Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #21

Topics include: what to do about liquid explosives; alternatives to checked baggage; fine-tuning air cargo security; and Registered Traveler

In this issue:

What to Do About Liquid Explosives

The foiled U.K. explosives plot made very visible the huge disparity in security screening between checked baggage and passenger/carry-on screening. As I’ve been writing for the past four years, if the main threat to planes today is explosives brought aboard by suicide bombers, how can we justify spending billions to inspect every checked bag for explosives while only using pre-9/11 X-ray machines to inspect carry-ons, and doing next to nothing to inspect what passengers may have concealed beneath their clothing?

But the remedy is not to compound the overkill that Congress hastily legislated in November 2001 (100% explosives-inspection of checked baggage). Rather, it is to shift the focus from keeping bad objects off planes to keeping bad people off planes. There are plenty of technologies out there that could reliably inspect carry-ons for explosives and look under people’s clothes. But equipping every single checkpoint lane with them would not only cost many billions more (money that would buy a lot more security spent on other things) but would also be so slow as to make today’s checkpoint lines look like nothing.

If we shifted to a risk-based approach, new screening technologies would be installed and used only for “secondary screening” that would be applied to all high-risk passengers and a random percentage of all others. What sorts of technologies are available for this more limited role?

For carry-ons:

  • Small CT-scanning devices do exist, but they are slow (80 bags/hour) and cost $300-350K apiece. For the limited numbers of bags needing secondary screening, that is probably acceptable performance. However, CT-scanning only identifies objects whose density matches that of various explosives, and it’s not clear if it can reliably identify suspect liquids.
  • Quadrupole resonance uses radio-frequency scanning to identify the molecular structure of items, and can thereby identify liquid and plastic explosives. Devices exist, and cost estimates are in the $160K range (versus $35K for checkpoint X-ray machines).
  • Neutron scanning generates gamma rays that identify the chemical composition of the scanned material. At least two firms have devices using this technology, but it’s very slow (2 to 3 bags per minute), fairly large, and not yet on the market at any quotable prices.

For detecting items concealed beneath clothing:

  • Backscatter X-ray devices have been on the market for several years, and TSA has used them in some airports on a trial basis. But because of PR concerns about screeners viewing genitals, no plans have been made to use them more widely. There are also concerns about X-ray exposure for frequent travelers. Both objections are much easier to address if these devices are used only for secondary screening.
  • Millimeter-wave devices don’t require the person to stand still in a booth, so are a lot faster than backscatter systems, and also don’t present a radiation hazard. (In the interest of fairness, since I mentioned vendor Brijot Imaging Systems last issue, I will note that Smith’s Detection also has such systems on the market.)

My initial assessment is that the best combination for secondary screening is quadrupole resonance for carry-ons and millimeter-wave systems for body-scanning. The former is still too slow and costly for use with all passengers (to replace current X-ray machines), but the latter could (if privacy concerns can be overcome) be incorporated into a next-generation screening portal that replaces today’s walk-through metal detectors.

It’s tragic that TSA has been forced by the November 2001 legislation to devote the lion’s share of its budget to 100% checked-baggage explosive-detection screening and running very labor-intensive passenger checkpoint screening that adds little value. With constant pressures to make these expensive systems work faster and better, the agency has short-changed its research-and-development budget, which should have been working even harder on next-generation technologies. So when the UK bomb plot exposed the glaring loop-hole in passenger screening, TSA had nothing to throw into the breach that could effectively mass-screen for explosives at the checkpoints. Hence, the unfortunate ban on water bottles, toothpaste, etc.

Since the available technologies are too slow and too costly for screening 100% of passengers and carry-ons, our only hope for relief from the liquids ban is a shift to a risk-based system of screening at the checkpoints. And that, almost certainly, will require Congress to act. Will anyone in Congress pick up the baton? And will TSA and DHS leadership make the case for them to do so?

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Don’t Lug Your Bag?

