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Global Airport Security

If the airport doesn't comply in time, or if the situation is deemed serious enough to warrant immediate action, the TSA can issue a public advisory by placing signs at U.S. airports and inserts into the tickets and boarding passes for flights to the noncompliant airport. This has happened only once in the program's 17-year history: in 1993, when the FAA found security to be substandard at Murtala Mohammad International Airport in Lagos, Nigeria. (The warning was lifted in 1999.)

It has taken a while for the issue of global security to get official attention in Washington. At press time, the General Accounting Office had not received any requests from Congress to review U.S. action on foreign aviation security in the post-9/11 world. Cathleen Berrick, a director of the GAO's Homeland Security & Justice section, concedes that this is surprising, especially because the GAO is now reviewing no fewer than 14 aviation security matters, and in the past it evaluated the country's foreign airport and aircraft security assessment program when it was run by the FAA. The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General's office did begin its own review of the TSA's assessment program in February; when results are released later this year, we'll have our first official post-9/11 report on how the TSA is handling that responsibility.

What is already clear, to many experts, is that despite new security measures and evaluation programs, there remain some weaknesses in global aviation security. Most often cited is "the people aspect," according to Billie Vincent, president and CEO of Aerospace Services International, a Chantilly, Virginia consulting firm: "You don't have any system unless you have good people, properly selected and appropriately trained." He credits ICAO's 10 worldwide training centers for raising the bar,but notes that uneven standards remain a problem. Another concern is the lack of standardization. "Aviation is global," observes Teun Platenkamp, head of KLM's security. "The more the system is harmonized, the more effective it is. It also makes it clear for the traveling public."

There's no shortage of suggestions for improving the situation, both among American experts and their counterparts abroad. Luckey, head of the Air Line Pilots Association's security panel, thinks the United States should consider entering into more bilateral aviation security agreements. The FAA already has such accords with 27 countries, including the U.K.,Canada, and Japan, primarily on safety issues. Expanding these to include security, or entering separate ones on security, might make dealing with some of the more contentious standards, like armed sky marshals, an easier proposition, since the sense of partnership helps to override worries about national sovereignty. "They're like shaking hands," says Luckey of bilateral agreements. "Once you shake hands, it breaks the ice. When you do something by invitation, it's better received than if you try to impose it on a country."

ACAP's chief, Hudson, has proposed that ICAO occupy an ex officio place on the TSA's Aviation Rulemaking Advisory panel. That would bring the panel more input from an international perspective. "It wouldn't be unprecedented," he notes, since the European Joint Aviation Authorities have sat on FAA panels.

Nico Voorbach, chair of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots' Associations' security panel, thinks there should be a way for all security staff—airline, government, and airport officials—to report problems to ICAO, with follow-up to make sure they have been corrected. (That information would not be made public but would be available to security personnel.) Such a system would give people a clear sense about what to report and when. In addition, a central repository of reports from around the globe could help ICAO extrapolate patterns.

Others have suggested that ICAO be given enforcement powers. But the emerging consensus in the aviation community is that expanding ICAO's role could lead to international friction or cause the organization to develop an uncomfortably cozy relationship with the airlines and airports—or both.

In the United States, it's hard to predict how much attention global aviation security will continue to get in an election year. As ever, the urgency with which politicians deal with the issue will depend on actual threats or attacks, thwarted or otherwise. Fortunately, there are plenty of federal officials, as well as private-sector experts, who will carry on the work in the international arena.

Given the United States' reputation as a unilateral aggressor, cooperating with other countries to improve global airport security standards will require more diplomatic finesse than ever. A lack of bilateral collaboration could create an opportunity for a terrorist to escape detection—or worse. This past winter, there were press reports that French officials prematurely announced the cancellation of a Paris—Los Angeles Air France flight, to the chagrin of U.S. investigators, who had hoped to ensnare the plane's suspect passenger(s) at Charles de Gaulle. One must hope that in the future countries will put aside their differences, given how much is at stake.

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