Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #17

Topics include: new Reason study calling for rethinking TSA's role; registered traveler ramp up; muddled thinking on carry-on revisions; a new tool for protecting airport perimeters; and other news.

In this issue:

New Study Calls for Rethinking TSA’s Role

When I testified on airport screening before a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee last summer, I told the members that Reason would be releasing a new policy study this winter calling for a major revamp of how airport screening is done. That study was released yesterday, just in time for Congress to take up a new bill from that committee addressing this subject.

“Airport Security: Time for a New Model” (available at calls for three basic changes. First, because TSA has a built-in conflict of interest in simultaneously regulating airport security but also operating the screening functions at airports, we call for separating policy-making and regulation from service provision. TSA would retain the former, with all screening operations devolved to the individual airports. Next, airports would be given monthly funding to spend on screening, reallocated each month based on changing (originating) passenger counts-and would be allowed to spend these funds either on its own screener staff or on TSA-certified contractors. Third, TSA would apply its emerging risk-based approach to passenger and baggage screening, with bags and passengers processed differently depending on whether they are deemed high-risk, low-risk, or ordinary-risk.

We argue that this approach would have several major advantages over the status quo. For one thing, it would end today’s fragmentation, under which TSA handles screening but the airport handles access control, perimeter control, and all other aspects of airport security. A unified approach, using cross-trained people, would be more efficient and more effective. Second, by adjusting the screening budget every month rather than once a year, there would be a much better match of the numbers of screeners to the actual workload. Third, there would be major budgetary savings—nearly $1 billion per year just in labor costs. With airports having full responsibility for screening, they would have every incentive to finance the investment in far less labor-intensive in-line baggage systems, where the labor savings repay the one-time capital investment in one or two years. We estimate that more than 14,000 baggage screening positions could be phased out nationwide, making some of them available to eliminate shortages of passenger screeners while the rest would be net cost savings. And the risk-based approach would further reduce the screener numbers, if Registered Traveler programs prove as popular with frequent flyers as we expect.

The new House bill, HR 4439, doesn’t go that far. It does prod the TSA to implement more consistently risk-based policies and it would expand the Screening Partnership Program to allow airports as well as security companies to take over screening functions. And it acknowledges the current TSA conflict of interest, but instead of going for full-fledged devolution (getting the TSA out of screening operations), it calls for creating a separate TSA Airport Screening Organization that would function (somehow) at arms-length from TSA’s regulatory and inspection operations.

Still, by underscoring the need for serious reform, the bill provides a starting point for fixing the very real problems afflicting airport screening.

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Registered Traveler Ramping Up, Despite Critics

Last week, for the first time, I used my “Clear” card to bypass the security lines at Orlando International Airport. It was a great experience. I walked up to the no-waiting entrance, stood in front of the kiosk where I inserted the card and it scanned my iris, and in a few seconds I was cleared. The staffer stamped my boarding pass and escorted me to the table adjacent to the screening point, where I still had to remove my laptop and take off my blazer and shoes. But I was through the entire process in about two minutes, compared to what looked like might have been 15 or 20 minutes. That gave me enough time to grab something to eat before boarding the plane for home.

As of now, Orlando has the only such program, though two other airports, San Jose and Indianapolis, have recently announced they have selected the same companied, Verified Identity Pass, to launch service this spring. And Verified CEO Steven Brill told a congressional committee in November that the company is poised to launch the Clear program at 30 to 40 major airports. Thus, despite continued carping from self-styled privacy advocates, a nationwide Registered Traveler (RT) program is finally within sight. The TSA has endorsed the model pioneered by Verified—of airport-selected private companies, which recruit members and operate the service for an annual membership fee, with TSA performing the background check that determines individual eligibility.

TSA director Kip Hawley is due to announce on Jan. 20th which of the rinky-dink checkpoint procedures (such as shoe removal) will be waived for RT members. And by April 20th it will have selected a company to certify the RT operating companies, which will compete to be each airport’s provider for a contractual term. Thus far, in addition to Verified Identity Pass, two others have announced plans to enter the business. One is Unisys and the other is a consortium headed by Saflink Corp. (and including Microsoft, Expedia, Johnson Controls, and ID Technology Partners). Hawley told the House Homeland Security subcommittee on economic security, infrastructure protection, and cybersecurity that an interoperable, nationwide program will be operating by June.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center continues to question the RT approach, apparently equating not being admitted to the program with being on a watch list or no-fly list-a very different matter. EPIC president Marc Rotenberg also complains that information stored in a private company’s database is not subject to the Privacy Act (which, of course, applies to government databases). Verified ID, for one, maintains a stringent privacy policy, including an identity theft warranty. It’s hard to imagine a company being able to succeed in this business without offering stringent privacy safeguards.

