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.