Airport security may have been eclipsed by world events this year, but it's a subject we can't afford to ignore. Barbara Benham assesses how far we've really come since 9/11—and weighs in on the key issues facing flying now
The technology for the magnetometer you walk through at the airport was developed in the 1960's. So was the X-ray machine that screens your carry-on bags. Is this the way security was supposed to look three years after 9/11?
When Congress passed the Aviation Transportation Security Act, which President Bush signed into law on November 19, 2001, it earmarked $50 million for the development of "next generation" screening equipment. Washington ended up spending more than half of it on a communication system for air marshals. The next year, Congress appropriated $75 million for new technology; the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spent $62 million of it on salaries and other expenses.
While technology isn't the only thing worth spending security dollars on, these developments suggest that a closer look at the state of airport screening is in order, which is why we're devoting the bulk of our annual Aviation Report Card to the issue (see page 186 for more on other topics). Our examination reveals that real progress has been made, but much remains to be done.
The Human Factor
Although aviation security hasn't been grabbing headlines as it once did, there have been a number of important developments in the past 12 months. Last October, news broke that a college student named Nathaniel Heatwole had smuggled banned items, including box cutters—yes, box cutters—past checkpoints and stashed them on six separate commercial flights between February and September 2003, in an effort to show how lax security was. We may never know how Heatwole penetrated security: he was sentenced in June to 100 hours of community service and $500 in fines and, at press time, was not granting interviews.
In April, federal investigators told Congress that airport screeners—the front line of aviation security—were "performing poorly" (i.e., missing dangerous items) in an undercover study conducted by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, the General Accounting Office (the investigative arm of Congress), and a private firm. Without providing failure rates, DHS inspector general Clark Kent Ervin also indicated that, according to a test at five airports around the country, there was no difference in performance between federal and private screeners. That finding, though preliminary, is particularly disturbing, because the main rationale for "federalizing" the screener workforce was to improve performance—the thinking being that the government could attract and hire more highly qualified workers and screen applicants with more-stringent background checks.
Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, was so incensed by the report that he demanded an emergency meeting with Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge under threat of subpoena. The secretary complied, and Ridge, TSA leaders, and lawmakers met on June 2 to talk about what Ridge conceded were unacceptable results. One possible solution discussed was to decentralize the TSA, so more decisions could be made locally.
That is starting to happen anyway. In November, airports can begin to opt out of the federal screening program and either run security checks themselves or hire an outside firm to do so. As many as 100 of the nation's 440 airports have expressed interest in the possibility. Although some observers have reservations about the change, citing the poor performance of outside firms and locally supervised screeners prior to 9/11, it's important to note that opting out does not mean a return to the way things used to be. The TSA will continue to set the screeners' wages, and airports must follow federal guidelines on screening equipment and the hiring and training of screeners.
John Clark, executive director of the Jacksonville (Florida) Airport Authority, says he will consider opting out. Clark believes that the screeners are already doing a good job at Jacksonville's airport, a medium-sized facility that handles about 5 million passengers a year, but that allowing the airport to take over the program would make things work even better. "I don't view [taking over the responsibility] as any different than the Federal Aviation Administration contracting out air-traffic controllers," he says. "That works."
At the very least, Clark thinks that airports should take on more responsibility for supervising screeners, even if that simply means giving the TSA's local security directors more autonomy in hiring, capital improvements, and "just changing the physical layout of the checkpoints." Notes Clark: "That alone would vastly improve the system."
To be sure, the nation's 45,000 airport screeners are doing something right. Between September 2003 and May 2004, the TSA tallied 4.9 million "voluntarily relinquished" items—the agency prefers not to use the word confiscated—from passengers at airports, including more than 1.4 million knives and 400 guns. (Why so many people are traveling with weapons is mystifying, to say the least.) The TSA doesn't break down these figures any further, but a spokeswoman says the majority of items were found by screeners, though at times passengers do point such things out themselves.
