Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #44

Topics include: whole body scanning; runway safety areas; air marshals vs. armed pilots; luggage pilfering and airport security; outsourced commercial airports; and other news.

In this issue:


Whole Body Scanning—You Asked for It

Acting in haste after Sept. 11, 2001, Congress passed the Aviation & Transportation Security Act, mandating significantly beefed-up screening of passengers and their luggage. This was in response to the new threat of hijackers aiming to take control of planes and fly them into buildings, as well as the older threat (which had not previously been taken that seriously) of terrorists hiding bombs in checked luggage (such as the one that brought down Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988). What Congress ignored, however, was the threat that terrorists willing to commit suicide (such as the 9/11 hijackers) might board planes carrying either liquid explosives or conformal plastic explosives hidden under their clothing. The former threat was hastily responded to by TSA after British authorities foiled a plot to down a number of trans-Atlantic flights with improvised liquid explosives; hence today's restrictions on carry-on liquids.

For years I've been pointing out the inconsistency in current policy of requiring 100% explosive-detection inspection of checked bags, but not of passengers or their carry-ons. Passengers still walk through 1960s-era metal detectors, which—repeat after me—detect only ferrous metals. So any kind of ceramic weapon or liquid or plastic explosive under their clothing will not be detected.

This is the context behind the Transportation Security Administration's gradual introduction of body-scanning technologies to replace—yes, replace—walk-through metal detectors. Despite the concerns of privacy advocates, millimeter-wave and backscatter X-ray technologies do work, spotting objects hidden under clothing and even hidden in body cavities. And they do so with really minimal radiation exposure. After several years of testing several different vendors' body-scanners as an option to pat-downs for secondary screening, TSA has begun putting them in a handful of airports as alternatives to the metal detectors. At least initially, it's offering an opt-out for those with privacy objections—go through the metal detector and receive a pat-down. So far, the TSA says only about 2% of passengers are opting out.

The three models of scanner currently in use—from L-3, Rapiscan, andAS&E—all require the passenger to stand still for 20 to 30 seconds, which means throughput will be slower than with metal detectors. Two scanners not certified yet by TSA for airport use, but in use at some European airports, do not require this dwell time. The Brijot GEN 2, which is a totally passive millimeter-wave system integrated with a full-motion video camera, can do the scanning while the passenger walks through. So can the UK ThruVision T4000 (which measures naturally occurring terraherz emissions from humans and objects). These passive systems offer faster throughput and zero radiation exposure—though I have not seen accuracy or cost data comparing them with the three TSA-approved systems. Those who object to body-scanning on privacy grounds should either get over it or should start questioning the underlying premise that every passenger is equally likely to be a threat and therefore needs the same degree of rigorous scrutiny—a premise I've questioned from the outset. With a truly risk-based approach, previously cleared Registered Travelers would generally be exempt from scanning, whether for metals or anything else. High-risk passengers would always require intense scrutiny. Those in between would get this kind of scanning at least on a random basis.

The threat of suicide bombers on commercial aircraft is real. Body shyness does not make it go away. As long as Congress insists on the all-passengers-are-equally-suspect principle, there is no realistic alternative (except pat-downs) to replacing metal detectors with body scanners for all passengers.

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Egregious Lapses on Runway Safety Areas

Over the last 10 years, according to a recent audit by the US DOT's Office of the Inspector General, 75 aircraft have overrun or veered off airport runways. ("Actions Taken and Needed to Improve FAA's Runway Safety Area Program," Report No. AV-2009-039, available at www.oig.dot.gov) Those accidents resulted in 12 deaths and nearly 200 injuries. Most of those casualties would probably been prevented had those airports met FAA standards for Runway Safety Areas. Unfortunately, airports and the FAA have been less than aggressive in bringing numerous runways up to snuff.

Late in 2005, after two high-profile accidents of this sort (at Teterboro and Chicago Midway Airports), Congress mandated that all commercial-service airports improve their Runway Safety Areas (RSAs) by 2015, with the FAA giving Congress an annual report on their progress. The OIG report finds that the FAA has not done a very good job, either of getting airports to act or of reporting accurately to Congress.

