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Airport Policy and Airport Security Newsletter #66

Backscatter x-ray machines, TSA outsourcing and liquids ban

Robert Poole
March 18, 2011

In this issue:

·         Easing Europe’s Liquids Ban?

·         Cutting Back Subsidized Air Service

·         New Concerns Over Backscatter X-rays

·         Delay Rule Causing Flight Cancellations

·         Senate Overturns TSA Anti-Outsourcing Decision

·         Upcoming Conference

·         News Notes

·         Quotable Quotes

Easing Europe’s Liquids Ban Is Premature

I’ve been critical from day one of the ban on passengers bringing liquids, aerosols, and gels (LAGs) on board in their carry-on luggage. It’s an example of the passenger-unfriendly policies that result from a focus on keeping bad objects, rather than bad people, off planes. But since the current aviation security policies in Canada, Europe, and the United States are not risk-based, in the short term we are stuck with policies like the LAG ban until technology improves to the point where bottles and other containers can be quickly and reliably screened along with the rest of carry-on luggage.

That brings us to the current flap in Europe over the European Commission’s plan to begin easing the ban as of April 29, 2011—next month. As of that date, passengers originating in a non-EA country (e.g., Nigeria) and transiting at an EU hub airport to fly elsewhere (e.g., to America) will be allowed to carry duty-free items (wine, perfume, etc.) purchased at their originating airport through airport security at the EU hub, as long as it is carried in a “security tamper evident bag” provided by the duty-free shop. An unspecified percentage of those bottles must be screened at the transfer hub airport, using any one of three types of approved LAG screening machines. And, by the way, passengers headed for the United States on trans-Atlantic flights will actually have their wine and perfume confiscated, since U.S. policy will not change.

Not surprisingly, just about the entire European aviation industry is opposed to this change—including the Association of European Airlines, the European Regional Airline Association, Airports Council International-Europe, and the governments (so far) of France and Switzerland. Besides great concern over passenger confusion as to which rule applies to which trip, longer lines at transfer checkpoints, and the cost of yet more specialized equipment, they also argue that the technology is not ready for prime time. Three different types of LAG scanner have been approved, but it appears that none have been used for this purpose in real-world airport environments (as opposed to lab testing). All have functional limitations:

·         Type A machines require bottles to be opened so the contents can be sampled. Too bad about your $150 champagne.

·         Type B machines can screen unopened bottles, but only one at a time, and lab tests show what airports consider to be high false alarm rates.

·         Type C machines can screen multiple bottles, but only in special trays, presenting yet more operational complexities. These are also alleged to have high false alarm rates.

My sources tell me that the governments of both France and Switzerland will decline to implement next month’s EU policy change, a decision I think is justified by the above concerns. And that will only add to the passenger confusion and overall unworkability of this change. Better to call the whole thing off, and shift serious attention toward developing a risk-based approach to passenger screening that will make LAG bans superfluous.

Subsidized Air Service Being Cut Back

In yet another manifestation that the game of Congress handing out ever-larger goodies to people and companies in their districts—using taxpayers’ money—is starting to wind down, both FAA reauthorization bills would scale back the Essential Air Services (EAS) subsidy program.

If you’ve been around long enough to remember the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, EAS was created as a 10-year transition program, to subsidize airline service to smaller cities and towns that were likely to face cutbacks due to airline competition. Under the previous regulatory set-up, the Civil Aeronautics Board assigned airlines to routes (usually as monopolies or duopolies) and let them charge high fares on profitable routes so they could subsidize unprofitable ones. But thanks to the normal incentives facing members of Congress—and especially due to the fact that small and rural states each get two Senate members—EAS took on a life of its own, becoming a de-facto permanent mechanism for subsidizing a handful of small airlines.

In a 2009 GAO report (GAO-09-753), that agency provided some useful perspective, pointing out that the rapid growth of low-cost carriers in recent decades has meant that low-fare service is often available within a hundred miles or so of an EAS airport. GAO also noted the huge network of inter-city bus service (which serves six times as many locations as Amtrak) and the closeness of an Interstate highway to many EAS cities and towns. It suggested that permitting planes smaller than the current 15-seat minimum might reduce costs and improve the dismal 37% load factor on EAS routes.

Some members of Congress evidently paid attention. Sen. John McCain (R, AZ) proposed terminating EAS entirely, as did the House Republican Study Committee. The House bill awaiting floor debate doesn’t go quite that far, but would phase it out over four years (except for Alaska and Hawaii), funding it at $148 million in FY2011, $110 million in FY2012, and $80 million in 2013. The Senate bill, recently passed, does not include McCain’s termination, but while funding EAS for two years at $200 million/year, the bill would limit it to communities with 10 or more enplanements per day and located 90 miles or more from the nearest large or medium hub airport.

