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Aviation Report Card 2004

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.

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