One side-effect of the new restrictions on carry-ons is that a lot more people are checking their luggage. In addition to freeing up space in the overhead bins for people like me, this means checked-luggage operations are overloaded, meaning longer waits and more lost bags. And sure enough, the market is providing alternatives.

The mass-market alternative is provided by companies that take the bags to and from the airport for you, saving you the hassles of check-in and pick-up. This industry has been around for five or six years, and has at least four players. BAGS, begun in Orlando, has spread to 15 cities and is making deals left and right with airlines, cruise ship operators, hotels, and convention centers. It operates the huge Disney’s Magical Express shuttle service between the airport and Walt Disney World. BAGS does not offer home or office pick-up or delivery, however. California-based Baggage Direct focuses on the Los Angeles and Hawaii markets, and does offer home/office pickup and delivery. It recently added Singapore Airlines to its airline partners. Bags to Go started out serving cruise ship passengers in Ft. Lauderdale, but has expanded into Las Vegas, working with the airport, the convention center, and two (so far) of the largest hotels. It’s in the process of developing home/office pickup and delivery. And Bags, Inc. provides bag check-in at the remote parking lot at SFO, thus far with six partner airlines.

At the other end of the scale are companies that bypass the airlines altogether, picking up your bags at home or office and delivering them (via an air-express carrier like Fedex) to your destination. I count at least nine such firms so far, with names like LuggageConceirge and LuggageFree. Whereas the remote check-in firms charge $10-30 for their services (since the airline still does most of the work), these shipping companies’ services start at about $100 per bag (one way) for domestic trips. But for heavy or outsize bags or sports equipment, they can be competitive with what the airlines charge. The only drawback is that you need to have your stuff ready to go 24 or 48 hours before your own flight, which can be a major hassle.

But the lobbying of something called the Coalition for Luggage Security (backed by some of these shipping firms) really annoys me. Over the past few years they’ve made every argument they can think of as to why their business model should become the dominant one: the risk of suitcase bombs going off in airports, the high injury rate of baggage screeners, lost or pilfered bags, etc. But do they simply want to fight it out in the marketplace? Not quite. They want the government to tilt the scales in their direction by (1) requiring airlines to “unbundle” their charges-i.e., charging separately for each checked bag, and (2) having TSA charge a per-bag security fee on top of that. One Coalition paper even proposes that those checking bags themselves would have to use a standardized “TSA suitcase.” As a result, those of us who travel on business, who don’t have the luxury of shipping our bags two days in advance, would pay through the nose as airlines charge a captive audience as much as possible to fill up their cargo holds.

I welcome the creativity of companies offering travelers new alternatives. But let’s let the marketplace sort out the winners and losers, OK?

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Fine-Tuning Air Cargo Security

In hastily passing the Aviation & Transportation Security Act of 2001, less than two months after 9/11, Congress mandated 100% explosive-detection inspection of checked bags but not carry-ons or air cargo. To some, such as Rep. Ed Markey (D, Mass), the latter omission is scandalous, and he’s been fighting ever since to change this. But to others, including this writer, the TSA’s approach to air cargo is an example of taking a risk-based approach of the kind that should have been applied in the passenger area.

That doesn’t mean current air-cargo security practices are optimal. Last fall the Government Accountability Office issued a report criticizing TSA for delays in issuing a comprehensive air-cargo security rule (developed with a lot of industry input) to rationalize and improve the somewhat ad-hoc approach that has applied since 9/11. That approach has relied primarily on a “known shipper” program along with random physical inspections. GAO concluded that TSA had not conducted a true risk assessment across the whole cargo supply chain and that the information in the known shipper database “may not be reliable.”

Two major developments have occurred since then. First, after a long review by incoming TSA chief Kip Hawley, the new air cargo rule was released in May, to take effect December 1st. It will consolidate about 4,000 industry known shipper lists into a central, TSA-managed database, which should improve its accuracy and timeliness. Second, it will require background checks of about 51,000 freight-forwarder employees and another 50,000 on-airport cargo personnel, while also extending secure areas on the airport to include the ramps and cargo facilities. In keeping with the risk-based philosophy, DHS Administrator Michael Chertoff says the goal is “to screen 100% of air cargo and inspect 100% of the high-risk cargo,” a crucially important distinction. Under this approach, all cargo brought in by random individuals to airline counters will be physically inspected.