Those limitations would probably curb some of the worst excesses (e.g., the $5,223 per passenger subsidy for Ely, NV), but it’s hard to see how this kind of ridiculous subsidy program can survive much longer in the new fiscal era this country has entered.

Rising Concerns About Backscatter Body Scanners

The last several months have witnessed growing concerns about one kind of whole-body scanner: the kind using backscatter X-ray technology. (This article does not, therefore, address the other kind of body-scanner, based on millimeter wave technology.) The two main backscatter concerns are their effectiveness at detecting explosives and their possible radiation hazards.

The first was triggered by a paper last November in the Journal of Transportation Security. “An Evaluation of Airport X-Ray Backscatter Units Based on Image Characteristics.” The authors are Leon Kaufman and Joseph W. Carlson, physicists formerly at UC San Francisco, both experts in medical imaging. Their simulation of backscatter imaging of a human body with various contraband items concluded that “detection of contraband can be foiled in these systems.” Without getting into the technicalities, the physicists concluded that objects on the side of the body, or those with sharp edges, can generally be detected. But an explosive like PETN, if shaped into a flat “pancake” shape and taped to the belly, would likely not be detected. They pointed out that unless such an object had hard edges, the operators would have difficulty visually detecting it. Their analysis was of backscatter machines only, and these deficiencies are based on the characteristics of those machines.

Concerns about radiation are coming from many quarters. A number of radiation experts have questioned the TSA’s comparison of backscatter X-ray exposure to things like medical X-rays and cosmic ray background radiation. They point out that unlike those cases in which radiation is absorbed by the whole body, with backscatter machines the radiation is concentrated on the skin, so the effective dose to the skin may be far more serious. And this is especially the case for people who already get a lot of radiation exposure because they fly a great deal, especially flight crews.

Which brings me to a point about flight crew exposure to high-altitude background radiation. In 1996, the European Union issued a regulation (EC Council Directive 96/29/EURATOM) defining pilots, cabin crew, and pregnant airline workers as “radiation workers” due to their higher than normal exposure. Cockpit and cabin crew flight activity is monitored so that it does not exceed a pre-defined annual limit. Flight crew members must be grounded as soon as they become pregnant. I don’t know enough about radiation and health to know whether this is overkill or not, but the contrast between this and the TSA’s cavalier attitude is striking.

Until members of Congress recently put pressure on the agency, the TSA had basically ignored a 2004 report from the Centers for Disease Control pointing out numerous violations of federal radiation standards in baggage screening X-ray units at airports—and the lack of any corrective action by the TSA. Another CDC report, in 2008, found that TSA and its contractors had failed to detect when baggage X-ray machines emitted more radiation than they were supposed to. It was only this month that the agency began posting results of maintenance tests on airport X-ray devices. It also announced that it would retest every backscatter body scanner, based on maintenance records showing that some had radiation levels ten times higher than expected.

When I was in high school, I had a summer job in a university medical research facility. Because some experiments being done there included radioactive materials, everyone in that lab was required to wear radiation dosimeters, which were turned in once a week to check each individual’s exposure. Many TSA employees who work with baggage X-ray machines and backscatter machines have asked to have such dosimeters, but TSA has turned a deaf ear.

If you, as a frequent flier, are concerned about backscatter X-ray exposure but don’t relish the idea of an intrusive pat-down, you may not be out of luck. About half of all airports equipped with body-scanners have millimeter wave machines instead—and those appear to be harmless. The Washington Post last Dec. 26th published a partial list of which airports have which types of body scanners. If your trip originates at a one-airport city, you may be out of luck: Boston, Charlotte, Los Angeles, San Juan, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Seattle all have backscatter X-rays. You’re better off if you depart from Atlanta, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, or Philadelphia because their scanners are millimeter wave.

And in some multi-airport metro areas you have a choice. In the Washington, DC metro area, DCA and BWI both have millimeter wave, while Dulles has backscatter. In greater New York, LaGuardia and Kennedy have backscatter machines, but you can use Newark to get millimeter wave, instead. Likewise, in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Jose and Oakland stick you with backscatter, but SFO comes through for you with millimeter wave. Someone (are you listening, USA Today?) should do frequent flyers a real service by publishing a complete listing of which airports have backscatter machines.

