Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #50

Unionized airport security screeners, registered traveler and air travel delays
  • Brookings on Air Travel Delays
  • Will Registered Traveler Rise Again?
  • Increasing Runway Throughput
  • Unionizing TSA Screeners
  • LAX vs. Airlines, Again
  • GAO on Flawed Access Control
  • News Notes
  • Quotable Quote


Brookings on Air Travel Delays: Two-Thirds Right


The Brookings Institution has released a well-done report on the looming problem of increased air travel delays. "Expect Delays: An Analysis of Air Travel Trends in the United States," provides a well-timed warning of the likely return of serious airline delays once economic growth resumes and makes three major policy recommendations. (www.brookings.edu/reports/2009/1008_air_travel_tomer_puentes.aspx).

As a product of the think tank's Metropolitan Policy Program, the report focuses on America's urban areas, which are the source of most air travel. Nearly 99% of all passengers arrive at or depart from one of the 100 largest metro areas, with 73% concentrated in just 26 major metro areas (the largest of which are served by multiple airports with scheduled air service). It's those 26 urban regions that account for most of the seriously delayed flights. Also, nearly half of all airline flights (but just 30% of all passengers) are routes of less than 500 miles, a fact which leads to one of the report's recommendations.

The authors contend that current aviation policy is not focusing resources adequately on those 26 congested regions. For example, only 21.8% of Airport Improvement Program grants (and just 19.9% of airport-related stimulus funds) went to airports in those 26 major metro areas in FY 2009, according to the report's analysis. So one of the three recommendations is to "empower the most congested metropolitan areas to enact congestion mitigation policies" such as runway congestion pricing, which would generate additional revenue while providing incentives to economize on runway use. For the longer term, the authors suggest revising the way the FAA's Future Airport Capacity Task (FACT) process works, to put more emphasis on congestion reduction in the 26 major areas. So far, so good.

A second recommendation is to accelerate the deployment of NextGen technologies and investments to the major airports so as to expand their operational capacities in the medium term, beginning with the kinds of "now-Gen" approaches proposed by the RTCA's recent task force on this subject. It's hard to think of anyone who would oppose this one.

More troubling is the report's third recommendation: to prioritize high-speed rail project selection to focus on short-haul corridors (400 miles or less) where rail could substitute for airline service, thereby easing congestion at the airports at one or both ends of those routes. The 10 busiest corridors of this type, ranging from 185 miles to 358 miles, are Los Angeles-San Francisco, Los Angeles-Las Vegas, Los Angeles-Phoenix, Dallas-Houston, Boston-New York, New York-Washington, Los Angeles-San Jose, Dallas-San Antonio, Chicago-Minneapolis, and Dallas-Austin. Thus, we have four routes from LA, the two principal NE corridor shuttle routes, three in Texas, and one in the Midwest.

True high-speed rail service has in fact captured significant market share from airlines in selected cases: London-Paris, Paris-Lyon, Barcelona-Madrid, Frankfurt-Cologne, Tokyo-Osaka, in particular. And even moderate-speed Amtrak service in the Northeast Corridor has significant market share in competition with the airline shuttle services. But these experiences do not support the report's assertion that such corridors offer opportunities to "begin making returns on investment as soon as possible." Based on the best available public information, while rail service in these high-demand corridors covers its operating costs, none covers its capital investment costs, which are paid for largely or entirely by general taxpayers. So what proponents of replacing short-haul air service with rail are actually calling for is heavy taxpayer subsidies for a new mode to compete with self-supporting (user-paid) airline service. It's as if air fares were set to cover only the operating and maintenance costs of that service-letting general taxpayers cover the costs of buying the planes, building the airports, and creating the air traffic control system.

The OECD's Joint Transport Research Center held an expert round table on the subject of airports, airlines, and high-speed rail last October in Paris. The discussion paper summarizing this meeting concluded that, "The benefits from high-speed rail mainly take the form of time savings compared to other modes, and possibly of congestion relief in other modes. Environmental benefits are minor. In fact, the benefits are outweighed by the costs (in particular the high fixed costs), except in cases where there is high density of demand and there are pressing capacity problems in air and road alternatives." (See JTRC Discussion Paper 2009-7 at www.internationaltransportforum.org). It also points out that low-cost carriers (LCCs) can provide services between regions instead of cities, which is what has happened not only in Europe but in short-haul markets in this country.