Of course, there's no way to know what the TSA's screeners have missed. And apparently, the agency has not been doing all that it could to test performance. Last September, the General Accounting Office reported that the TSA was not collecting much data on screeners' ability to detect banned items. Moreover, the TSA was not using what is probably the most practical tool for monitoring screener performance: the Threat Image Protection (TIP) system, which randomly places images of prohibited objects on an X-ray machine's screen while a screener is checking bags and records whether he or she catches them. By the end of December, the TSA had updated and installed TIP software on all scanners and had begun using it to evaluate screeners. Better late than never.
Another area of concern among experts is screener training. Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, an aviation safety advocacy group, and a member of the TSA's Aviation Security Advisory Committee, calls inadequate training one of the three most urgent problems facing the system. According to the TSA, screeners get 40 hours of classroom instruction before starting work; they must also pass a test and undergo 60 hours of on-the-job training. While this represents a significant increase over the 10 hours of classroom instruction most screeners got before 9/11, Hudson still believes it's not enough. He thinks screeners should get 30 days' worth of training, noting that a prison guard in New York State, for example, receives that amount. He declined to discuss specifically how the additional training could improve matters, citing security reasons, though one possibility might be the introduction of intuitive passenger screening—a strategy used in Israel and some European countries, and being tested at Boston Logan—in which screeners question passengers and read body language to identify suspicious travelers.
The second major way to improve screening is, of course, getting effective, state-of-the-art systems in place to detect explosives, weapons, and potential problem passengers. This has been an area of concern since 2001: the high-tech CT scanners that Congress mandated all checked bags pass through are still not universally in use, and much of the rest of the screening equipment relies on decades-old technology. To be fair, the government has been testing a slew of new technologies, but the certification process is woefully slow. The National Safe Skies Alliance, a private nonprofit group that gets funding from the TSA, has done field tests of vapor detectors that find explosives in carry-on baggage, special scanners that can identify liquid in a container without opening it, and "zone" metal detectors, which let screeners know where metal is on a person's body.
According to a spokeswoman, Safe Skies tests equipment with "real people, real lighting conditions, real architecture," but does not disclose results. The technology receiving the most buzz now in aviation circles is a walk-through portal made by GE Ion Track in Wilmington, Massachusetts. Affectionately called "the puffer," the portal has a hood that captures the plume of heat that naturally rises off a person's body; it then puffs jets of air which shake loose particles. The machine vaporizes the particles, gives them a charge, and measures how fast the ions are traveling. Using that speed, screeners can identify the presence of banned substances, such as explosives.
The portal is already being used at U.S. nuclear power plants and has been tested at foreign airports, including London's Heathrow. It was also part of the TSA's rail-security pilot program in New Carrollton, Maryland, this spring. (At press time, the TSA was evaluating those results.) In June, the TSA announced that it would start testing the portal over the summer at five airports: San Diego, Tampa, Rochester, Gulfport-Biloxi, and Providence. Select passengers will pass through a portal after walking through metal detectors, and the TSA will gauge the portal's efficacy, as well as whether its use will increase wait times or otherwise inconvenience passengers.
This is a promising step, and the first time the TSA is testing such technology at U.S. airports. If approved, however, the question of cost remains. This fiscal year, Congress appropriated $155 million for new security technology; the "puffers" sell for $132,000 apiece, so there may be enough cash in this year's budget to purchase scores of them.
Other technologies, such as biometric ID's that could more accurately confirm a passenger's identity, are years away from widespread use; they're currently being tested (see "Biometrics: The Eye in the Sky," page 184). The notion of national ID cards that would incorporate a biometric element, such as an iris scan or fingerprints, has been tabled. The State Department has said it plans to begin issuing biometric passports in late 2005, but since they will be available only to those who are renewing, it will take at least 10 years for all passports to incorporate biometric features.
CAPPS II, the much-ballyhooed second-generation Computer Assisted Passenger Profile System, is being abandoned, after negotiations between the government, European Commission officials, and privacy advocates revealed it to be unworkable. That leaves a weakness: the passenger-profiling system that was in place on 9/11 remains essentially unchanged, and its effectiveness has been compromised, since once-classified "trigger" criteria—such as buying a one-way ticket—are now widely known. The TSA says it might unveil an alternative to capps ii sometime this year.