An RSA is defined as clear space on either end and on either side of a runway. At the end, there is supposed to be a space 1,000 feet long by 500 feet wide. And on either side, the clear space should extend 250 feet from the runway centerline. There are two main problems in meeting these standards. First, many runways are very close to bodies of water or streets and highways, making it costly to add the needed space. Second, many navigation aids (navaids) needed for instrument landings are currently located in the space that's supposed to be part of the RSA at a runway end.

Two work-arounds for these problems have been approved by the FAA and used by a number of airports. For those with less than 1,000 feet at the runway end, an Engineered Material Arresting System (EMAS) can be installed—a special concrete surface that can help the plane slow down and stop in a shorter distance than regular pavement. An EMAS was installed at Midway after the Southwest overrun in 2005 that killed one person on the ground. The work-around for navaids that can't be relocated is frangible bolts—special bolts that will shear off easily when the navaid is hit by a plane in the RSA.

In its audit report, the OIG found that airports and the FAA have made progress since Congress imposed the 2015 deadline. Out of 454 RSAs that were designated as high priority, 327 have been improved. But the audit's most important finding is that serious RSA shortcomings still exist at 11 major airports that handle over 25% of all passenger traffic—and most of them are not expected to be fixed by 2015. These airports include high-profile ones such as Reagan National, Boston Logan, Charlotte, Kennedy, LaGuardia, LAX, and SFO. The problems run the gamut—nearby water and highways, navaids, NIMBY and/or environmental litigation, etc. There may well be a case for Congress to do some environmental streamlining to get these projects moving before more lives are lost.

But the other major finding of the audit is that the FAA needs to get its act together. The OIG people found that in the FAA Office of Airports database on RSAs, 38% of the RSAs they reviewed had at least one data error—such as not reporting projects that had been completed or stating that an RSA meets standards when it does not. They found that FAA field offices all use different forms and terminology to report on RSAs, and headquarters does no data verification or quality control on what they report. Because of problems like this, the FAA's annual report to Congress on RSA progress "overstates the extent to which RSAs fully meet standards."

Another problem is lack of coordination between the FAA's Air Traffic Organization (ATO), which is responsible for navaids, and the Office of Airports, which is responsible for RSA compliance. You would think, with over $3 billion per year being handed out in Airport Improvement Program grants, that somebody would have made fixing the navaids-in-RSAs problem a priority for funding. Wrong. For some reason, "the Office of Airports is restricted from permitting airport sponsors to use AIP funds to address non-compliant navaids in RSAs." This is simply bizarre. Alas, while the OIG report made five recommendations, all of which the FAA officially concurred with, none of them specifically said that fixing the navaids-in-RSAs problem should be made a priority for AIP funding. It just said that the Office of Airports and the ATO should work out a plan to address the problem, without specifically mentioning the funding problem the audit had identified. As a frequent user of many of the 11 major airports, I'm not satisfied with that.

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Air Marshals vs. Armed Pilots

An editorial the March 17, 2009 issue of The Washington Times claimed that the Obama administration was quietly phasing out the Federal Flight Deck Officers (FFDO) program, under which pilots can volunteer for special training and then bring a gun with them when they fly (as pilots, many of them ex-military, did routinely in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s). The story was picked up and circulated widely among right-wing and Second-Amendment groups. What those groups failed to include was a follow-up piece in the same paper a week later, apologizing for the editorial being wrong and blaming this on recent transitions in the editorial department.

I was very relieved to hear this, and to read statements from federal officials and airline pilots' organizations affirming that not only is FFDO not being phased out, it's being expanded—at least to the extent of building a new training center in Dallas. Both the Air Line Pilots Association and the Airline Pilots Security Association reported positive discussions with the Department of Homeland Security about the continuation of FFDO.

