Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #13

Topics include: homeland security priorities, the future of airport screening, paying for aviation security, expanding the registered traveler program, the arrival of better EDS technology, and other news.

In this issue:

Security Priorities Getting Attention

One of the most chilling articles I’ve read in a long time is Richard Clarke’s “Ten Years Later” in the January/February 2005 Atlantic Monthly-a fictionalized account of the next 10 years of the war on terror here at home. Clarke’s very believable scenarios walk the reader through a coordinated attack on casinos in five states, via suicide bombers; attacks on several large malls via machine-gun wielding terrorists, a day of subway bombings; attacks on key freight rail lines via improvised explosive devices (IEDs); the shooting down of several passenger planes with anti-aircraft missiles; a cyber attack on utilities and infrastructure; and 9/11-style suicide-plane attacks on chemical plants, carried out via business jet. Even more chilling than the attacks themselves is the resulting government crackdowns that ride roughshod over civil liberties.

On a more positive note is the article immediately following Clarke’s, by James Fallows, “Success without Victory.” It’s an attempt to step back and put the whole terrorism threat in perspective, beginning with a complete rethink of the reactive policy adopted in the wake of 9/11 that led to creation of the Transportation Security Administration and the huge over-emphasis on airport screening. Fallows notes that TSA devotes 80 percent of its $5.3 billion budget to airport screening, even though it is nominally responsible for all the rest of transportation as well-roads, bridges, subways, tunnels, railroads, ports, etc. He quotes several experts who maintain (as I do) that the $4 billion spent on screening “could make Americans safer if it were applied more broadly in transportation-reinforcing bridges, establishing escape routes from tunnels, installing call boxes,” etc.

Fallows echoes this newsletter in calling for “a systematic vulnerability study,” noting that “The country should prevent attacks where it can; but everywhere else it should concentrate on rebound capacity, so that when defenses break down, as they inevitably will, the damage can be contained.” In other words, we need a strategy of resiliency rather than target-hardening. And he faults the Department of Homeland Security for failing to set priorities. “By acting as if everyone poses an equal threat or is in equal danger . . . the department avoids making choices about which risks are most important.”

Fortunately, more influential voices are being raised along these lines. Former ambassador Edward Rowney, on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page (Dec. 20, 2004) called for DHS to create a policy undersecretary and argued for dispensing federal security monies based on risk rather than pork-barrel considerations. Warren Rudman and Gary Hart, who co-chaired the US Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, voiced similar views in a Dec. 16 WSJ op-ed. And in early February, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D, NJ) said he would be introducing legislation calling for risk-based spending priorities. His call was seconded by Sens. Carl Levin (D, MI) and Pete Domenici (R, NM).

In mid-February the DHS Inspector General—s Office released an audit on port security grants, which reinforced these points. Although 95% of all international commerce arrives here via 360 ports, some 80% of that trade comes in via just 10 ports. Yet port grants were spread around in the typical pork-barrel fashion, including —ports— in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It will take more than a handful of big-state Senators to overcome Congress—s natural tendency to spread the money around. But if DHS would step up to the plate with serious, risk-based priorities, the odds of success would improve.

By the way, an excellent report on the increasingly pork-barrel nature of homeland security funding is “What Does Homeland Security Spending Buy,” by Veronique de Rugy at American Enterprise Institute. It’s online at,pubID.21483/pub_detail.asp.

» return to top

Future of Airport Screening Up for Grabs

Leaders in both houses of Congress are starting to question whether devoting the lion’s share of TSA’s budget to passenger and checked-baggage screening is the best use of limited resources-and whether federal employees should be doing the screening.

At Senate Commerce Committee hearings in mid-February, Chairman Ted Stevens (R, AK) opined, “I’m not sure screening is in time with the future. Do we really need to spend more money on knives and nail files?” Ranking Democrat Daniel Inouye (D, HI) said he and Stevens plan to introduce legislation to refocus DHS and TSA priorities. In response to a question from Sen. John McCain (R, AZ), TSA’s David Stone repeated the conventional wisdom that the bulk of the money is going to commercial aviation because that’s where the greatest threat is (ignoring the kinds of plausible non-aviation scenarios sketched out by Richard Clarke in his Atlantic article, discussed above).

Several competing views are emerging on what TSA’s role should be. A Washington Post assessment of the Bush administration’s budget proposal says the agency “faces large-scale dismantling” under the proposal, with Secure Flight, Registered Traveler, Transportation Worker Identity Credential, and US VISIT all being shifted to a new DHS office called Screening Coordination and Operations. That would leave TSA largely as a manager of 45,000 federal security screeners. And Rand Corp. analyst Michael Wermuth called for TSA to be given “operational missions and not policy development.”

But the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee would move in the opposite direction. As recommended by this newsletter, Rep. John Mica (R, FL) announced plans February 1st for legislation to get TSA out of the screening business altogether. Under this proposal, TSA would become primarily a transportation security policymaker and regulator, rather than a direct provider of security services. That would remove its inherent conflict of interest as both service provider and regulator, and it would facilitate a shift of focus to all modes of transportation rather than almost exclusively aviation. Airports would take over all airport-specific security functions, ending today’s divided responsibilities (between TSA doing screening and the airport doing access control, perimeter protection, etc.). All would be under TSA oversight.

It’s good to see debate on TSA’s role and functions finally emerging.

» return to top

Who Should Pay for Aviation Security?

US airlines are adamantly opposed to the Administration’s proposal to increase the security tax on airline tickets from its current $2.50 one-way to $5.50, with a new cap of $8.00 for a multi-leg one-way trip (up from $5.00). Their concern is that today’s fierce competition makes it impossible for them to pass along the added cost to the passenger, making the additional $3 per flight yet another tax on hard-pressed airlines. As a public policy point, they argue that aviation security is really part of national defense, and hence should be paid for by all taxpayers.

