Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #8

Topics include: developments in airline security, airport baggage screening, and how not to respond to the Madrid bombing.

In this issue:

Will Registered Traveler Test Be Designed to Fail?

At long last, the Transportation Security Administration seems to be close to launching a trial run of a program many of us have been advocating for more than two years: letting frequent flyers volunteer to be security-checked in advance so they can speed through the passenger screening process when they show up at the airport. But recent statements by TSA officials seem to me to be flashing a big orange caution light that things are not what they seem.

A whole raft of recent articles — A.P, Forbes, USA Today, and elsewhere – has uncritically picked up TSA’s downsized definition of Registered Traveler. Instead of special “fast” lanes for pre-screened members, the 90-day test program would offer only standard processing through regular (sometimes several hours long) checkpoint lines. The only benefit afforded to RT members would be the promise that they would not be subject to “secondary screening” once past the metal detector (unless, of course, they caused it to beep). And TSA has identified just five airports where the concept would be tested.

Put it all together – the lack of significant time-saving and hassle-reduction benefits, a too-small sample size, and too short a time period – and you have all the ingredients for failure. If only a handful of frequent flyers sign up during the 90 days, the nay-sayer faction within TSA can say, “See, we told you so – lousy idea.” And that will be the end of that.

But it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be that way. Key success factors for a Registered Traveler program include:

  • Separate, fast-lane processing, which benefits both those in the program and those in the regular lanes, which will be less crowded;
  • Redesigned fast lanes, ideally with two X-ray machines for every metal detector (which Carnegie Mellon simulations showed would greatly speed up processing);
  • Streamlined processing of those in the fast lanes, because they will already have been both pre-cleared as low-risk and verified biometrically as being the person who has been cleared.

Rather than defining the program’s details itself, the TSA should issue a request for proposals from the private sector, where companies already meeting similar screening and verification needs from industry would be eager to bid. Such companies would be far more likely to propose features that would make the program marketable on a large scale, so that following a successful trial it could be fine-tuned and rolled out nationwide. And there is no need to limit the roll-out to a single company. As long as basic TSA-specified security requirements are met, airlines could select their own service provider, as an adjunct to their frequent-flyer programs.

Registered Traveler is too good an idea to be sabotaged in a poorly thought out pilot program. Even if it takes TSA a few more months to refine the pilot, the wait would be worth it.

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GAO Highlights Baggage-Screening Dilemma

The latest report from the General Accounting Office on passenger and baggage screening (GAO-04-440T, Feb. 12, 2004) makes for depressing reading. I’m going to focus here on the baggage screening aspect, which seems to have received less media attention.

First, like passenger screening, the baggage screening program suffers from too few screeners at peak hours at many airports. And although everyone thought screeners were being cross-trained (both to reduce the boredom factor that can reduce effectiveness and to provide greater flexibility in assigning people where most needed), very little of this has actually occurred. TSA will only begin routine cross-training of new hires in April, 18 months after it fully took over airport screening. And while passenger screeners have to pass an annual test on image recognition, no such test is required for baggage screeners, even though many of them have to look at images on million-dollar EDS machines all day.

Some in Congress blame the staff shortages on the “arbitrary” hiring cap Congress imposed on TSA, but the real reason (still Congress’s fault) lies deeper than that. In a nutshell, Congress imposed the mandate for 100% checked baggage screening, using very labor-intensive machines, and then grossly under-funded airport systems that would let those machines operate with a smaller staff. There are two kinds of one-time investment that would pay for themselves in staff savings within just a few years.

First, get the bulky EDS machines out of ticket lobbies, where all aspects of using them must be done by hand, and integrate them into automated baggage processing systems that eliminate most of the handling. This kind of “in-line” system appears to be very cost-effective. For example, last summer Aviation Week (July 14, 2003) reported in detail on the in-line system installed at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, KY. The system cost $5.5 million, but its operating cost of $525,000 per year (instead of between $1.4 and $2.45 million a year for a lobby-based alternative designed by Boeing) means that it will pay for itself in labor savings in about three years.