Consider the greater Los Angeles area, where five airports are linked to three in the San Francisco Bay Area, all with frequent non-stop service, mostly by LCCs. Now compare that with the route map of the proposed $40-60 billion California High Speed Rail system. It shows 10 stations in the Los Angeles metro area and nine in the Bay Area-but only one main line connecting the two regions. While there will presumably be a number of nonstop express trains from, say, Union Station in LA to the huge new station planned for San Francisco, service from most or all of the other metro-area stations will include numerous stops, making it difficult to compete with nonstop air service, say, from Anaheim to Oakland.

So I cannot agree with the Brookings report on this one. And given the likely politics that will govern the actual selection of federally funded passenger rail corridors, they are unlikely to be located where the Brookings researchers suggest.

New Life for Registered Traveler Program

On September 30th, the House Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on transportation security and infrastructure protection held a hearing on the future of the Registered Traveler program. Testifying in favor of reviving the program as a risk-based security program-the original intent of Congress in 2001-were two of three companies interested in reviving the service, two business travel groups, and a major airport organization. Subcommittee chair Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee endorsed revival of the program as a risk-based program, a specified in HR 2200, the House-passed Transportation Security Administration reauthorization bill.

The TSA's John Sammon replied that the agency is awaiting the confirmation of its new Administrator, Erroll Southers, to decide how it will proceed on RT. That requires Senate action, as does enactment of a counterpart to the House bill. Thus far, I have not seen any draft Senate provisions on RT, but this could presumably be addressed at the conference committee stage, even if the Senate bill ends up without addressing the issue.

Three companies have expressed interest in buying the membership records of former Clear provider Verified Identity Pass from creditor Morgan Stanley: FLO Corporation, Henry, Inc., and a third that has not been publicly identified. FLO's Fred Fischer and Henry's Alison Townley both testified at the hearing, and both said they would offer special deals to former Clear members. Townley said her firm would enroll former members at no charge for the balance of their terms with Clear. Fischer said that FLO will partner with a service provider that has 1,000 enrollment locations across the country, making it easier for prospective members to sign up.

Both the Business Travel Coalition and the National Business Travel Association strongly endorsed revival of RT as a risk-based security program that would also offer passengers and airports much speedier checkpoint processing of vetted members. BTC's Kevin Mitchell noted the importance of subjecting applicants to a serious criminal history background check, as well as integrating the program with the ongoing Global Entry program (sometimes referred to as International RT) of Customs & Border Protection, TSA's sister agency. And Fischer noted that under the old TSA program, "not a single RT member was ever vetted using a criminal history records check," a point I have independently verified.

AAAE's Carter Morris noted that a risk-based trusted-traveler program was recommended by the October 2001 Rapid Response Team set up by then-DOT Secretary Norm Mineta, which led to the idea's inclusion in the landmark Aviation & Transportation Security Act of 2001, enacted the following month. This type of RT program was also endorsed by the 9/11 Commission, Morris reminded subcommittee members.

I'm encouraged by the strong level of interest in re-starting Registered Traveler as the kind of security program it was intended to be. I hope the Senate does its part to move the issue along, and I'm looking forward to a positive decision by the new TSA Administrator.

Using Technology to Increase Runway Throughput

Of the large airports on the FAA's list of those needing additional runway capacity, 18 have what are defined as "closely spaced" parallel runways. In clear weather, FAA safety regulations permit simultaneous approaches on those runways, on the basis that pilots can see each other and take action to avoid a collision if one drifts toward the other. But under reduced-visibility conditions, such simultaneous approaches are not permitted, which means runway throughput is dramatically reduced.

In the 1990s, the FAA approved a technology improvement called an e-scan Precision Runway Monitor (PRM) that would permit simultaneous approaches on runways 3,000 feet apart, instead of the usual 4,300 feet. Basically, this was an electronically scanned radar whose update rate was 4 to 5 times faster than old-fashioned rotating radar; hence, it could keep more accurate track of both planes' locations as they made simultaneous approaches. PRMs were installed at only a handful of airports. It's not that they didn't work, but that they were costly to buy and costly to operate.

