Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #4

Topics include: the closing the belly-cargo loophole, inadequate explosive detection systems, and the LAX master plan.

In this issue:

Déjà vu All Over Again-This Time on Cargo Screening

By imposing an arbitrary mandate that all checked bags must be screened for explosives, and adding an unrealistic and unachievable deadline for doing so, Congress in 2001 wreaked havoc on airports and air travel. Now, if Rep. Edward Markey (D., MA) has his way, Congress will make the same mistake with respect to cargo carried in the bellies of passenger airliners. By a vote of 278-146, the House in late June approved Markey’s amendment to the Homeland Security technical corrections bill. Not only would it mandate that all belly cargo be physically screened for explosives; it would also require that this be done by Nov. 27, 2003 or 180 days after passage.

The poorly thought-out 100% bag-screening mandate required more than twice as many TSA screeners as originally estimated. And it led to billions of dollars being spent on mediocre technology-EDS and trace detection-that is unsuited for mass screening. As a result, many major airports are still using “other means” to screen checked baggage, and air travel is burdened by excessive costs. Markey’s new mandate would compound the error. Airlines airports would be forced to spend additional billions on technology that is mostly not yet ready for prime time, further burdening an airline industry that’s on its knees.

Give the Congressman credit for one virtue, however: consistency. He’s right that to mandate 100% explosives screening for passenger bags but not the cargo that’s loaded right alongside is a glaring inconsistency. But the answer is not to do more of the wrong thing; it’s to rethink the 100% mandate on checked bags. In fact, the approach now being used for belly cargo is the kind of risk-based approach that should be used for passengers’ bags. The well-established “known-shipper” program (only packages from vetted shippers are allowed as belly cargo) is being supplemented by what Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge calls a “threat-based” approach-i.e., using intelligence information to select certain packages for physical inspection. That’s the same approach used for cargo containers at seaports.

We laid out the rationale for shifting to this kind of risk-based approach to baggage and passenger screening several months ago (see It still makes far more sense than current TSA policy, as mandated by Congress.

(Incidentally, a more reasonable approach than Markey’s has been set forth in a bill approved last week by the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, making technical corrections to the Aviation & Transportation Security Act of 2001 [ATSA]. It calls for a year-long test of private-sector approaches to air-cargo security, and for a study of the cost-effectiveness of blast-resistant cargo containers.)

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Airports Struggle with Inadequate Bag-Screening Technology

After heated debate, Congress last fall amended ATSA to allow large airports an additional year to meet the requirement for 100% explosive-detection screening of all checked bags. Not many people realize that the “other technical means” used in the interim for many bags at those high-profile airports is mostly “positive passenger bag matching”-which only ensures that the suicidal terrorist is on the same plane as his bomb. When the Federal Security Director at Dulles, Scott McHugh, let slip to the Washington Post that only 57% of checked bags there were actually being checked for explosives, he was gone within a week. TSA Director James Loy protested in a letter to the Post that the actual figure at Dulles is “about 75%.”

What’s the big problem? The million-dollar EDS machines are so slow-about 300 bags/hour under real-world conditions-that with TSA screener cutbacks, Dulles does not have enough screeners to operate them all. And at Denver, which is relying primarily on electronic trace detection (ETD) so far, airport director Bruce Baumgartner says flatly that DIA won’t meet the revised Dec. 31, 2003 deadline for 100% inspection. ETD is far more labor-intensive than EDS, so a large fraction of DIA bags continue to be uninspected.

Several smaller airports, such as Boise and Jacksonville, have managed to scarf up enough EDS machines and enough dollars to implement “in-line” EDS systems, fully integrated into the behind-the-scenes baggage system. Both had to order more machines than originally planned (five instead of two at JAX), because they are so slow, and to allow for peak periods and downtime. When you scale that up to major airports like DFW, DIA, and IAD, the numbers involved get pretty overwhelming, as RAND studies have carefully documented.

Both JAX and DIA wanted to use better technology-the multiview tomography (MVT) machines made by Heimann and in use at Amsterdam Schiphol. But since that machine has still not been certified for U.S. airport use, JAX threw in the towel and implemented slowpoke InVision EDSs. But Baumgartner continues to test MVT at DIA, and he and his system designers are hoping that the frustrating delay in TSA funding for DIA may allow them to go with MVT after all, if these machines finally get certified.

