Airport Policy News

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #9

Topics include: devolution, disaster response, and other security news.

In this issue:

Airports Need Greater Control of Screening, Including Opt-Out

Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that the airlines and the Transportation Security Administration have identified 25 airports as likely to be plagued by lengthy security screening delays this summer, as air travel rebounds to more normal levels. Those projections illustrate the urgency of fixing the major flaws in TSA’s federalized passenger and baggage-screening program. One avenue for improvement is the ability of all airports to opt out starting in November, as has been tested by five airports over the past 18 months.

April saw the release of three reports comparing the performance of TSA screeners and those employed by TSA-managed contractors at the five pilot program airports (now known as the PP5): San Francisco, Kansas City, Rochester, Jackson Hole, and Tupelo. Weighing in were Bearing Point (under contract to TSA), the Inspector General’s Office of the Dept. of Homeland Security, and the General Accounting Office. There was some good news, for those who fought to have this option included in the law that federalized screening. All three studies found that the PP5 screening was as good as or better than TSA screening. And all five of the PP5 airports want to continue going that route. The bad news, from the classified versions of the reports, is that overall screener performance – TSA and private — is still pretty bad. And that certainly raises the question of whether increasing the training, more than doubling the numbers, and tripling the cost of the screening workforce has bought us much of anything.

But that, I suppose, is a debate for the historians, because there is no question of “going back” to the pre-9/11 system of minimum-wage screeners working for individual airlines, rather than a better-trained, better-paid workforce overseen by the TSA and held accountable to uniform national standards. But with the law granting all 429 airports the option of using TSA-certified contractors starting this November, we need to figure out how to do a better job of matching screening numbers to workload (to minimize those horrible long lines) and of improving their performance.

Take the workload issue first. All three reports criticize TSA for grossly overcentralizing things. In a dynamic aviation industry where airlines add and drop large amounts of service each month, screener hiring is controlled from headquarters in Washington. Here’s GAO on this problem: “The private screening contractors . . . like Federal Security Directors at airports with federal screeners, must rely on TSA to authorize the hiring of screeners and establish assessment centers – a process that can take several months. The inability to conduct hiring on an as-needed basis has limited their ability to respond quickly to staffing shortages.” TSA’s response to this problem is to hire a consultant to develop a better centralized staffing model! SFO director John Martin told the House Aviation Subcommittee that screener staffing shortfalls don’t come about because there are too few bodies but “because TSA human resource processes are cumbersome, expensive, and fail to respond to the dynamics of airport operations.”

Despite the over-centralization noted by all three reports, which greatly hinders innovation by the PP5 contractors, they have still managed to come up with some ways of increasing their effectiveness – for example, by hiring (lower-cost) “baggage handlers” to move checked bags to and from the explosive detection equipment, so that higher-paid baggage screeners can spend their time on actual screening. One of the PP5 companies is developing a program to hire part-time college students as baggage handlers.

Following the April 22 Aviation Subcommittee hearing on the PP5 reports, Airports newsletter reported bipartisan agreement that greater decentralization is needed, for both TSA-provided screening and opt-out screening. Chairman John Mica said that airport operators should be making many more of the decisions about how airport security is done. One model for this Jackson Hole, the only PP5 airport where the airport itself is the security contractor. “With the airport private screening model, there is direct hands-on management . . . reaction time is short,” said airport director George Larson.

What would work far better than the centralized TSA model is devolution of the operational responsibility for screening (as well as the other security functions like access and perimeter control) to the airport itself. Under this model, security personnel would work either for the airport directly or for TSA-certified contractors hired and managed by the airport. The TSA’s Federal Security Director would be the security regulator, but would not be directly managing the security staff. Under this model, all security staff could be cross-trained, so that instead of staring at an X-ray screen all day and getting bored, a passenger screener could spend some time on perimeter control, some on baggage screening, some on access control of “sterile” areas, etc. And the airport would be free to add additional staffers, at its own expense if necessary, whenever TSA was unable to ramp up its security funding quickly enough to respond to surges in demand.

TSA’s initial guidance to airports on how the post-November opt-out program will work is due out next week. Let’s hope they will welcome constructive suggestions on how to make the program far more flexible and decentralized than PP5.

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Disaster-Response versus Target-Hardening

Last week I was interviewed at length by a reporter who wanted my reactions to a laundry-list bill on aviation security (the Safe PLANES Act) that had just been introduced by House Democrats. Its 14 provisions set forth any number of possibly useful and sometimes very costly measures to further beef up security at airports and on planes in flight. I gave my measured responses, but we then spent a few minutes talking about the lack of overall security spending priorities. Why are we continuing to make security policy via congressional wish-lists, I complained. Now that we have a Department of Homeland Security, why isn’t it doing the high-level analysis and making the trade-offs as to where we should focus our limited security resources? That is vital, because there will always be more things to spend security money on than we have security money to spend.

Since then I’ve continued to think on these things, as new items cross my desk. One was an article from The Economist, noting that if the Madrid bombers had placed smallpox rather than explosives on those trains, they might have killed tens of thousands, or even millions. Yet the U.S. smallpox vaccination program is stalled. Another was an op-ed by the chairman of Emory University’s Dept. of Emergency Medicine pointing out how under-prepared most cities are to respond even to large-scale, conventional explosives, the main tool terrorists have always used.

What’s wrong with Congress’s approach to security against terrorism is that it focuses exclusively (though inconsistently) on target-hardening. The problem with this is that whenever you spend a fortune hardening targets A, B, and C, there are still thousands of unhardened targets of other types (chemical tank cars, shopping malls, Disneyland) that then become relatively more attractive for terrorists to go after. It’s a losing strategy – and a sure route to national impoverishment.

