Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #19

Topics include: cargo container screening; explosives vs. knives in passenger screening; devolving screening functions; and registered traveler progress.

In this issue:

What to Do About Incoming Cargo?

In the wake of the Dubai Ports World flap, Congress is now considering a whole raft of bills to mandate that every cargo container entering the United States be screened in some fashion. The mildest of these simply insist that all containers go past radiation detectors to detect any nuclear material; the more draconian would require X-ray or gamma-ray scanning of 100% of all containers, either overseas or at U.S. ports of entry.

Although the specifics of this issue concern sea-borne and land-borne cargo containers, and this newsletter’s focus is aviation security, many of the principles involved here apply to air cargo as well. And many of those pushing for 100% scanning or inspection of cargo containers are trying to impose the same thing on air cargo.

Before we get into the cost or feasibility of these proposed mandates, it makes sense to step back and ask the question: What threats are we trying to counter? The best thing I’ve read on this subject is The Institute for Homeland Security’s White Paper, “Rethinking Border Security” by Col. Randall J. Larsen, the Institute’s director (available at Larsen first notes that “We must understand that we are dealing with a thinking enemy, who is patient, uses extensive surveillance when planning attacks, and carefully selects the means and methods of its attacks.” Next, we should ask what materials terrorists would like to bring into this country, and how they would attempt to accomplish this.

Larsen identifies five main categories of weapons:

  • Conventional and enhanced conventional explosives;
  • Chemical weapons;
  • Radiological material, for use in “dirty bombs”;
  • Biological materials;
  • Nuclear weapons.

Thinking carefully about each category, Larsen concludes that in the first four categories, the materials needed to assemble useful terror weapons are readily available inside U.S. borders. “This does not mean a terrorist would never attempt to smuggle them into the country. What it does mean is that there are easier, more efficient methods of constructing them within our borders, and any major investment to intercept this type of contraband at our borders would do little to prevent their use against us.” Indeed, major expenditures of this sort could make us less safe, by diverting resources from more productive security measures.

So what about a small nuclear weapon? Larsen argues that a terrorist smart enough to obtain a nuclear weapon would not be so foolish as to bring it in through one of a handful of choke points equipped to detect nuclear material-not when there are 7,500 miles of unguarded border and 95,000 miles of shoreline. A small boat or a long-range business jet would be a plausible delivery vehicle, rather than a cargo container on a ship or train.

This kind of thinking calls into serious question nearly all the current bills, all premised on the idea that the cargo supply chain is full of “loopholes” that would permit cargo containers to be used as Trojan horses for weapons. The least damaging mandates would simply complete the ongoing installation of radiation detectors at all ports of entry and require that all containers be scanned by them. This would not do much good, but would not cost very much and would hardly slow down the processing of cargo.

Far worse would be mandates like SOS (Sail Only if Scanned) that would forbid, within one year, containers from entering the United States unless they’d been “scanned” (undefined in the bill) overseas before loading, a thinly disguised protectionist measure. There has been much attention paid to a prototype system in place at two of the terminals in the huge Hong Kong port, where every container is scanned first by a radiation detector and then imaged via gamma ray to check for suspicious-looking objects. Cargo expert Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations estimates it would cost $1.5 billion to equip all major container ports this way, plus an undefined sum to operate them. Business Week quotes Flynn as estimating that the costs could be covered by a fee of $50 to $100 on every container shipment.

Even more grandiose plans are afoot. Forbes (March 27) rhapsodized about the wonders of adding $1,000 worth of technology to each and every container, including radiation and gas sensors, GPS unit, secure lock, and radio transmitter. Advocates argue that better supply-chain information and theft protection benefits, in addition to security, would justify the added cost.

Maybe so, but if that’s the case, I think we can count on the shipping community to figure that out without the government mandating it. Meanwhile, we need to be careful about imposing not only costs but major time delays on the global logistics business. Sandia National Laboratories has been simulating the flow of people and cargo in the supply chain, to estimate the impact of delays due to increased inspections. They found that slowing up the average cargo flow by just 6.5% leads to backing up the supply chain on the high seas. A 10% reduction in flow rate at Seattle’s port led to a 17% increase in goods in transit-and a $5 billion decrease in U.S. sales.

And if those kinds of negative impacts produce little or no real increase in security, the result will be lots of pain and very little gain. Departing DHS Acting Assistant Secretary for Policy Elaine Dezenski last month told the National Industrial Traffic League that rather than doing more screening, it would make better sense to improve the government’s system for targeting high-risk containers. But that, of course, assumes that anyone in Congress is interested in meaningful results, rather than attention-getting sound bites.

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Explosives vs. Knives

“The things we’re really worried about are explosives,” said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on March 17 at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. TSA airport screeners are being retrained “to move them away from looking for things like nail clippers to more sophisticated chemicals and detonating devices.” Unfortunately, that same day someone leaked the results of a classified GAO report in which testers were able to sneak homemade bomb-making materials past TSA screeners at 21 U.S. airports. TSA director Kip Hawley defended the screeners as victims of bad timing, since the agency has only recently begun retraining screeners in spotting explosives, and the GAO study began about the same time the retraining began.

I’m inclined to give Hawley the benefit of the doubt on this one, given how big a shift in policy this is for TSA and DHS. When you have tens of thousands of people who’ve been focused for years on finding knives and scissors, you have to expect that it will take them awhile to refocus on bomb-making kits. But I see at least two points that should be emphasized during this transition.