But a new generation of technology is now here, providing a lower-cost alternative to e-scan PRM. Early this month, the first such system went live at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. Developed by Sensis Corp., it's designed to work with the company's runway incursion prevention system ASDE-X, which is operational so far at 20 of the 35 major airports targeted by the FAA to get this system. Called PRM-A (for alternative), it builds on the detection capability of ASDE-X (which uses both airport surveillance radar and transponder data) by adding wide-area multilateration (WAM), which can keep track of aircraft within 30 nautical miles of the airport, with once-per-second updates. (Multilateration is a kind of triangulation, using an array of sensors over a geographical area.) Although it still requires a separate display (a modified Raytheon STARS platform) and controller in the TRACON, like conventional PRM, the PRM-A costs about half as much to acquire.

That's doubly good news, because the old PRM is no longer in production. Hence, for the 18 airports with closely spaced parallel runways, the cost of adding this capacity is now significantly less than it used to be. And those few airports with aging PRMs and very limited availability of spare parts now have an option for replacing them with new and better technology.

Thus far, the FAA has approved PRM-A only for runways as closely spaced as 3,000 feet, but some of the 18 airports on FAA's list have runways closer together than that. A 2005 paper presented at the24th Digital Avionics Conference in 2005 argued that for aircraft equipped with ADS-B/In, spacing could be reduced to as little as 750 feet. (This is reference 14 in Viggo Butler, "Increasing Airport Capacity without Increasing Airport Size," http://reason.org/news/show/1002975.html.) It should be a priority for FAA and companies like Sensis to figure out what it would take to permit safe simultaneous approaches to all the remaining runways-and to start planning to do so.

Unionization and TSA Screeners

One of the original provisions of the 2001 Aviation & Transportation Security Act was that due to the critical nature of their work, the newly created federal airport screening workforce would not be allowed to form unions or go on strike. That provision was not popular with unions or their supporters in Congress, but with a Republican in the White House until this year, the odds of changing the law (i.e., of being able to override a presidential veto) looked slim.

That was then; this is now. Two House committees-Oversight & Government Reform and Homeland Security-have recently approved legislation by Rep. Nita Lowey (D, NY) to grant collective bargaining power to most TSA employees. The move is strongly supported by the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union. While I have nothing against unions in general, I think it would be a mistake to change the status quo in the field of airport security. Here's why.

Thanks to various audits and reports from both the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General's Office, we know that there are ongoing performance problems in airport screening. Red-team efforts to sneak prohibited items through airport screening succeed more often than not. Failure rates on TSA's skills test for screeners have exceeded 50% this year, and go as high as 80% at some airports, but in response, both unions urged TSA to suspend use of those tests! AFGE is also seeking to have TSA clear the records of those who fail the tests, because screener compensation is tied in part to performance. In addition, employees who seriously fail can be (and are being) fired, and under current rules cannot be rehired. But wiping those failures from employee records could permit those who were fired to be rehired.

These union pressures are being exerted today from the outside; they would be a lot more effective if the unions officially represented TSA screeners from the inside. It seems to me that airport screening is already a weak link in the chain (as demonstrated by the red team results and the skills test failures). The last thing we need is institutional arrangements that would further weaken screener performance and accountability.


New Developments in Los Angeles Airport Leases Struggle

I last reported on the ongoing struggle between Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), proprietor of LAX, and various airline tenants back in Issue No. 25, in April 2007. Recent months have seen two important developments in this saga, both of which move LAX further toward a market-based model for airport fees and charges and away from the once-standard residual-cost approach under which the larger airlines (those who signed up to long-term lease and use agreements) gained control over their facilities and only paid the "residual" costs of using the airport (what was left to be paid for after all non-airline revenue were taken into account). This approach was dropped for airside charges in the 1990s under Mayor Richard Riordan (though not without big-time litigation). Recent battles have concerned the landside charges-essentially space rentals.

In August the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in favor of LAWA in a case brought by the mostly low-cost-carriers using Terminals 1 and 3 (Alaska, AirTran, Frontier, Midwest, Southwest, and USAirways). They had argued that LAWA's decision to increase their rental rates was discriminatory, because signatory airlines under long-term lease agreements were not getting their rates increased. The court tossed that silly argument, upholding a prior decision by U.S. DOT that the fees were not discriminatory, since LAWA plans to do likewise for the other airlines once their current leases expire.