At press time, the summer of 2004 was gearing up to be the biggest test yet of new screening procedures, with air-passenger volume expected to match or exceed pre-9/11 levels for the first time since the attacks. Despite all the scanning, wanding, and shoe removing, screening has not changed dramatically. Security is tighter: air marshals on some flights, secure cockpits with armed pilots, and K-9 patrols represent real progress. But among experts, there is a sense that new procedures for screening introduced after 9/11 that were supposed to be temporary are slowly becoming permanent. Others have been eliminated altogether. That is not what anyone, from Congress to the flying public, had in mind three years ago. It's time to start closing the gaps.
Washington, D.C.-based journalist Barbara Benham reports frequently on security issues for Travel + Leisure.
Once thought to be the stuff of science fiction, biometrics—the science of identifying individuals by scanning "inalterable" physical characteristics—may someday be a reality. Last year, Amsterdam's Schiphol, Tokyo's Narita, and London's Heathrow all began testing biometrics as a security measure, and in February, Frankfurt (continental Europe's busiest airport) launched a pilot program with volunteers from 18 European countries. The U.K. has another test planned for mid-2005, involving five domestic airports and 10,000 travelers.
In all of these tests, participants agree to a thorough background check and a one-time iris scan. Once the image is captured, a computer software program analyzes the 266 independent characteristics of the iris and creates a unique 512-byte code, which is then encrypted and stored in a database. Each time passengers enter border control, they scan their passport (which includes a biometric chip) and look into a black-and-white video camera for three seconds—the time it takes to make a positive identification. Then they breeze on through, cutting wait times significantly.
For its part, the United States is taking a cautious approach. The Transportation Security Administration's Registered Traveler program—which at press time gave volunteer participants at five airports special ID's allowing them to bypass some security procedures—also incorporates iris scans, but the program's future is far from certain. With privacy groups and some scientistsraising objections to the technology, biometrics may have more hurdles to clear than efficacy alone.
A Look at 10 Key Issues
Comments The TSA still considers the "known shipper" program—which allows any cargo that comes from pre-approved companies to be shipped on passenger planes—an adequate form of screening. We need more stringent checks.
Comments The TSA is doing a much better job of explaining its actions, as evidenced by its respectable handling of security-related flight cancellations over the winter 2003-04 holiday season.
Comments Little diplomatic finesse has accompanied the introduction of security measures such as the US-VISIT program, in which we fingerprint and take mug shots of incoming foreign tourists. Better international communication and cooperation, on all sides, is essential to improving global security.
Comments This has been among the safest stretches in history for commercial aviation in the United States. With air traffic up, we must guard against overcapacity at airports and the accidents it can foster.
Comments Improper maintenance has been definitively linked to crashes. The FAA needs to act on the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation that it upgrade its oversight of, and procedures for, maintenance workers.
Fuel Tank Safety
Comments Eight years after TWA Flight 800 exploded off Long Island, the FAA finally ordered airlines to install equipment that will reduce the risk of fuel-tank explosions. The systems lower the amount of oxygen in the tanks by pumping in nitrogen.
Behind the Numbers
Comments In a little-noticed development, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began releasing monthly data that explain why flights are delayed, a vast improvement on one way the government reports aviation data.
Comments The TSA has far too large a backlog of claims concerning lost and damaged luggage. One reason: the agency and the airlines often disagree about who is responsible and therefore must pay for claims. They need to work this out.
Comments Although redeeming awards requires more advance planning these days, once-rigid rules (remember the "use it or lose it" days?) have become more flexible, and there are more choices and benefits, thanks in part to alliances.
Comments Faced with burgeoning image problems, the airlines are getting creative—United Airlines' recent animated vignettes are the most inspiring airline ads in years. Too bad United's financial situation isn't also looking up.