Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #16

Topics include: resiliency vs. target-hardening in disaster preparedness; dumping rinky-dink screening; secondary cockpit doors on United; fixing up the opt-out program; and other news.

In this issue:

Disaster Preparedness: Resiliency vs. Target-Hardening

One useful result of the horribly botched response to the hurricane in New Orleans is a new appreciation of the need for comprehensive, detailed disaster planning-and the means to carry out those plans. Critics have pointed out that with hurricanes, at least we have several days’ warning. But with a terrorist attack (e.g., on a chemical plant or a set of hospitals) there would likely be no notice at all. One would have hoped that, four years after 9/11 and after spending more than $100 billion on homeland security, America’s cities would be better prepared to cope with disasters (whether natural or intentional).

Beyond all the finger-pointing of who did or didn’t do what in this case, let’s step back and ask the larger question: why hasn’t there been more serious focus on disaster preparedness? In Issue #9 of this newsletter, I criticized the emphasis Congress (and hence the Department of Homeland Security) have devoted to a strategy of target-hardening. Even if we could dump the ridiculous over-emphasis on airline security and put more efforts into other potential targets (ports, transit systems, chemical plants, etc.), that would still be a losing game-plan, I wrote. Why? Because the number of potential targets is practically infinite, and we can’t afford to devote the entire GDP to hardening them.

A smarter approach, I said, was disaster preparedness. “There’s no way to know which targets terrorists will strike, but it’s pretty likely they will keep trying to find and attack soft targets. So we should be doing a much better job of being prepared to save as many lives as possible in the aftermath.”

I don’t mean to imply that the DHS has done nothing about disaster preparedness. For example, according to a Washington Post article (Sept. 11, 2005), more than $2 billion has been spent by all levels of government to protect the nation’s capital-including evacuation plans and even partial tests of such plans. And some cities (e.g., Houston ) have done better jobs of this than others. That’s all well and good.

Yet we learned in Katrina’s wake that local first-responders still could not communicate with other agencies to coordinate their efforts, despite boatloads of federal grants to improve the emergency-response capabilities of first-responders. But when you lift the lid on how Congress has doled out those funds, it turns out to be politics as usual. Instead of allocating the money based on relative risk and magnitude of likely harm, Congress created a formula to give every state its “fair share” of the first-responder money. Thus, the Modesto Bee reported in August that the Chowchilla Fire Department will be using its grant money to buy a thermal imaging camera, along with new hoses and nozzles. Volunteer fire departments throughout California’s Central Valley will now be upgrading their equipment. How nice for them—but this is hardly strategic investment in disaster preparedness.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has been pushing since last spring to change the formula to distribute the money based on relative threat potential, rather than population. The Gulf Coast disasters may give a boost to this worthy goal—but don’t bet on it.

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Can We Please Dump Rinky-Dink Screening?

The new head of the Transportation Security Administration, Kip Hawley, released a trial balloon in August about possibly getting rid of some of the pointless banning of objects at passenger screening checkpoints. Since hardened cockpit doors and changed crew protocols for dealing with hijackers have made that crime virtually impossible to carry out, TSA staff suggested no longer banning scissors, razor blades, small knives, etc. and even letting people bring along sports gear such as bows and arrows. Also up for discussion is ending mandatory shoe removal and reducing the factors causing people to be selected for pat-downs.

Also being discussed is a proposal from the Air Line Pilots Association that the 100,000 U.S. airline pilots not have to go through regular screening once they are equipped with biometric ID cards verifying who they really are. ALPA estimates that eliminating 24 million pilot screenings a year would save about $112 million from the annual TSA screening budget.

One of the most tragic examples of the absurdity of today’s over-emphasis on passenger screening took place during the evacuation of New Orleans . A number of airlines had volunteered planes and, along with the Air Force, had begun flying desperate refugees out of Louis Armstrong International Airport -until FEMA arrived and took over. The Federal Emergency Management Agency insisted that nobody could board planes until the TSA arrived and screened the passengers. Without electricity, the metal detectors and X-ray machines could not be used, so every single one of these desperate people had to be patted down by TSA screeners. And yes, of course, quite a few of them had knives or hand guns with them, given the law-of-the-jungle conditions some were escaping from. But give me a break! This was a life-threatening emergency. Those being flown out on Air Force C-17s did not have seat belts or life vests or even seat cushions to use as floatation devices—they sat in rows on the bare cargo floor! (see photo on p. 21 of Aviation Week, Sept. 12, 2005).

My hat’s off to Kip Hawley for starting the process of rethinking this nonsense. Let’s hope Congress ignores the emotional pleas of the “Families of Sept. 11” who are staunchly defending the ridiculous status quo.

