Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #11

Topics include: security flaws identified in the 9/11 Commission report, compensated secondary screening, alternative baggage handling, Congressman Mica's critique of TSA, congressional innumeracy, and other news.

In this issue:

9/11 Commission Spotlights Underlying Security Flaws

The long-awaited report of the 9/11 Commission report was a breath of fresh air to those of us who’ve been arguing for the past three years for a risk-based approach to transportation security. First of all, it called attention to the egregious over-emphasis on aviation at the expense of other modes, with over 90% of transportation security spending now devoted just to aviation. “TSA has developed neither an integrated strategic plan for the transportation sector nor specific plans for the various modes,” vice chairman Lee Hamilton told the Senate Commerce Committee last month. The report says the government should conduct risk-based assessments of infrastructure, figuring out the largest vulnerabilities, assessing what could realistically be done about them, and setting spending priorities accordingly. Earlier this year, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Infrastructure Subcommittee, Rep. Chris Cox, questioned whether TSA should have responsibilities beyond aviation security, given its narrow focus thus far.

To give just one of any number of examples of possibly misplaced priorities, cargo security expert Stephen Flynn has suggested that if terrorists blew up a cargo container in a harbor, the global merchandise trade system might be shut down, with multi-billion-dollar consequences. He estimates the cost of a meaningful port security upgrade as $700 million. Yet thus far neither TSA nor its parent Dept. of Homeland Security has committed anything like that amount to port security, but they are devoting up to $10 billion[!] to the U.S.-VISIT program to identify foreign visitors.

Turning to aviation security, the Commission’s report picks up on several themes discussed in this newsletter. One is the huge inconsistency between requiring 100% explosives screening of checked bags but accepting ordinary X-raying of carry-ons, and not searching people for explosives or other dangerous objects. The idea of suicide bombers boarding planes is no longer theoretical, after the two crashes in Russia apparently brought about in this manner. Yes, TSA is now testing “sniffer” portals at five airports, but they are much too slow to be used for every passenger. So once again, we come face-to-face with the need to “profile”-i.e., to use available information to single out those passengers about whom (1) very little is known, so it is not clear they are ordinary, law-abiding people, and (2) enough is known to make them suspicious characters. (Some further thoughts on dealing with such situations are presented in the next news item, below)

On at least one of the Commission’s recommendations, the TSA is reacting quickly. By year-end it will replace the present system (largely unchanged since 9/11) under which airlines check passenger names against a woefully incomplete set of watch lists provided to them by the TSA. Many watch lists have been considered too sensitive to disseminate to thousands of airline reservations and ticket-counter agents. So as soon as the procedures can be worked out with the airlines, the TSA itself will do the checking, against all the watch lists, informing the airline that a passenger is either cleared, needs secondary screening, or should be barred from flying.

The Commission also echoed our call for speedy transition to in-line checked-baggage explosive-detection systems, arguing correctly that the labor cost savings will repay the one-time equipment and installation costs. But whether the Administration and Congress can think beyond one budget year at a time remains to be seen.

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Single People Out, But Compensate Them

One of my favorite economists is Steven Landsburg of the University of Rochester. His forte is applying economic thinking in common-sense ways to real-world problems. In a column on Slate last month (Aug. 4, 2004), he responded to the widely publicized report by Annie Jacobson about being terrified by 14 Middle Eastern men who exhibited suspicious behavior on her Northwest Airlines flight. Jacobson’s brief was that a group of 14 Middle Eastern men, traveling together, ought to have been singled out for screening before they boarded.

While sensitive to the civil liberties implications of doing that, Landsburg makes the valid point that “detaining 14 Middle Eastern men is neither more nor less an inringement of their civil liberties than detaining 14 passengers chosen at random. Either way, 14 people have their liberty infringed.” But he goes on to make the sensible point that “if you’re going to detain 14 people, they should at least be the 14 people who are statistically most likely to be worth detaining.”

But he doesn’t stop there. Acknowledging that detaining and questioning people is “a burden, it’s inconvenient, and it’s demeaning,” he suggests that they be compensated with $100 apiece. He proposes that the airlines provide this compensation, but it seems to me that since we’ve all agreed that protecting America from terrorism is part of national defense, such compensation should be one component of TSA’s aviation security portfolio. And if it were a budgetary item, then we’d be forced to weigh the value of (compensated) secondary screening against other possible priorities (such as 100% checked baggage screening).

Actually, at $100 a pop, Landsberg’s proposal could be pretty expensive. With a year-round average of 30,000 flights a day, and assuming an average of five secondary screenings per flight, that adds up to about $5 billion a year. Maybe instead of a flat $100, there should be several compensation levels, depending on the degree of intrusiveness of the screening. And if TSA ever comes up with an acceptable CAPPS II that delivers on its promise of cutting way back on the need for secondary screening, that would also slash away at that $5 billion estimate.

Don’t dismiss the idea just because that’s a big number. Singling out some passengers for intrusive scrutiny has real costs. The only question is who ends up bearing them.

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New Services May Take Bags Out of Screening Peak Times

One reason TSA needs an army of screeners is that most checked-baggage screening is highly labor intensive. (That’s why shifting to networked in-line systems is cost-effective.) But another reason is that there are huge workload peaks, when mountains of bags have to be processed in a short period of time. And since TSA has done poorly at hiring part-timers to staff up for those peaks, its screener body count is based largely on the need to cope with those peak periods.