Huge Negative Impact of DOT Tarmac Delay Rule

One of the greatest insights of the 19th-century French classical liberal economist Frederick Bastiat was his concept of “the seen versus the unseen” when it comes to well-intentioned government regulations. During the original Arab oil embargo, then-President Nixon imposed price controls on gasoline. The foreseen consequence was to protect gas buyers from much higher prices. The unforeseen consequence was panic buying, leading to shortages, leading to rationing and hence to further shortages. Likewise, the “seen” consequence of New York City rent controls is lower rents, for those lucky enough to get a rent-controlled apartment. The unseen consequence is a huge housing shortage, driving up all other rents.

So it is with the U.S. DOT’s tarmac delay rule, imposing the draconian penalty of $27,500 per passenger for any flight that remains on the ground more than three hours without taking off. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood continues to tout the “seen” impact—three-plus hour delays have been reduced to single digits. But the “unseen” consequence is ever-higher levels of flight cancellations, as airlines do the economically rational thing of cancelling flights at risk of exceeding that three-hour limit. And with load factors routinely in the 85-90% range, the poor passengers on a cancelled flight may have to wait 24 hours or more to get onto a replacement flight.

In the September issue of this newsletter, I wrote about a comprehensive number-crunching study by long-time aviation consultants Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks. Using a database consisting of 10 years of U.S. flight operations and weather data, they tested the assumptions in DOT’s regulatory impact assessment, so as to quantify the likely “unseen” consequences of the delay rule. Their prediction was that pre-emptive cancellations would soar. And the numbers since then validate their prediction, despite DOT’s denials.

Jenkins and Marks issued an update in mid-November, analyzing delays and cancellations during summer 2010. They found that although the DOT’s rule eliminated 523 long delays (the “seen”), it also increased cancellations by 5,064 flights, negatively affecting 384,356 passengers on those flights. (www.tarmaclimits.com) As Jenkins put it, in a much-quoted line, “The Department of Transportation has used a bazooka to kill an ant.” The DOT argues that the additional cancellations were due to weather, but the Jenkins/Marks methodology takes weather into account in making year-to-year comparisons. As Jenkins pointed out to one interviewer, “We had the best weather in a decade in the summer of 2010”—and yet cancellations soared.

Since that update, monthly data for December and January have become available, and they show the same pattern. December cancellations were 3.7% of all flights, compared with 2.8% the previous December. And cancellations in January, at 3.9%, were the highest of any January since 2005. A DOT spokesman still defended the regulation at a February American Bar Association aviation law conference in Washington, DC. His assessment was disputed by the Director of Operations Control for US Airways, and by other senior airline officials in the audience.

Fortunately, although most mainstream media continue to parrot the DOT party line, a few are starting to consider the alternative. The Newark Star-Ledger editorialized against the delay rule in a March 8th piece, headlined, “Grounded without Recourse: FAA Must Fix Tarmac Rule So Fliers Aren’t Stranded by Unexpected Cancellations.”  Given LaHood’s high-profile identification with the rule, it may take major and widespread outrage over a particularly large number of cancellations—for example, if we have a summer with unusually severe thunderstorm activity—to make it possible for DOT to agree to “modify” the rule. Short of that, we will probably have to wait for a new Secretary. 

Senate Overturns TSA’s Anti-Outsourcing Decision

In a stunning move on February 15th, the Senate voted unanimously to continue the Security Screening Partnership (SSP), which had been closed to new applicants by a unilateral decision of TSA Administrator John Pistole on January 28th. The measure was adopted as an amendment to the Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill, which has subsequently been passed and awaits conference committee action once the House bill is finalized. Prospects for House agreement are good, given that Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chairman John Mica (R, FL) was the author of the provision in the 2001 ATSA legislation giving all airports the right to opt out of TSA-provided screening.

The Senate measure, by Sen. Roy Blunt (R, MO) would do three things. First, it affirms that any U.S. airport with TSA-provided screening may apply for SPP—and must get a decision from TSA within 30 days. Second, it directs the TSA to approve the six applications that were pending at the time of Pistole’s Jan. 28th announcement. Finally, it requires the TSA Administrator to report back to Senate and House committees on any applications TSA denies, giving the reasons for the denial.

Aviation observers are still pondering the reason for Pistole’s abrupt action, which appears to be in direct conflict with the 2001 legislation. Rick Seaney of Farecompare.com suggests that there were too many applicants for TSA to be comfortable handling. “The bottom line is, I think, that it was getting out of control quickly.” My own assessment is that the growing airport interest in SPP was triggered by impending unionization of TSA screeners. A news story on Charlotte’s consideration—post-January 28th—of outsourcing its screening quotes airport director Jerry Orr as being concerned about screener scheduling. “Sometimes we have way too many people [at the checkpoints],” he told WSOC TV in mid-February. “Sometimes we don’t have enough people; then you have lines.” He said that a private company could be more flexible with scheduling, meaning shorter lines on average.  “I also think [passengers] would be better served by someone who’s focused on customer service,” he said. That kind of message has been coming from satisfied airport officials at long-time SPP airports like San Francisco and Kansas City.

