There's been a yin-yang edge to commercial aviation this year: for every plus, there seemed to be a minus. A shorter-than-expected war in Iraq was good news, but a prolonged recession has kept business in the doldrums. Analysts have noted the remarkable recent safety record—only one fatal crash over a 19-month period—but news reports suggested continued weakness in airport security.
With the airline industry poised to lose as much as $8 billion this year on the heels of last year's $11.3 billion loss, resources have probably never been stretched thinner. In Washington, D.C., the Federal Aviation Administration—which now oversees only safety—and the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are both still settling into their new roles. In T+L's second annual aviation report card, we once again examine the state of affairs—and make recommendations for necessary improvements.
Security at airports, and in the skies, has come a long way in two years. Last year the government met two critical deadlines: assuming control of checkpoint screening at the nation's 424 commercial airports, and screening all checked bags for explosives. Cockpit doors on passenger planes have been reinforced. And with $35 million from Congress, the TSA has begun testing a more refined, computerized passenger-screening system, which evaluates security risks when travelers make reservations.
But last November, a failed attempt in Kenya to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet with shoulder-launched missiles suddenly raised the specter of new threats most people hadn't even contemplated. Congress, at the urging of John Mica, chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee, began considering installing anti-missile technology either on every U.S. passenger jet or on select aircraft, as a deterrent. The latter proposal follows the same principle behind the armed pilots and air marshal programs, the theory being that terrorists are less likely to strike if there's a possibility that the pilot is armed or there's an armed sky marshal on board. At press time, the House had approved $60 million for the TSA to develop anti-missile technology; this proposal was expected to pass in the Senate as well.
As attention-getting as anti-missile technology may be, there are other areas that demand scrutiny. The case of Iyman Faris, the truck driver who pleaded guilty this past spring to conspiring with al-Qaeda to cut the suspension cables on the Brooklyn Bridge, suggests that terrorists may have access to sensitive areas of U.S. airports: according to court documents, Faris had made truck deliveries to cargo planes, and discussed with al-Qaeda the ways in which this might be useful to the organization. Although in the end his airport activities appear not to have been terrorism-related, they underscore the need for more-stringent access requirements at airports.
Currently, tens of thousands of workers have security clearance at the nation's airports. While the vast majority of them are law-abiding, Captain Stephen Luckey, chair of the Air Line Pilots Association's security committee, calls access one of the major remaining holes in the system. "We're nearly as vulnerable as we were before 9/11 as far as access goes," he says. His recommendation: biometric Transportation Worker Identification Cards, combined with background checks that involve cross-referencing names with criminal and terrorist watch lists. For now, Congress is considering making airport employees undergo the same screening process as passengers before they report to work.
Another area of concern is cargo shipped on passenger flights, an issue we flagged in last year's Report Card. Twelve months later, vulnerabilities remain. Although some cargo is being checked for explosives, the TSA will not disclose the percentage (a widely circulated industry statistic is less than 5 percent). In January, the General Accounting Office issued a report detailing weaknesses in cargo security, including the potential for tampering with shipments and holes in the TSA's Known Shipper program. In May, the Senate passed a bill requiring the TSA to tighten cargo security through a number of measures, such as training handlers to protect shipments from tampering. The bill, which at press time was pending in the House, does not require all cargo on passenger flights to be screened—others that do are also being considered in Congress.
The TSA is already looking into improvements. The agency is spending $30 million to develop new technology, since most cargo is too large to pass through the machines used to screen passenger baggage. And the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General (DHS OIG), which oversees the TSA, is now conducting an audit of cargo on passenger flights to determine not only what percentage of it is screened, but also how thoroughly the Known Shipper program vets participants.
The DHS OIG has been conducting a number of other audits: two to review the Explosive Detection Systems—the tracers that "sniff" for explosives—which some studies have suggested are ineffective, and which the TSA, in a somewhat disappointing move, relied upon to meet last year's deadline for screening checked baggage. Two other audits are testing the effectiveness of screening, of both passengers and baggage, to see how well screeners are catching high-risk passengers and banned items.
In a sixth audit, the office is examining a pilot program under way at five U.S. airports (including San Francisco and Kansas City), in which screeners are not federal workers but employees of private firms overseen by the TSA. Starting in November 2004, airports can apply to opt out of the federal program; if the audit's report is favorable, more airports are likely to use privately employed screeners.
Finally, a seventh audit is considering the hiring process for federal screeners. This spring, the TSA acknowledged that about 1,200 screeners, out of 56,000, had "suitability issues," ranging from having lied about completing high school (a job requirement) to having lied about criminal backgrounds. At first glance, this was an alarming headline. However, only 85 of the 1,200 problem screeners—all of whom were dismissed—had criminal histories, a not especially worrisome figure considering the number of hires. The TSA is also "right-sizing" its ranks: by October 1, there will be just under 50,000 full-time screeners. Although some have raised concerns about diminished security, these layoffs made sense: a handful of airports were genuinely overstaffed.