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United Adds Secondary Cockpit Doors

Two years ago, back in Issue #6, I noted the efforts of airline pilot Bob Semprini, who was challenging the notion that we’ve made planes hijack-proof by installing greatly strengthened doors on all cockpits. That’s true as long as the door stays locked during the entire flight, but as you know from observing things when you fly, when the captain’s gotta go, she’s gotta go-and that means the door gets opened twice. It may also be opened to deliver food or drink to the cockpit crew, and pick up the empties. On most flights I’ve been on the past two years, flight attendants park a service cart (if there is one) to block the forward lavatory area, but that’s not much protection. So Semprini circulated his designs for adding a second door to the forward area, so that the area near the forward lav could be closed off from the cabin when the cockpit door needed to be opened in flight.

I’m pleased to report that United Airlines, despite its struggles to cut costs as part of its bankruptcy proceedings, is proceeding to add secondary doors to its fleet. Aviation Daily reported (Aug. 11, 2005) that so far the process has been completed on 70 Boeing 757s, and is on track to do likewise on all 737s and 747s by the end of 2006. To the best of UA’s knowledge (and mine), they are the only major airline in the world that has done this, at least so far. That’s certainly one reason to choose UA over other carriers, and I hope it spurs others to go and do likewise.

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Fixing the Screening Opt-Out Program

On July 28th I testified before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Homeland Security on the subject of how to improve the management of passenger and baggage screening at airports. My message was, I expected, more radical than the subcommittee members were prepared for. I made the case, often discussed in this newsletter, that the TSA has a built-in conflict of interest as both the provider of airport screening services and the regulator of all aspects of airport security. And because of the highly centralized and bureaucratic way in which TSA runs the screening program, the best way to resolve the conflict is to get TSA out of the screening business, devolving this function to individual airports under TSA regulatory oversight. Under this devolved model, airports would be free to provide screening themselves (with their own employees) or by hiring a TSA-certified screening contractor. This would be very much like the way in which airport security is carried out in Europe , which had about a two-decade head start on us in dealing with terrorist threats.

I was pleasantly surprised that the testimony of James Bennett, head of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, but speaking on behalf of the two major airport organizations (AAAE and ACI-NA), said pretty much the same thing. While he did not directly mention the TSA conflict-of-interest issue or explicitly say that TSA should get out of screening altogether, he criticized its over-centralized approach, highlighted some of the problems this creates at airports, and called for permitting airports to operate screening themselves or via private contractors. Again paralleling my testimony, he said that when an airport goes the contract route, it should be the airport that selects the best proposal, not TSA, and it should be the airport, not TSA, that manages the resulting contract.

Bennett and I, along with San Francisco (SFO) airport director John Martin, also highlighted another problem with the current opt-out program: liability. If a problem occurs at airports with TSA screeners, the TSA bears the liability. If the airport, like SFO, has opted out and uses contract screeners, the screening company can get liability limitations under the federal SAFETY Act (as can the makers of equipment such as EDS machines). But the airports themselves are left vulnerable. So this creates a large disincentive to going the opt-out route. In fact, Martin told the subcommittee, although SFO is very pleased with the performance of its screening contractor, it has decided to leave the program next spring unless Congress extends SAFETY Act protection to opt-out airports.

Adam Tsao, senior staffer of the Homeland Security Committee, told Aviation Daily (July 19, 2005) that the committee may take up a review of TSA’s role and revisit the provisions of the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) after its new chairman is in place. And House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R, FL) intends to pursue SAFETY Act protection for airports that opt out, in the next session of Congress.

While they’re at it, these two committees also need to ride herd on a bizarre TSA interpretation of the labor provisions of ATSA. As reported by Joel Mowbray in the New York Post (Aug. 19, 2005), TSA is now saying that the provision that defines TSA screeners as performing a “critical national security” function and therefore bans them from unionizing does not apply to screeners employed by TSA-certified private screening contractors. Say what? Mowbray tracked down former Majority Leader Dick Armey who verified that Congress intentionally made no distinction between private and TSA screeners, who do the same critical national security job. Why some rogue faction at TSA is trying to undermine the opt-out program in this way is a puzzle-but it needs to be stopped.

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Quotable Quotes

“[G]overnment conspired in keeping us from assuming a more defensive posture by dazzling us with airport security screening so burdensome that most Americans, at least initially, actually thought it protected us from future attacks. By the time we learned otherwise, billions had been spent on screening equipment that can find a needle in a carry-on bag but not a bomb in your shoes, and on the hiring and outfitting of tens of thousands of screeners who are poorly trained to find explosives and firearms but good at locating forgotten pen knives, cigarette lighters, and sewing scissors.”

-Charles G. Slepian, “The State of American Civil Defense Preparedness Four Years After 9/11,” Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center , September 2005 (

“I think any time you have a security system which focuses all the resources on the bulk of people [who] you know aren’t a problem, it’s a bad system. The more I look at it, the more I come down on the fact that investments in counterterorism and intelligence early warning are the best bang for the buck.”

-James Jay Carafano, Heritage Foundation, Aviation Week, August 22/29, 2005.

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