We also have new data on the comparative cost of TSA screening and screening at SPP airports. Two years ago I reported on a GAO study (GAO-09—27R) that ripped the TSA for refusing to publish a study it had commissioned on this very issue, replacing it with a quick-and-dirty in-house study purporting to show that outsourced screening was significantly more costly. That GAO report pointed out numerous methodological flaws in TSA’s study, such as not including a variety of overhead costs in its estimate of its own screening costs. Since then, a chastened agency has responded to the GAO’s list of 10 problems with its methodology, and a new GAO report (GAO-11-375R) assesses its effort.

Of the seven problems with TSA’s cost methodology, the agency has addressed three. Its revised cost comparison now shows that SPP airport screening costs only 3% more than TSA screening (compared with the 17% it claimed previously), but GAO correctly notes that these revisions are incomplete until TSA deals with the other four cost-comparison issues. On the three issues involving comparative screener performance, the TSA pretty much flunked. Only one of the three was “partially addressed,” while the other two were “generally not addressed.”

This whole saga reinforces my view that Congress made a fundamental mistake in crafting the 2001 ATSA legislation. Unlike the EU countries, which make aviation security policy at the national levels but require individual airports to carry it out, US law requires the TSA to be both the policy-maker/regulator and the largest airport security provider—a built-in conflict of interest. And we can see in the case of SPP how TSA has an incentive to try to make itself look good, in comparison to other providers. Canada after 9/11 created what some consider a TSA analog, called CATSA, but that agency does not operate airport screening. Instead, it contracts with a number of certified screening companies to provide such services at airports.

As we review the 10-year history of post-9/11 aviation security this year, Congress needs to revisit its 2001 creation. Rather than simply insisting that TSA follow the law and permit airports to opt out, it should remove TSA’s conflict of interest, letting airports decide between providing screening with their own workforce or hiring a qualified security company. In either case, the standards for training and performance would be set and enforced by the reformed TSA, thenceforth acting solely as policy-maker and regulator.

Upcoming Conference

Airport Privatization in a Global Market: Is it Time for the US?, March 27-29, San Francisco, Park 55 Wyndham. Details at http://events.aaae.org/sites/110409/index.cfm

(My Reason colleague Shirley Ybarra is speaking.)

News Notes

Poland to Privatize Its Third Airport

Online infrastructure news site Ispiratia.com reports that the John Paul II International Airport near Krakow will be privatized this year. The current owners include the Polish Airports State Enterprise, another government agency, and the two nearby local governments. A 30% stake in the airport is expected to be offered. This third airport privatization in Poland will also be the largest one to date.

Napolitano Claims Fewer Body Scanners Would Mean Longer Waits

Testifying in opposition to proposed budget cuts before a congressional committee March 2nd, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano made the astonishing claim that cutting in half the number of body scanners the TSA had planned to acquire would “lengthen wait times at checkpoints.” That’s pretty bizarre, given that screening lanes without body scanners will continue to use walk-through metal detectors for primary screening, and those have a much higher throughput rate than body scanners.

Ontario Airport Gets 10 Potential Bidders

Los Angeles World Airports has received expressions of interest from six airport groups and four infrastructure funds. The former include Fraport, Incheon International, GMR Airports, American Airports Corp., Aviation Facilities Co., and Airport Property Ventures. The latter include AMP Capital Investors, the Carlyle Group, and Goldman Sachs Infrastructure Partners. The City of Ontario, which ceded the airport to LAWA several decades ago, did not make a submission. But a state senator from nearby Rancho Cucamonga has introduced a bill that would—somehow—shift control of the airport from LAWA to a newly created regional authority. Five other legislators from that part of southern California have signed on as co-sponsors.

AENA Workers’ Planned Strikes Averted?

Unionized workers at Spanish airports owned and operated by state aviation agency AENA announced plans for 19 days of strikes from April to July, to protest the government’s plans to partially privatize AENA and to offer long-term concessions for the airports in Madrid and Barcelona. At press time, a tentative agreement to avert the strikes had been reached, subject to ratification by the rank and file.