That's important, because FFDO is quite possibly the most cost-effective aviation security program we have. I reported in Issue No. 41 (January 2009) on a cost-effectiveness study of U.S. aviation security programs, done at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Using a set of plausible assumptions, the authors compared the annual cost per life saved (on the assumption that TSA's overall efforts prevent one 9/11-type disaster every 10 years) of hardened cockpit doors and Federal Air Marshals. The latter are not the armed pilots we're talking about here; FAMs are full-time federal employees who ride, armed, in first class, not only costing taxpayers about $170K per FAM per year (a Congressional Budget Office estimate) but also costing airlines foregone front-cabin revenue. The relative costs worked out at about $800,000 per life saved for hardened cockpit doors versus $180 million per life saved for the FAM program.

Researchers Mark Stewart and John Mueller did not assess the FFDO program, but it's obvious that it is hugely more cost-effective than FAMs. First, there is no ongoing labor cost, just modest one-time training cost (and probably some recurrent training as well). Second, there is almost no cost to the airline, other than the training time; there is no loss of front-cabin revenue. And then there are the numbers. The official number of FAMs is classified, but you don't have to do much of a literature search to get widely accepted estimates of 2,500 to 4,000 (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 9, 2007). The FFDO program has trained 12,000 pilots, and assuming most of them are still flying armed, that's three to five times the number of FAMs. And assuming that FAMs still travel in pairs but that most FFDOs are the only armed pilot in a cockpit, the fraction of flights with an armed FFDO is six to 10 times the number with a pair of FAMs aboard.

The obvious question is, instead of only expanding FFDO, why isn't new Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano proposing to scrap the wasteful and ineffective FAM program altogether? In February, the Australian government announced that it was cutting back its own air marshal program to fewer than 100 people (The Australian, Feb. 11, 2009). Now that's the kind of change I could believe in.

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Luggage Pilfering and Airport Security

There's been another spate of news reports recently about thefts from passengers' checked luggage. The TSA reports that thousands of passengers complain each year about such thefts. The complaints go to TSA on the assumption that it must be TSA screeners doing the pilfering. Such cases have certainly occurred; a Google search using "baggage screeners" and "theft" turned up over 7,000 hits. An ABC News investigation in November 2004 found that TSA screeners at 30 airports had been arrested for stealing.

But more recently the news reports I've been seeing involve airline baggage handlers. In the last few months, police arrested eight baggage handlers at Lambert St. Louis International Airport, operating what was termed a "massive theft ring." An April 2, 2008 ABC News report quoted an airline baggage employee at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport claiming that her co-workers routinely go through luggage to steal things. The same report cited undercover videos of similar thievery going on at Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Think about what this means in terms of airport security. If theft rings can operate in airline baggage areas, the same people that are opening luggage to take things out could easily be slipping things in. Like bombs.

The TSA spends about $5 billion per year on airport security, the vast majority of which is spent on passenger and baggage screening. Even if the TSA finally has its own screeners under control, if airline baggage handlers can get away with routine thefts from checked bags, that suggests a serious vulnerability in the checked baggage system. How about spending some of that $5 billion supervising the entire baggage chain of command?

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We've Had U.S. Airport Privatization for Decades

More than 20 years ago, when discussion and debate about airport privatization was first getting under way in the United States, I frequently reminded people that having private companies operating and managing U.S. airports was nothing new. There was Lockheed Air Terminal running Burbank and several smaller airports. And then there was Pan Am World Services, operating White Plains/Westchester (NY), Atlantic City, Bader Field, and Teterboro, all in New Jersey. We all know that Pan American World Airways, which originally owned the airport company, is long gone. But whatever happened to their airport company?

A recent article in Airport Business (March 2009) provided the answer, in the form of an interview with long-time executive John Harden and new owner Charles Stipancic. In the 1980s, the company was acquired by Johnson Controls, which ran it for awhile but later sold it to American Port Services (which mostly operates seaports). More recently, it was acquired by Macquarie Aviation North America, which also owns the Atlantic Aviation chain of fixed base operators (FBOs). But last year, as part of a whole series of divestitures and restructurings, Macquarie sold the airports company. Its new owner is Aviation Facilities Co. (AFCO) of Mclean, VA, a real estate firm begun in 1992, specializing in developing and operating airport facilities. Today AFCO operates facilities at 29 U.S. and U.K. airports, and is overseeing the construction of the new, privately owned Branson Airport in Branson, MO.

