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.