But the court also ordered DOT to consider the Terminal 1 and 3 airlines' argument that LAX has monopoly power. That's a pretty amazing claim for those domestic, relatively short-haul carriers to make, since there are four other airports in the greater LA area, all of which serve LCCs providing similar types of service. But that loose end remains until DOT responds.

Another big decision was announced October 6th, concerning Terminals 7 and 8. The airport had sold bonds to pay for rebuilding those terminals in time for the 1984 Olympics, but bankrupt United Airlines had not made all the required debt service payments. LAWA has now reached a settlement with United and UMB Bank (as indenture trustee for the bondholders) over paying off $94 million in bondholder claims. LAWA and United settled on $75 million, with LAWA on the hook for the larger share. Under the deal, United will gradually shift to new market-based rental rates by 2014, while LAWA will regain full control of Terminals 7 and 8 and be able to implement a unified capital charge for all terminal facilities in the future. The deal is subject to approval by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and also by the LAWA board and the LA City Council.

Changing from an old paradigm to a new one is never easy or painless, but it looks as if LAX is nearing the end of this long struggle to gain control of its future.GAO Rips TSA Over Flawed Access Control Pilot Program

I don't enjoy dumping on the TSA, but when the Government Accountability Office says, in very diplomatic language, "You blew it," I feel obligated to summarize their findings in plain language. In Issue No. 36 (June 2008), I reported that TSA had persuaded Congress to hold off on imposing a costly mandate that all airport employees undergo physical screening (like airline passengers) every time they moved between an airport's public areas and its secure areas, whether in the terminal or on the ramp. TSA promised a pilot program that would test various alternatives to 100% screening to see whether equivalent results could be achieved via less-costly methods.

Well, last month GAO issued its report, innocuously titled "Aviation Security: A National Strategy and Other Actions Would Strengthen TSA's Efforts to Secure Commercial Airport Perimeters and Access Controls." (GAO-09-399 at www.gao.gov) But don't let the title dissuade you: the meat of the report is GAO analysts ripping to shreds this so-called pilot program. The one-page summary is bad enough, with statements like this: "[C]lear conclusions could not be drawn because of significant design limitations, and TSA did not document key aspects of the pilot. . . . Because of severe limitations in the design and evaluation of the pilot, . . . it is unclear which method is more cost-effective."

You have to plow through 15 or 20 pages until you get to the heart of the critique. First, GAO reminds us that TSA itself in its 2008 Civil Aviation Threat Assessment cited the threat from airport insiders (i.e., "airport workers with access to secured areas")as "one of the greatest threats to aviation." Then, starting on p. 26, it describes four actions TSA has taken on this issue. In addition to the pilot program on employee screening, it began a separate program of random employee screening called ADASP, put in place more-stringent requirements for employee background checks, and began work on biometric credentialing.

The pilot program to compare 100% screening with random screening was flawed in that (1) it included only seven airports, (2) it lasted only 90 days, (3) it used a variety of techniques, making it hard to compare airports, (4) it had no baseline, and (5) there was limited evaluation of enhanced methods. In addition, there were "significant limitations on the estimated costs and effects of implementing either 100% or random screening nationwide." Thus, while the contractor that did the evaluation reported that random screening was more cost-effective, GAO says no such conclusion can be drawn from such limited and inconsistent results.

The Aviation Direct Access Screening Program (ASASP) is even more of a mess. Here GAO cites an October 2008 report by the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on how supposedly random screening was actually being carried out in the field. "[A]t most of the seven airports the DHS OIG visited, ADASP screening stations were set up in front of worker access points, which allowed workers to identify that ADASP was being implemented and potentially choose another entry and avoid being screened." Supposedly that defect is in the process of being corrected.

It's hard to know whether to laugh at this obvious incompetence or to cry, in light of the seriousness of airport vulnerability to rogue employees (such as those at Orlando in 2007 who smuggled guns and drugs onto planes at night so they could be transported to Puerto Rico the next morning-but who could instead have been planting bombs).