The TSA defends the increase as putting the cost of aviation security on the aviation industry. With the increased security tax on tickets, plus the $350 million they expect to take in an existing security tax levied directly on the airlines, the total would cover nearly 90% of TSA’s aviation security costs.

How do we sort out what makes sense here? Most economists would say that general taxpayers should pay for things (like national defense) that are truly “public goods”-i.e., if they are provided at all, they are provided to and benefit everyone. And that individuals and companies should pay for private goods-things which largely or entirely benefit them. Given all the potential targets terrorists could strike-shopping malls, casinos, power plants, ports, chemical plants, etc.-I think it makes better sense to have each owner decide how much to harden that target and bear the attendant costs (which will generally be passed through to its customers). In a risky world, that’s generally how we allocate resources.

But there is one complication when it comes to airplanes, especially large ones like airliners. As we saw on 9/11/01, given the reality of suicidal terror fanatics, such planes can be turned into guided missiles of horrible destructiveness to third parties. Railroads already bear the risks that a tank car may explode, and subways bear the risks of collisions. Likewise, airlines bear the risks of crashes. But there is something different about the airliner-as-guided missile scenario that, in my view, moves this beyond the normal responsibilities of a property owner. It’s appropriate for the feds to have paid for strengthening cockpit doors and to be providing arms-training for pilots, to defend the country against this threat.

But the Administration’s desire to load a $4 billion tax burden onto airlines and their customers ought to focus greater scrutiny on the wisdom of spending that kind of sum on (mostly) passenger and baggage screening, after the cockpits have already been largely secured (and could be further secured at modest additional cost). It’s overdoing it on screening, not the tax, that ought to be the object of criticism.

» return to top

Registered Traveler Program Expanding

As long as we’re stuck with airport screening, we can only hope that the option to bypass its worst features get implemented as soon as possible. So I’m glad to report that private-sector expansion of the Registered Traveler program is getting close. Orlando International Airport will announce its choice of private provider in April, and quite a few other airports are looking into similar deals.

And in January, then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge announced the first approved overseas participant, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. The initial program will be offered to frequent flyers between JFK and Schiphol, and should be followed by many others, as implied in Ridge’s comments to the Associated Press: “The main advantage to the United States will come if this program successfully and efficiently moves traffic through, and other countries say: ‘We ought to apply this on a much broader basis.'”

Perhaps increased global interaction will lead to further streamlining of the kinds of screening applied to the pre-cleared RT participants. Besides not having to take off your shoes and jacket, it sure would be great to leave the laptop in your bag. It turns out TSA has never offered a credible justification for its requirement that all travelers take out their laptops and send them through separately. It’s especially odd since most major European and Asian airports (Heathrow, Frankfurt, Zurich, Hong Kong, for example) do not require routine laptop removal. The least TSA could do is to spare Registered Travelers from this extra hassle.

» return to top

Better Explosive Detection Technology, Finally

At last, TSA has certified some additional explosive detection system (EDS) machines. And its R&D effort on better technologies seems to be moving forward.

January saw three new systems get their certifications. One is a faster version of L-3’s main CTX machine, this one called the Examiner 3DX 6500. In an in-line installation (i.e., fed by a proper conveyor system), it can process up to 600 bags an hour, a big improvement over the 450 that’s typical of today’s in-line systems (and about 180/hour for stand-alone, lobby-installed machines).

But the next two are more interesting because they represent somewhat different technological approaches. The Reveal company’s Phoenix CT-80 uses electronics rather than rotating machinery to do its computed tomography; that makes for a smaller, less-expensive machine. TSA is buying eight of them for more detailed, year-long testing. (ENSCO, Inc. has also developed a no-moving parts tomography machine called SureScan, but it has not yet received certification.) Reveal’s Phoenix competes with the InVision Argus 4 in the smaller, lower-priced EDS category. And TSA also certified the first non-CT machine in January: the GE Yxlon XES 3000R used X-ray diffraction, which identifies not the density of a possible explosive (as does CT) but its chemical composition. Six European airports and the Israeli Airport Authority have already ordered this system.

TSA’s R&D program has two projects to develop better EDS technology. Project Phoenix seeks upgrades to the systems already installed at airports—increased throughput, greater accuracy, etc. The next-generation stuff is being sought under Manhattan II, which recently awarded contracts to nine teams. Two of the more interesting would use terahertz technology and neutron beam analysis. The Smiths/Teraview team will work on a machine that uses the terahertz portion of the spectrum (between microwave and infrared) to discern the chemical composition of possible explosives. And Hi-Energy Technologies will pursue its technology to hit the luggage with a neutron beam, analyzing the resulting gamma rays to determine the material’s chemical composition. The company has just sold one machine to Spain, after demonstrating it at a NATO symposium last fall.

» return to top

Reason Debate on Aviation Security

The March issue of Reason features a sort of debate between me and privacy analyst Jim Harper of the Cato Institute on aviation security. You can find it at

» return to top


“[I]f they let us (in Congress) write the security provisions for rail and for sea and for highway, we’ll screw it up. We did it with TSA, and I can show you where that’s been probably the worst piece of legislation.”

– Rep. Don Young (R, AK), Chairman, House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Traffic World, Feb. 14, 2005.

“Capitalize on the private sector. That’s the key here. Let TSA set the standard, but let the private sector incentivize that.”

– Admiral David Stone, Asst. Secretary for Homeland Security, discussing the Registered Traveler program with Carter Morris, American Association of Airport Executives, Dec. 2, 2004 (video interview on AAAE website).