But what if some of those bags could be diverted from peak periods? That’s what a growing number of niche-market services may accomplish. That’s not their aim, but it could be a consequence of their efforts to give people new choices about checked baggage. The high end of this market is alternative delivery: for a hefty fee, the company will pick up your suitcase a day in advance and ship it by Fedex or DHL to your destination, saving you the hassle of lugging bags. I just got a promotion from Citicard AAdvantage offering free access once a year (for two bags or 70 pounds) to the services of Luggage Express, one of these high-end providers. (It’s ironic that American is encouraging AAdvantage members to bypass its own baggage system.)

The less-elite version of alternative baggage handling allows you to check in your bags early, at your hotel, so you don’t have to take them with you to the airport. In many cases, this means the bags will get to the airport before the crunch time, easing the load on the screening system. Baggage Airline Guest Services (BAGS) has such a system in operation in Orlando and recently expanded to Boston, where some attendees at the Democratic National Convention were able to use it. ARINC has introduced a secure work-station that can issue boarding passes and bag claim-checks for multiple airlines, at airports and at off-site locations such as hotels. Already in operation at Las Vegas’s McCarran Airport, it’s planned for installation in several Vegas hotels this fall.

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Mica Calls for Rethinking TSA’s Role

In a full-page “Viewpoint” column in Aviation Week, House Aviation Subcommittee chairman John Mica (R, FL) has responded to the 9/11 Commission’s report by calling for sweeping changes in the role of the Transportation Security Administration (see Aviation Week, August 23/30, 2004, p. 73). Paraphrasing the Commission’s report, Mica says it found that “TSA must change its focus and direct its attention and resources in ways that will address the highest risks . . . . The federal government should focus on policy, setting standards, and conducting oversight.” He emphasizes the cost-effectiveness of in-line explosive-detection systems, as opposed to “the inefficient, poorly performing, and labor-intensive system we have in place now.” He contrasts the billions spent each year screening passengers and bags with the largely unaddressed problem of airport access control.

But his most sweeping critique is directed at TSA’s operating a 45,000-person screener workforce. “Problems with this centralized, Soviet-style, command-and-control operation have raised serious concerns in Congress. Our aviation security system needs a common-sense decentralized screening program. With the overarching security standards set at the federal level, hiring, training, and scheduling of personnel can be handled by individual airports.” He goes on to cite the positive findings on the performance of the five pilot screening programs operated by private contractors to argue that “a reformed federal system must allow for flexibility, efficiency, cost savings, and private-sector innovation.”

That’s a clarion call for the TSA to broaden the guidelines of its Opt-Out program, as discussed in the previous issue of this newsletter. But whether the legislation authorizing Opt-Out grants TSA enough room to do what Mica wants is a good question. And it certainly does not permit TSA to get out of the screening business, shifting to the role Mica recommends: setting policy and conducting oversight. As I’ve written previously, that would remove the agency’s built-in conflict of interest, as it tries to both provide airport security and regulate airport security. Congress really should revisit this issue in 2005.

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Numbers-Challenged Congresspersons

Last month’s flap over how many (or rather, how few) flights actually have air marshals on board unearthed an egregious example of congressional innumeracy. In reporting the story, Washington Times reporter Audrey Hudson went back to the Congressional Record debates shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. In debate on beefing up the then-tiny Federal Air Marshal Service, Rep. Don Young (R, AK) said, “We expect, before this is over, there will be two marshals on every airplane.” Not to be outdone, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, CA), emphasized, “I think there ought to be air marshals on every plane, not just random – on every single plane.”

Uh-huh. Let’s do the math. The daily average number of airline flights is around 30,000. According to air marshals and pilots cited in the story, the current complement of about 3,500 air marshals is adequate to protect between 500 and 1,000 of those flights per day (taking into consideration hours worked, days off, sick leave, training, etc.). Thus, to expand coverage to all flights would require about 140,000 air marshals. At about $62K apiece in payroll costs, that’s a cool $8.7 billion a year (not counting administration, training, travel, and other expenses). At least $9 billion, all told.

With all the hue and cry about screener numbers (leading to a congressionally imposed ceiling of 45,000), can you imagine what it would take to hire 140,000 air marshals at $9 billion a year, indefinitely? Yet this is just the kind of ill-informed posturing that goes on repeatedly, whether the subject is 100% cargo inspection or requiring anti-missile systems on all airliners. Fortunately, only a few of these howlers have made it into legislation, but even that is too many. Legislate-first, analyze-later is a lousy way to make public policy.

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News Notes

TSA Posts Waiting Times. Kudos to TSA for creating a user-friendly way to find out the average waiting time at passenger screening checkpoints. I’ve tried out their new site (, and it was quick and easy to use. My only complaint is that you have to be familiar with the airport in question to know which checkpoint is which. I have no idea how accurate the posted data are, but they show times for each hour of each day. Checking this site is certainly better than blindly adding an extra hour to your planned airport time.

DCA Prima Donnas. Don’t know if you caught it, but several months ago Aviation Week posted a list of those politicos who use their clout to get permission to fly in and out of Reagan National Airport in private planes – despite the fact that general aviation has been banned from DCA ever since 9/11. The all-time worst offender? Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia (46 flights). The runners-up, in order, are Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia (26), Gov. George Pataki of New York (24), Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida (16), and Sen. John Kerry (14).

United Defends Cockpits. Responding to concerns by pilots and others about the continued vulnerability of cockpits whenever the doors are opened in flight for meals or potty breaks, United has announced plans to install lockable steel barriers between the cabin and the forward lavatory, to block access to the cockpit area when its door is open. The barrier will be installed on all 500 planes in its fleet.

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