Harden told Airport Business that despite all the changes in ownership, AFCO's Avports Management LLC is still basically the same company that he went to work for in 1982, when it was still Pan Am World Services. Much of the management team and many of the employees have stayed the course. It's been expanding its string of airport management contracts, adding Albany, NY in 2006 and Stewart International in 2008 (after the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey bought out the long-term lease of former operator National Express). Besides those two, it still manages Republic and Westchester airports in New York, Atlantic City and Teterboro in New Jersey, and New Haven, Connecticut.

The magazine asked Stipancic and Harden about the broader question of U.S. airport privatization and their potential role in it—besides contract operation of smaller commercial airports, owning and operating FBOs, and developing the occasional new airport like Branson. Stipancic's response? "In the United States—whether it's next month, next year, or five years from now—privatization is going to happen. To me it's not a question of if, but when. With AvPorts being a leader at managing airports in this country, we think this puts us ahead of the power curve."

With Lockheed Air Terminal having become Airport Group International in the 1990s and subsequently being acquired by British company TBI, most people assumed there were no purely U.S. players in airport privatization. But the survival and growth of AvPorts tells us that isn't true. This will be an interesting company to watch.

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News Notes

Secondary Cockpit Barriers? In previous issues, I have discussed the potential vulnerability of airliner cockpits, despite the hardened doors installed after 9/11, since those doors are generally opened one or more times during flight. Aviation Daily (April 6, 2009) reports that the Air Line Pilots Association supports an approach being tested by United, which involves installing a $10,000 "wire unit" aft of the forward galley, to be snapped in place by a flight attendant whenever the cockpit door must be opened. ALPA is also having serious discussions with the FAA and Boeing about installing hardened cockpit doors on cargo aircraft, such as the forthcoming 777F.

LAX Victim of City Budget Cutbacks? Even though city-run airports are supposedly set up as "enterprise funds" and intended to be self-supporting, that is apparently not enough to prevent City of Los Angeles budget deficits from affecting LAX. An April 1, 2009 Los Angeles Times story reports that due to the projected $1 billion city budget deficit, all city departments and agencies may face layoffs and a new early retirement program. Besides LAX, the provisions would also apply to the other enterprise-fund departments, including the Port of Los Angeles and the Department of Water and Power. Needless to say, were LAX to be corporatized or privatized, the city's fiscal mismanagement would be irrelevant to LAX's finances.

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Quotable Quote

"The legacy airlines [In Europe] successfully requested that the current use-it-or-lose-it rule (the 80% rule—allocated slots must be used 80% of the time or returned to the slot pool) be suspended for two seasons. The [European] Commission agreed. . . . It is easy to see why the LCCs [low cost carriers] were so concerned. When you think about airline models, and which ones are working, there is only so much more scope for the LCCs to fly to regional airports and ignore potential customers. A growing percentage of their passengers are in fact on business. . . . That means access to mainstream airports—the very thing that the freeze will not allow. So we are seeing the struggling [legacy] carriers barring the growing and cashed-up carriers from some of the best bits of the playground. . . . This neatly highlights why the airports are outraged, too. They need passengers to come through their facilities to make money. A freeze on the slot rule stops others from using the capacity that they already have to do exactly that. It also shows the contempt with which the [legacy] airlines regard the airports. If you think this might be somewhat esoteric, think about Rome Fiumicino. The new-look Alitalia is only intending to use 400 of the 500 or so slots it has this summer—and summer is the busy time for Rome. Might others fly in during that period and open up what has been one of the least open and competitive airports in Europe? We will never know."
--Andrew Charlton, , "Slots: Time to Use or Lose the ‘Use It or Lose It' Rule," Aviation Advocacy, April 2009 (www.aviationadvocacy.aero).

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





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