The other major development is the launch of a pilot program, initially at San Francisco and later adding Cincinnati and Seattle, to test the feasibility of physically inspecting all air cargo. No risk-based program can be 100% certain of catching everything, but at the same time, any 100% inspection entails very real questions of cost and time. So the question of “how much bang for the buck” should always be open to new information, and that’s what the SFO program is intended to produce. Over the next year and a half, $15 million will be spent testing various technologies and techniques on the huge assortment of different types of packages and containers that are shipped either on freighters or as belly cargo on passenger planes. Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge, and Pacific Northwest laboratories are all involved in this project.

This kind of measured, empirical approach is what we should have done with respect to passengers and their bags. But as I’ve written before, that was a case of “legislate first, analyze later (if at all).” Today, we’re still paying the price.

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Registered Traveler-Almost, Almost There

Now that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff has officially blessed the Registered Traveler program in a USA Today interview, will it finally be up and running by next month? That’s what Steven Brill, CEO of Verified Identity Pass, told Aviation Daily on September 1st. “TSA has already done walk-throughs at the airports, and we know where the lanes will be.” He hopes on-line enrollments will be under way this month, with operations starting up next month at Cincinnati, Indianapolis, New York JFK Terminal 7, and San Jose, all of which have already signed up with his company.

Competitors are also making progress. Aviation Week reports that Unisys’s “Go” program has signed up four airports. And Saflink, Unisys, and Verified are all competing for the RT contract at Denver. A Wall Street Journal article reports that in addition to these airports, the following have told TSA they are interested: Anchorage, Atlanta, Birmingham, Chicago O’Hare and Midway, Huntsville, Jacksonville, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Reno, and Washington Dulles and Reagan National.

Verified’s CLEAR program at Orlando has over 27,000 members, despite being the only airport (so far) where members can use their cards to bypass long lines. The CLEAR check-in kiosk at Orlando now automatically examines shoes and checks hands for explosives, which should (once TSA agrees) obviate the need for RT members to remove shoes and jackets when passing through the checkpoint. Verified has purchased 20 of the scanner kiosks to roll out at other airports.

Although several RT programs have been in operation for years in Europe, new ones are coming along. The International Air Transport Association is launching a pilot program involving London Heathrow, Dubai, and Hong Kong, under which pre-cleared members equipped with a biometric ID card can use special immigration lines at all three airports. The three-month trial is part of IATA’s Simplifying Passenger Travel Interest Group, whose members include airlines, airports, and technology providers. And the European Union is looking into creating a common “positive profiling” (another term for RT) system for member states. Initial discussions are set for a ministerial meeting in Finland Sept. 20-22.

So hang on, frequent flyers. We’re finally getting there.

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Quotable Quote

“So far, our policy is to keep bad things from getting on airplanes, and we define those bad things based on what terrorists have shown us in the past. Our enemies will always be a step ahead of us in defining the next bad thing. They’ll see where we put defensive measures; then go where our defense is weakest. We can’t possibly afford to protect against everything. We can’t continue to go after bad things exclusively. We have to factor in bad people . . . . In my opinion, we can keep putting new layers of technology in place for each new set of bad things, but we’re at our limits. We’ve spent 80% of our budget on bombs in checked bags, so we don’t have enough money to implement systems to find explosives on people. There’s no way in hell we have money to go after antiaircraft missiles. And all along, we’re not dealing with the fundamental issue. We’re fighting bad people and not bad things.”

-Hans Weber, president of Tecop International, Inc., quoted in Homeland Response.

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Speaking Update

The event at which I am speaking, at Heritage Foundation on September 15th, has been moved from morning to afternoon. It now takes place in two one-hour sessions, beginning at 1 PM. I am speaking during the first hour. Details at

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