There are two smarter approaches, to which we should be devoting a much greater fraction of what we spend on security against terrorism. One is disaster preparedness. There’s no way to know which targets terrorists will strike, but it’s pretty likely they will keep trying to find and attack soft targets. So we should be doing a much better job of being prepared to save as many lives as possible in the aftermath (and getting everybody vaccinated against smallpox).

The other smart approach is to spend a relatively large fraction of our resources on tracking down and wiping out the terrorists. I reported back in issue #6 the mathematical modeling of Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg of Tel Aviv University, who concludes that putting resources into going after terrorists is tens or hundreds of thousands of times more effective than target-hardening. I just wish somebody in Congress would pay attention.

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Time for Honesty on 100% Baggage Screening

The TSA has been taking its lumps in the media recently over “security lapses” in baggage screening at major airports. The Seattle Times since last fall has reported complaints of screeners about not all bags getting screened. Earlier this month, similar complaints were aired by screeners at Milwaukee and Newark airports. The common theme is that during busy times, instead of inspecting each and every bag for explosives, “screeners use short-cuts” such as merely swabbing the handles of a batch of bags for analysis by a trace detection machine, or moving a dog past a row of bags. TSA has been forced to respond, early this month canning the Federal Security Director at SEA-TAC and this week forcing DFW to install lobby screening machines in Terminals B and E by May 31st. USA Today weighed in with appropriate cries of alarm and the need for more such actions.

What’s wrong with this picture? First, it has the feel of the classic scene in “Casablanca,” where the official pretends to express shock that gambling could be going on at Rick’s Cafe. Anyone who’s been paying attention for the past 16 months knows that the TSA did not achieve the Dec. 31, 2002 goal of 100% explosive-detection screening of all checked bags. Many of the largest airports (including DFW) have been allowed to use alternative means (such as dogs and modified trace detection) in order to cope with the physical impossibility of processing huge numbers of bags without totally destroying flight schedules. This is not news.

Moreover, the intrepid reporters who are “discovering” that gambling (whoops, less than 100% inspection) is going on continue to turn a blind eye to the much bigger loophole left open by Congress: no comparable requirements for carry-on bag screening. The 9/11 terrorists did their murderous work using implements brought aboard in their carry-on bags. Yet airports continue to use low-tech X-ray machines that TSA would never certify for checked baggage inspection to “screen” carry-ons.

What we should be doing is rethinking the cost-effectiveness of assuming that every bag – whether checked or carry-on – is equally likely to be a threat. Shifting to a risk-based approach, as used in Europe, would focus more scrutiny on higher-risk bags, both checked and carry-on, than they get today, while letting lower-risk bags of both types be processed more quickly. I outlined that kind of approach last spring in the Reason policy study, “A Risk-Based Airport Security Policy.”

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Good Sense Emerging on Shoulder-Launched Missile Threat

With tens of thousands of man-portable air defense (MANPADS) missiles potentially on the loose worldwide, the threat to commercial aviation is certainly real. But for once Congress seems to be resisting the tendency to legislate first, analyze later. Since outfitting the entire US commercial airliner fleet could cost $10-20 billion, and impose serious operating and maintenance cost burdens, it’s prudent to look and think before we leap.

And that’s what seems to be happening. At the end of April, the House Aviation Subcommittee voted unanimously in support of the Commercial Aviation MANPADS Defense Act of 2004 (HR 4056), a measured response to the threat. Rather than mandating a hugely costly outfitting of planes with questionable technology, it focuses on three areas: requiring an assessment of airport vulnerability, providing for fast-track FAA certification of any eventual on-board countermeasures, and strengthening international means to curb the proliferation of MANPADS.

Subcommittee chairman John Mica (R, FL) deserves a lot of credit for leading the subcommittee in this careful direction. An early advocate of equipping the fleet, Mica has shown a willingness to learn more before deciding on action. He personally visited a facility in California where laser countermeasures are being installed on military planes and learned, for example, about the large power requirements for such systems and the long installation times involved. He has also noted that a system that might fit on a Boeing 777 might not be feasible to install on a regional jet.

Mica hopes the bill will pass the House by the end of May and be sent to the Senate for its consideration soon after.

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News Notes

Registered Traveler Competition Under Way. The TSA issued its request for proposals from the private sector on April 5 for the pilot test of its Registered Traveler program. Proposals were due (by email) on April 19, a very short response time. The pilot program is intended to begin late in June and last for 90 days, at three to five airports, with an estimated 5-10,000 frequent flyers participating.

Self-Defense for Airline Passengers. Although cockpits are far more secure than they used to be, very few flights have federal air marshals on board. And flight attendants have been given virtually no self-defense training or weapons. So passengers and cabin crews are pretty much on their own. Fortunately, an airline first officer and a police instructor have written Never Again: A Self-Defense Guide for the Flying Public, which provides lots of very useful advice on improvised weapons and tactics usable by many ordinary travelers. The book, by Mark Bogosian and Mike Regan, with Tommy Hamilton) is available in bookstores and from Amazon (at $15.95).

Plea Deal for Heatwole. The college student who successfully smuggled box cutters and simulated explosives onto a number of commercial flights has agreed to a plea bargain. Nathaniel Heatwole, 20, is pleading guilty to the misdemeanor charge of entering an airport area in violation of security requirements – instead of being tried on the original felony charge of taking dangerous weapons aboard an aircraft (for which he could have gotten 10 years). The feds agreed that Heatwole’s extensive cooperation, including the production of an instructional video, attested to his sincerity in trying to improve aviation security.

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