A nationwide RT program will be a key component of a more risk-based airport security policy. Since a small pool of frequent flyers account for more than half of the 774 million annual U.S. airline trips, a serious RT program could remove huge numbers of daily travelers from the regular security lines, enabling screeners to focus on those more likely to pose a risk to the system. It could (and should) also reduce the need for 100% screening of all checked bags—but Congress is probably not prepared to take that step.

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Carry-on Revisions Spark Muddled Thinking

It’s the silly season in Washington again, in response to the TSA’s revising the rules on what passengers can carry on board. Despite the fact that the pre-9/11 hijacking threat has all but been precluded by strengthened cockpit doors, armed pilots, sky marshals, and changed procedures, some interest groups and members of Congress are reacting as if planes were still vulnerable to takeover. The Association of Flight Attendants has launched a petition drive to overturn the new TSA policy, and Sen. Ted Stevens wants to consider legislation to limit passengers to a single carry-on bag (so screeners would have less to look through).

Get a grip, people! Many of us used to carry Swiss Army knives routinely, but flight attendants never objected. And overseas airlines (including Air Canada and British Airways) are returning metal knives and forks to their front cabins. So are some U.S. airlines on overseas flights. Nobody seems to be wreaking havoc on those flights.

The real threat to airliners today is explosives, either carried on board by suicide bombers or inserted into the cargo hold by untrustworthy ground personnel. If Congress were serious about security, it would focus more attention on those areas and quit scoring cheap media shots over trivia.

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Making Distinctions on Missle Defense

A standard defense by many who want to spend untold billions of taxpayers’ money on marginal security improvements is to point to Israel. Apparently, if that beleaguered country does something in aviation security, then it must be equally applicable to our vastly different aviation circumstances.

In light of that, it’s interesting to note how Israel is proceeding on the issue of equipping airliners with defenses against shoulder-launched missiles. According to an AP report dated Dec. 30, 2005, El Al Israel Airlines plans to install $1 million apiece Flight Guard systems not on its entire fleet but on just six planes that fly to areas where the al-Qaida network has been active. Evidently, even the Israelis are capable of making sensible risk/benefit trade-offs. The Flight Guard system, developed by Israel Aircraft Industries, uses flares to divert heat-seeking missiles from the target aircraft.

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A New Tool for Protecting Airport Perimeters

One of the most neglected points of vulnerability at many airports is the perimeter, often “protected” by nothing more than a chain-link fence. Yet new technology, in the form of millimeter wave radar, may offer a relatively low-cost way to detect intrusions at the perimeter.

Vancouver International Airport is the first in North America to purchase this radar. It has ordered four such systems from Qinetiq, a U.K. company. In this case, the purpose of the system is not perimeter protection but rather detection of foreign object debris (FOD) on the runways. Because miscellaneous debris can be sucked into aircraft jet engines, airports must continually inspect runways for things as small as bolts, a costly, labor-intensive process. When Vancouver tested the system on runway 8L/26R in 2004, it detected a two-inch bolt that had been placed in a groove in the runway. The system was so accurate that the inspection crew drove to the exact GPS coordinates and couldn’t find the bolt because they had parked on top of it.

Vancouver’s four systems will provide FOD protection for its two main runways. The price was not announced, but Qinetiq says typical multi-radar systems cost in the $1.8 to $3.6 million range. Vancouver VP of Airport Operations Craig Richmond told Airport Magazine that “We’d be keen to look at” expanding the system’s capabilities for perimeter protection.

That makes sense to me. While it might be hard for an airport to justify the cost of such a system solely for perimeter security, its combined use for that and FOD protection should make a pretty solid case.

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Update on Secondary Cockpit Doors

Last issue I praised United Airlines for installing secondary doors near the cockpit, to secure the area when the strengthened cockpit doors are opened in flight (for meals or lavatory visits). Airline pilot Bob Semprini points out that what UA is actually installing is a kind of retractable fence, not an actual door. So while it provides something of a barrier (probably more than just parking a drinks cart there), it’s nowhere near as impregnable as the real cockpit door. I’m happy to provide this clarification.

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Quotable Quotes

“TSA should be applauded for finally recognizing that items generally carried by the public in public venues that are not classified as weapons per se in federal or state statutes are for the most part not any more dangerous than a rolled up magazine or a ball point pen and are hardly worth the effort expended in confiscating them.”
– Charles G. Slepian, Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, Inc., Dec. 2, 2005

“The phenomenon of the suicide bomber means any traditional measures of detection and interception are likely to be ineffective. Efficient response is therefore key.”
– Mike Brown, chief operating officer of the London Underground, before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, October 2005.

“[Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff has been criticized for stating the truism that, other things being equal, fewer resources should be devoted to preventing a terrorist attack that kills 30 people than one that kills 3,000. The criticism reflects the incapacity of our political class . . . to think in cost-benefit terms. For want of such thinking, we are busy squandering untold billions of dollars to rebuild New Orleans in time for the next flood.”
– Judge Richard A. Posner, The New Republic, Nov. 14, 2005.

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