The DHS OIG expects to begin releasing the auditors' findings later this year. The results should shape aviation policy for years to come.
GRADE: C+ FEEDBACK The TSA should be commended for its achievements and ongoing progress. However, it needs to find a way to screen airport workers more rigorously. Also, when the DHS OIG issues its report on cargo, the TSA should move quickly to adopt the recommendations.
HONOR ROLL Captain Stephen Luckey
Luckey, a former 747 pilot, has spent much of his career raising important issues about aviation security; since 1994, he's been chair of the Air Line Pilots Association's security committee.
It's still true that flying is the safest mode of transportation. We've already noted the heartening statistic regarding fatal crashes; add to that a continuing decline in serious runway incursions (near-misses between planes).
On the safety front, the most significant issue is maintenance, and the FAA's oversight of it. Last December, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 in January 2000 was due to inadequate maintenance. The airline had delayed lubricating the plane's screw-jack system, a decision that caused the in-flight horizontal stabilizer to fail. The airline had received permission from the FAA to postpone the work; if it had adhered to the schedule, crews almost certainly would have discovered the screw jacks' worn threads.
Last year, we highlighted the special audits sparked by the Alaska Airlines crash. Those investigations focused on how airlines managed their safety programs. Auditors found weak programs at several major carriers. But it's unclear how much progress the airlines have made, because the FAA does notplan to conduct follow-up audits, citing a lack of need. "Given the economic state of the airlines, we are always vigilant in overseeing their activities," says FAA spokesman Les Dorr, referring to the agency's routine checks of maintenance centers. At press time, the FAA had put three (undisclosed) carriers under surveillance for maintenance and operational matters.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General (DOT OIG), which oversees the FAA, has been studying the ways in which airlines conduct their maintenance. To save money, carriers are increasingly subcontracting work to third parties, which are not monitored closely by the FAA. According to findings issued this July by the DOT OIG, in 1996 the major carriers outsourced $1.5 billion, or 37 percent, of their total aircraft maintenance. In 2002, they outsourced $2.5 billion, or 47 percent, of their total maintenance costs. In a report issued in July, the DOT OIG called for the FAA to improve its oversight of maintenance, including more inspections and enhanced reviews of repair stations.
GRADE: B FEEDBACK Performance has been good, but we believe the FAA should be conducting more big-picture audits of maintenance programs. The FAA and the airlines must determine whether outsourcing increases risks and take action accordingly.
HONOR ROLL Gail Dunham
As head of the National Air Disaster Alliance, Dunham has worked tirelessly to improve aviation safety and security.
Perhaps the most symbolic service cutback this year was American Airlines' decision to stop offering more legroom in economy class on some planes. Launched in 2000, the More Room Throughout Coach program was popular, but according to American, it prevented the airline from offering competitive fares.
"I'm not surprised," says Pat Funk, vice president of MyTravelRights.com, a Web site devoted to airline consumer advocacy. Funk believes that service at the major airlines has declined over the past two years.
Of course, good service doesn't mean the same thing to all people—some travelers applaud the more laid-back attitude of the successful low-cost carriers while others bemoan the lack of meal service. Funk dislikes self-service check-in, which many see as a good way to avoid standing in line.
In more-measurable areas, things have been getting better. Flight delays have dropped considerably, in tandem with a decrease in the number of flights. In May 2003, passengers filed 489 complaints with the DOT about airline service, down 35.4 percent from May 2002. The most recent Airline Quality Rating—an annual report compiled by professors Dean Headley of Wichita State University and Brent Bowen of the University of Nebraska at Omaha that scores the top 10 U.S. airlines for customer performance—showed improvement for the second straight year.
Airports and the TSA have a role to play in service, too: a key complaint of many travelers is the wait time at security checkpoints. According to the TSA, waits averaged three minutes per passenger this spring. However, figures vary—a function of airport design and screener efficiency. For instance, at Atlanta's Hartsfield, there's only one checkpoint for the entire airport, whereas Los Angeles International has multiple checkpoints in each terminal.
GRADE: B+ FEEDBACK Overall, the industry is doing an acceptable job during a challenging time, and competition in the skies promises to spur further improvements. Security checkpoints should be added to underserved airports, and some of the more beleaguered airlines could improve customer relations at no cost by reminding their employees to treat passengers with care.
HONOR ROLL Southwest Airlines
The Texan success story has led the way among airlines in demonstrating how a commitment to customer service can be profitable.