quotable Quotes

"The [proposed Midway privatization] deal was a win-win for both the airport and the airlines. Airlines are the key value drivers at MDW, and we believe the deal addressed our fears. We negotiated guarantees that controlled costs and protected operations. And, the City of Chicago was able to get the assurances needed, as well. As we negotiated the agreements, the city and the airlines collaborated to address their respective concerns, so that both sides felt comfortable moving forward. . . . Even though privatization has not happened at MDW yet, I believe privatization in America will fly. The process to privatize MDW worked on all levels-airport, airlines, city government, and federal government. It has set the pace, process, and expectations for future U.S. privatization discussions."

--Amy Weaver, Manager-Properties, Southwest Airlines, in HNTB Aviation Insight, Spring 2010, pp. 5-6.

"Incomplete, mediocre risk assessments, inadequate work force planning and training, poor coordination with stakeholders, and ineffective assessments of security programs and technologies are hallmarks of TSA's performance, not just in the aviation sector but in the other modes as well. . . . Given TSA's troubled history and multiple failures in aviation security, I remain concerned that we are not as prepared as we should be to assess, prevent, and respond to terrorist threats to our nation's other transportation systems. . . . It is essential that we improve the performance of this out-of-control bureaucracy and strengthen the nation's transportation security. I look forward to working with the next TSA Administrator to do so."

--Rep. John Mica (R-FL), ranking member, House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, Politico, June 28, 2010.

"Today's threat is not necessarily the bomb in the suitcase, or the liquids in the baby's bottle, or even explosives concealed in underwear. Identifying today's terrorist-or terrorists-depends on identifying the person with malicious intent. While malicious intent is a constant, methods change and will keep changing, and those with malicious intent to down a plane or blow it up in mid-air will choose the time, place, and method which suits them. The security industry must be one step in front [rather than] lagging a step behind."

--Raine Marcus, "Caught in Profile," Intersec, February 2010.


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


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