Second, since EDS still has a false-alarm rate of about 30%, we need to improve the process of “resolving” those false alarms. Here, Jacksonville sets the pace, as one of three pioneer airports to use on-screen resolution. That means screeners in a central location take a second, more detailed look at images from whichever EDS machine sounded an alarm (this is called “multiplexing”). Under TSA supervision, baggage screeners at JAX are resolving the “overwhelming majority” of false alarms on-screen, avoiding the need to open the bags in question and perform a “directed trace” examination. According to a detailed article in Airport Security Report (July 2, 2003), screeners at JAX can resolve two bags per minute, compared with one bag every two minutes with directed trace. Bingo, four times the throughput, and further staff savings.

Congress has funded only eight in-line systems thus far, though 60 more airports are seeking to make the switch. Because of this-year budget constraints, Congress is skimping on capital spending for in-line systems and multiplexed, on-screen resolution. But by doing so, Congress is being penny-wide and pound-foolish. The only way to produce long-term savings is to make the one-time investments that allow baggage screening to be done far less labor-intensively. Airports need to continue pressing this point with Congress. And somebody, either TSA or GAO, needs to crunch the numbers on a nationwide scale to make this point definitively.

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Airport Access Control: What Makes Sense?

At large airports, many hundreds of workers have access to the ramp area – people who clean the cabins, do maintenance, guide planes in and out, or do the catering. If you were a terrorist trying to get dangerous items onto a plane, one way of doing so would be to infiltrate your agents into one of those work forces.

Defense of the ramp area varies widely among airports. The Aviation & Transportation Security Act requires screening of all such employees, but at most airports that means the workers swipe their ID badges past a scanner and/or punch in an ID code to open a locked access door. All such workers now must pass a 10-year background check, but it’s not clear that the person who was cleared is the one carrying the ID badge, or that he’s not been recruited by terrorists since passing the background check. Only a handful of airports, including Miami, require ramp employees to go through screening like that imposed on passengers.

That is about to change at New York’s Kennedy International. Privately operated Terminal 4 will implement a stringent new access-control system at the end of this month. During a one-year pilot program, every such employee will pass through a screening booth each time they move between the terminal and the ramp. The employee will swipe his badge to enter the booth, the door will close behind him, his iris will be scanned to be sure it’s the right person, his weight will be recorded, and the booth will check him for weapons. The process will take six seconds.

These automated portals were developed for prisons, where they have slashed the amount of contraband carried about by inmates. Each costs about $375,000, but there are no staffing costs. The company that operates Terminal 4, Schiphol USA, is a division of the company that owns and operates the Amsterdam airport, where the system is already in operation. (That airport, Schiphol, has an excellent reputation with security experts.) They also plan to install it at the airport in Brisbane, Australia, which they also own.

Is this overkill? Or is it a long-overdue closing of an egregious loophole in airport security? The JFK Terminal 4 pilot program will give us an opportunity to find out. While the project has the TSA’s blessing, for now the agency is sticking with its position that the 10-year background check and forthcoming standardized transport workers’ ID card are sufficient. We should all keep an eye on this fascinating experiment.

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Rail Bombing Underscores Need for Security Priorities

The tragic bombing of commuter trains in Madrid once again brings us face-to-face with the gross over-emphasis in US security policy on aviation, to the comparative neglect of all other transportation modes. In the glare of publicity and national anguish over the 9/11 tragedy in which terrorists used airliners, Congress felt the need to do something large and dramatic to ensure the public that this specific tragedy could never happen again. But “legislate first, think later” has never been sound public policy.

Tens of millions of Americans ride commuter rail, light rail, or heavy rail trains each day, and another handful ride Amtrak. Only about 2 million people a day fly on commercial planes. Yet the latest TSA budget of $5.3 billion allocates all but $147 million to aviation security.

I’m not suggesting that we should implement airport-type passenger and baggage screening at every light-rail stop and commuter rail platform in the country. Or that we somehow try to guard every mile of the 140,000 miles of rail routes. But just as a point of contrast, in Spain the intercity trains (not the commuter trains) do have luggage screening, as do the Eurostar trains that traverse the Channel Tunnel. So some forms of aviation-like security measures could be done for rail. Whether that would be a good use of always-limited resources, is, of course, another question.

So far, TSA officials have wisely resisted calls from some congressional quarters to rush into airport-type security for rail. DHS Secretary Tom Ridge on Tuesday announced that some new type of rail passenger security measures would be tested at an Amtrak commuter rail station in the near future. That seems prudent. What would not be prudent would be to compound the post-9/11 mistake by authorizing another multi-billion dollar exercise in making people feel better.

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