US Airports Need $80 Billion Investment Over Next Five Years

Airports Council International-North America last month released the results of a survey of 107 member airports, tallying their projected capital investment needs. The largest share, 28%, would be for terminal projects, and another 18% would go for increases in airfield capacity; airfield reconstruction would account for another 17%. Congress could assist airports to amass the needed capital without adding one cent to the national debt—simply by permitting individual airports to increase the passenger facility charge (PFC) above its current federal cap of $4.50. Unfortunately, neither the House nor the Senate FAA reauthorization bill currently includes such an increase.

Kosovo Airport Privatized

A French-Turkish joint venture was selected last summer to renovate and operate the Pristina International Airport under a 20-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) concession agreement. Limak Holding and Aeroports de Lyon have committed to invest $179 million in renovating the airport, aiming to quadruple its annual capacity to four million passengers. Construction will begin in 2012.

Quotable Quotes

“All security measures are justified relative to the direct terrorist damage they might prevent. The plane that would come down, the bomb that would go off. But anyone who’s ever thought about terrorist movements realizes that the real damage is indirect—it’s the fear they induce, the (over)reactions they provoke, the costs they impose as a society tries to guard against repetition. That’s what Osama bin Laden noted in a tape after 9/11—that on the cheap, his attackers had not simply killed 3,000 people but induced a response that will cost the U.S. trillions of dollars over a decade or more (if the costs of war in Iraq are included, as they should be). So people who say, we can’t forgo any measure that might reduce risk, are concentrating on the direct threat of terrorism. Those who say, let’s consider the distortions we’re imposing on ourselves, are thinking of the indirect risks. It’s hard to bridge these outlooks.”

--James Fallows, The Atlantic November 2010 (http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/11/like-a-full-body-massage-thinking-about-the-tsa/66923/)

“Mr. Gage [head of American Federation of Government Employees], in a pitch video designed to get screeners to choose his union, let it be known that no issue would be too trivial for the AFGE to bargain over, including ‘leave restrictions, parking subsidies, uniforms—all the frustrations that TSOs have had to endure.’ He also assured screeners that an army of attorneys is standing by on their behalf: ‘more attorneys than any union, federal or private.’ This is how you end up with the Customs and Border Protection agency, whose union is allowed to collectively bargain personnel issues. In recent years, the agency has spent months negotiating with its union over how and whether it can discipline employees who fall asleep on the job, and over how much training it can give officers who fail a firearm test.”

--Kimberly A. Strassel, “Ready for Unionized Airport Security?” The Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2011

“Generally, militants prefer to attack soft targets where there are large groups of people, that are symbolic and recognizable around the world, and that will generate maximum media attention when attacked. . . . The militants’ hope is that if the target meets these criteria, terror magnifiers like the media will help the attackers produce a psychological impact that goes far beyond the immediate attack site—a process we refer to as ‘creating vicarious victims.’ The best-case scenario for the attackers is that this psychological impact will also produce an adverse economic impact against the targeted government. Unlike hard targets, which frequently require attackers to use large teams of operatives . . . soft targets offer militant planners an advantage in that they can frequently be attacked by a single operative or small team using a simple attack plan . . . [such as the Jan. 24 attack at Domodedovo airport]. Such attacks are relatively cheap and easy to conduct and can produce a considerable propaganda return for very little investment.”

--Scott Stewart, “The Moscow Attack and Airport Security,” STRATFOR Security Weekly, Jan. 27, 2011 (http://www.stratfor.com/print/181533)

“The so-called Screening Partnership Program has been a modest, but undeniable, success. With TSA guidance, 16 of the nation’s approximately 500 commercial airports use private-sector personnel rather than TSA employees. Airports as large as San Francisco and as small as Key West International are part of the program, and no traveler I’ve ever spoken to has even noticed a difference. Moreover, the TSA has never challenged the effectiveness of the private screeners who worked under SPP. . . . [But] late in January [Pistole] turned down miniscule Springfield-Branson Airport’s request to go private and then locked down the airport opt-out program altogether. . . . In a memo to TSA employees, Pistole went even further. ‘To preserve the TSA as an effective federal counterterrorism security network, SPP will not be expanded . . . unless a clear and substantial advantage to do so emerges.’ The problem with Pistole’s decision? The law clearly states that TSA should create a privatization path for airports. There’s nothing that permits the TSA Administrator to deny applications based on his assessment of privatization’s impact on TSA as an ‘effective federal counterterrorism security network,’ either.”

--Joe Brancatelli, “TSA Packs a Pistole,” Portfolio.com, Feb. 23, 2011 (http://portfolio.combusiness-travel/2011/02/23/tsa-administrator-pistole-takes-insular-approach-to-agency)


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


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