Two things are clear to me, eight years after the ATSA legislation creating the TSA. First, the agency is devoting a disproportionate share of its resources to passenger and baggage screening, at the expense of lobby security, employee access control, and perimeter security. Second, divided responsibility for airport security (with TSA directly providing screening but a variety of other parties doing the other tasks) is far from optimal. Since TSA is the nation's aviation security policy-maker and regulator, it would be far better for it to do that job full-time, with each airport having undivided responsibility for implementing all airport security tasks (including screening), under TSA's regulatory oversight. But until Congress is willing to make that kind of major change, we're going to remain stuck with the dysfunctional status quo.

News Notes

New Report on Airport Cross-Subsidies

Hard on the heels of last month's USA Today investigation of Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants comes a new report from the SubsidyScope project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Overall, it confirms the large degree of cross-subsidy built into AIP, whose funding (entirely from the Aviation Trust Fund) comes 64% from airline passengers but whose grants to large and medium hubs (which serve the large majority of all passengers) account for only 33% of AIP spending. The report includes a searchable database on AIP expenditures from FY2005 through FY2008, including data on $/enplanement and each grant project's National Priority Rating. Go to: http://subsidyscope.com/projects/transportation/aip.

Going Beyond Current Airport Noise Programs

U.S. airports are required to mitigate noise that falls within a contour defined by the Day-Night Average Noise Level (DNL) 65, but some airports have gone beyond that in order to get expansion projects approved. The Airport Cooperative Research Program's Synthesis 16 provides an overview of U.S. airport noise practice in areas outside DNL 65. The researchers surveyed airport staff regarding such cases; in addition to presenting the survey results, the report provides two case studies. (http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/acrp/acrp_syn_016.pdf)

Atlanta Deploys Aerobahn System

Another airport that is equipped with the Sensis Corp. ASDE-X system for monitoring aircraft and vehicles on the ground to prevent runway incursions, has implemented the company's Aerobahn software that permits airlines and airport managers to collaborate on airport operational decisions, with common, real-time data on where all aircraft and ground vehicles are. Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the world's busiest airport. Aerobahn is also in use by JFK and Seattle-Tacoma airports, and by selected airlines at Newark Liberty, Houston Intercontinental, Detroit Metro, and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Overseas airport deployments include Orly and DeGaulle in Paris and Hong Kong International.

Shoe Removals Not Required at Checkpoints

It's true-that annoying requirement that you take off your shoes and put them on the belt does not apply . . . in Canada. (Actually, on my two trips to Europe earlier this year, I noticed people not removing their shoes in Germany and Sweden, either.) In fact, the recent Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) bulletin on this subject, obtained last month by The Canadian Press under a freedom of information request, did not represent a change of policy. "It sounds new but it's not. It's always been the case since 2001," said Mathieu Larocque of CATSA. "We sent that reminder to make sure we're consistent." There is one exception, however. Air travelers heading for the United States must remove their shoes, to comply with U.S. security regulations.

Rio Airport to be Privatized Before Olympics

The main airport in Rio de Janeiro, the city which was just awarded the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, will be privatized before then, the government announced on October 6th. It turns out that the weakest factor in Rio's selection was the poor quality of Galeao International Airport, the country's largest. The Center for Asia Pacific Aviation reports that the government's privatization council said the terms of the privatization and a schedule are still being developed. The issue was raised last year by state governor Sergio Cabral, citing the need to correct the problems of "unsatisfactory infrastructure, poor airport services, and ineffective management."

Quotable Quote

"The imperative to move forward with some sort of 'trusted traveler' program will only increase as traffic begins to return to the aviation system, which most analysts agree will happen in the near future. Prior to the economic downturn, the situation at many airports was approaching unbearable, with growing lines at screening checkpoints frustrating passengers and creating a dangerous safety and security situation. While the temporary downturn in traffic has pushed many of these problems to the back burner, there is little doubt that they will soon return-making it all the more important that we are here today discussing a concept that holds tremendous promise in enhancing security while improving efficiency in the airport environment."

--Carter Morris, Senior Vice President, Transportation Security Policy, American Association of Airport Executives, testifying before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, Sept. 30, 2009.

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





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