That could be a silver lining for a number of airports. TSA will apparently have available for EDS purchases next year only half of the $174 million Congress appropriated for this purpose; the rest has been diverted to other purposes. Airport Security Report ( July 2, 2003 ) quotes a TSA source saying, “We’re not going to have enough [EDS machines] in the next three to four years to install at every airport.” Hence, the newsletter predicts that “Some of the busiest airports may have to rely on ETD units as a permanent solution.” That ridiculous outcome may come to pass-unless TSA certifies faster and less costly alternatives to EDS in the near future.

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LAX Master Plan Won’t Improve Security, Says RAND

“In an effort to thwart terrorists, much of Los Angeles International Airport will be rebuilt at a cost of $9.6 billion under a plan that would ban all cars from the terminal area.” That was the lead sentence in a New York Times story (June 10) that seriously misled its readers. The story ignored extensive coverage last month in the Los Angeles media of a devastating assessment by RAND Corp. of the security benefits of Mayor Jim Hahn’s LAX plan. RAND ‘s conclusion: there aren’t any.

Instead of just asserting that the plan-removing parking structures from the terminal area and centralizing all passenger and bag check-in a mile away in a massive new structure linked to the terminal by a new people mover-would increase security, RAND actually analyzed the plan. It assessed the current and proposed airport configuration against seven types of terrorist threats, and looked at the impact on deterrence, casualties, and operations. Main finding? Most of the changes have no clear impact, but centralizing passenger check-in in one location would make the effect of an attack slightly more severe. It would also increase the area to be patrolled by security personnel. And the people mover would constitute a new single point of vulnerability, making it more difficult to evacuate the terminal area.

About the only way in which Hahn’s plan would increase security has nothing to do with the $9.6 billion reconstruction. It’s simply that the mayor’s determination to limit LAX capacity to 78 million annual passengers would force future growth to outlying airports in the region, thereby decentralizing terrorist targets. But there’s no need to spend $9.6 billion to accomplish that effect, which could be had simply by maintaining the existing LAX configuration.

You can download RAND’s excellent report:

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Summertime Blues at Security Checkpoints

It hasn’t hit everywhere yet, but some of our busiest airports are starting to be plagued with delays at the screening checkpoints. And that is before TSA completes the 6,000 planned screener layoffs by Sept. 30th.

Things got so bad at SeaTac last month that Sen. Patty Murray (D., WA) called for “immediate action” by Admiral Loy to reduce wait times that reached as high as two hours. Airport director Gina Marie Lindsey announced that she would hire up to 50 private security screeners to do the initial passenger contacts at checkpoints, freeing up the TSA staffers now doing that job to work additional checkpoints as screeners.

Denver, where wait times are up to 45 minutes during peaks according to the Rocky Mountain News, has been trying to get TSA funding to add express lanes for passengers with just a briefcase, so far to no avail. Oakland is seeing new delays because its new TSA-required magnetometers have up to a 70% false-positive rate, just as summer traffic peaks are hitting.

Tampa, faced with going from 828 down to 684, screeners has proposed an alternative staffing plan to TSA: 400 part-time employees plus 484 full-timers. By Tampa ‘s calculations, that mix could reduce wait times from 26 minutes to 15 during peak periods, while remaining within the new total of 684 FTEs. Though the plan has the support of the local TSA Federal Security Director, TSA headquarters will not permit the use of part-timers.

These kinds of rigidities are causing a new round of interest among airport directors in opting out of TSA security, when that option becomes available to them in November 2004. A Washington Post article on May 30th was headlined, “Airports Favor Private-Sector Screeners.” While reporter Sara Goo was unable to find an airport director willing to go on the record as planning to switch, her interviews found considerable interest. Plus, she reported that the pilot programs using private screening companies at SFO and Kansas City International are going well.

Aviation consultant Mike Boyd told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “There’s probably about 400 airports that would like to [opt out] because everybody’s fed up with the TSA.” While I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, it makes all the more relevant the case for a larger private-sector role in airport screening that Reason presented last fall (see

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News Notes

Harkin Pulls Rank while Peons Wait. Hard to believe, but the story was reported in two reputable newspapers. Sen. Tom Harkin (D., IA) pulled rank and jumped the security line at Reagan National Airport on Friday, June 21. He’d gotten there late, and had a full schedule of events in Des Moines that afternoon, so . . . .It must be nice to be able to make laws you don’t have to comply with.

Who Should Pay for Aviation Security? At the International Air Transport Association 59th Annual General Meeting in Washington last month, Airport Council International ( North America ) president David Plavin raised a good question: “Why should the aviation user pay for what is in essence a national security cost? It’s a national security venture that ought to be paid for on the national level.”

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