First, TSA should not over-react to the discovery of suspicious materials in people’s carry-ons. On April 19 an apparent computer glitch caused a screener at Atlanta to mistakenly believe some kind of explosive had gone through the X-ray machine. In the ensuing panic, the entire centralized checkpoint operation was shut down-and TSA got the FAA to halt all flight operations into and out of Atlanta! Since this was the morning rush hour, at least 120 flights were affected, with some held on the ground half a continent away for more than three hours. Delta alone estimated that this snafu cost it more than $1.3 million.

Second, TSA needs to guard against focusing its explosives-hunt only on the passenger checkpoints. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly, suicide bombers seeking to destroy U.S. aviation by terrorizing passengers could easily target the huge concentrations of people standing in checkpoint lines and crowded around lobby-based explosive detection machines. Other bombers could wander across largely un-secured airport perimeters, to bring explosives to confederates who load packages on planes.

Explosives are the main remaining threat to commercial aviation. But we need a carefully thought-out, across-the-board approach to guard airports and passengers, not just planes, against this threat.

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Too-Small a Step Toward Devolution

In my January 2006 report, “Airport Security: Time for a New Model,” (, I faulted TSA for the highly centralized way in which it runs both its own airport screening program and the opt-out program under which a handful of airports are using TSA-certified private security contractors. One aspect of that over-centralization has been national hiring of screeners, a cumbersome and time-consuming process.

The good news is that TSA is now shifting to local hiring, with the intention of making it easier for its local Federal Security Directors to find and hire part-time as well as full-time screeners, and to do the hiring and training more quickly in response to local needs. The centralized approach has failed miserably in hiring part-timers, who are desperately needed at major airports to staff up for peak times, so as not to end up with armies of screeners standing around with nothing to do at non-peak times.

Unfortunately, the phase-in of local hiring is taking place just as airports need to be gearing up for what will probably be a record-high summer travel season—and major airports like Orlando and Los Angeles are very worried about the slowness of the transition. At LAX, the airlines and the airport sent TSA a letter offering to help out with the hiring process, to forestall a feared 15% shortfall in screener staffing. Orlando has enlisted Rep. Rick Keller (R, FL) to urge TSA to implement a pilot program under which the airport could hire non-TSA workers to load bags into EDS machines and perform other duties to assist screeners; the private screening contractor at SFO already does this type of thing.

These concerns led the head of the Airports Council International-North America, Greg Principato, to urge Congress to devolve more authority to airports in the opt-out program, making it a more viable option for them. In my Reason study, I urged the complete devolution of screening operations to the airport level, with the funding given to each airport without detailed requirements on how they use it to carry out screening. Rather, they would simply have to meet performance requirements set by TSA, under the supervision of the existing TSA Federal Security Director. Because that kind of budgetary flexibility would make it easy for airports to finance the installation of faster and more efficient in-line baggage screening systems, my calculations showed huge savings in baggage-screener labor. That would mean plenty of baggage screeners could be shifted over to passenger screening, eliminating shortages and then some.

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Registered Traveler Roll-Out Scaled Back—but Still On

Once again, it’s two steps forward, one step back, as the long-awaited privatized Registered Traveler nears the promised June 20 roll-out date. The good news is TSA has announced that yes, the program will be rolled out then. But the bad news is that it will be limited to an initial 10 to 20 airports, with the full national roll-out coming next year.

The day before the TSA announcement, four trade associations issued a joint statement in favor of RT, welcoming it as a way of improving service to travelers while enhancing security by moving toward a more risk-based system. Signing on were Airports Council International-North America, National Business Travel Association, American Society of Travel Agents, and the Voluntary Credentialing Industry Coalition. Previously, some 70 airports joined together as the Registered Traveler Interoperability Consortium to push for nationwide interoperability of RT programs offered by different providers at various airports.

Still, a negative USA Today article managed to find a few airport directors to say bad things about the idea, and claimed that four airports-Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, and San Francisco-had decided not to participate. It quoted one director as expecting that RT will make lines and waiting times longer for non-participants.

This is simply wrong. The premise behind RT is to attract experienced, frequent flyers to streamlined processing in exclusive lanes. Not only will their lines be shorter but their average time to be processed through the checkpoint will be shorter, because (a) they won’t have inexperienced travelers in front of them who don’t realize that they have to take the coins out of their pocket before walking through the magnetometer, and (b) if TSA gets its act together, they also won’t have to remove their shoes and jackets or take their laptops out of their bags. Assuming the same number of screeners and the same number of screening lanes as today, putting all the quickly processed people through the fast lanes will speed up the process for everyone, especially if the number joining the RT program is large.

The original operations research simulations of RT, done back in 2003 at Carnegie Mellon, assumed that 40% of originating passengers at larger airports would sign up. That may sound high, but that number means not 40% of everyone who flies but 40% of those who show up at given airport on a typical weekday. Given that frequent flyers comprise a very large fraction of the average passenger load, that’s not a ridiculous assumption. That modeling, using Pittsburgh as a case in point, showed a 38% reduction in throughput time (wait time plus actual screening) for the non-participants in the regular lines. Contrary to assertions by some that RT would be, at best, a zero-sum game, if implemented as intended it would clearly be positive sum, producing benefits for members and non-members alike. As I’ve said before, it’s similar to the HOT lanes that are starting to appear on congested freeways.

Two factors will help make actual RT programs resemble this model. The first is a large number of participants-which depends in part on it being available at lots of airports, so that in exchange for your membership fee, you can benefit at most places you fly. The second is reduced hassles at the checkpoint, to make the RT experience better than going through regular security (beyond a much shorter line). We are all still waiting for TSA to be reasonable on this score. New technology may check shoes and fingers (for explosives) during the RT member’s biometric verification process. Let’s hope that will be sufficient for TSA to exempt RTs from the checkpoint strip and computer removal.

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