Security No single issue in aviation has commanded more attention than security since 9/11. Much has already been accomplished. The airlines have completed "phase one" of the TSA's cockpit reinforcement program (neither the TSA nor the Air Transport Association will detail what this is, for security reasons). The National Guard has stopped patrolling most of the nation's airports, but local law enforcement has taken its place. And thousands of sky marshals continue to fly undercover on an undisclosed number of domestic flights.
Much is also still in flux. At press time, it was uncertain whether pilots would be allowed to carry guns. Improved ID cards were under consideration, but little progress had been made. And the TSA was experiencing growing pains, receiving its second new director, Admiral James Loy, in less than a year.
Since last November, when the president signed sweeping aviation security measures into law, the federal government's main priority has been to meet two deadlines: to take over checkpoint screening at the nation's 429 airports by this November 19, and to screen all checked baggage for explosives by December 31. According to TSA spokeswoman Deirdre O'Sullivan, the government will meet both deadlines. But what does it mean in practice?
As of July 23, six airports (Baltimore was the largest of them) had been completely "federalized"—screeners tested, hired, and trained as federal, not private, employees. By the end of this month, another 133 airports were expected to be on their way, including some of the nation's busiest hubs.
The TSA plans to hire many, but not all, of the screeners who've been working for private consulting firms. However, the 51,000 new federal screeners will be subject to much tougher hiring criteria, including criminal background checks, and will receive more-thorough training—a total of 104 hours, 44 in class and 60 on the job. They will also receive higher pay, in an effort to reduce the typically high turnover rate.
It's far too early to gauge the effectiveness of the federal employees. In the meantime, government "stings" conducted in the months after 9/11 have found that the existing system still contains vulnerabilities. Most recently, in undercover tests at 32 of the nation's largest airports this past June, TSA agents found that screeners failed to detect fake weapons (simulated guns, dynamite, bombs) 24 percent of the time.
Technology will be a major component in improving passenger screening. Tests of facial-recognition cameras at Boston's Logan and Dallas—Fort Worth airports showed better than 90 percent success rates, but tests at Palm Beach International Airport had just a 50 percent success rate. (The manufacturer blamed poor lighting.) High-definition imaging machines —using low-grade X rays that effectively undress you, even outlining your private parts, to search for concealed contraband—are also in trial runs at U.S. airports, but they're unpopular with some travelers. The ACLU, which has called the machine's imaging a "virtual strip search," opposes it for being overly invasive. The National Research Council has created a panel to study these and other new technologies; it's expected to make recommendations early next year.
Though CT scanners are expensive—they cost $750,000 apiece and nearly as much to install—they are considered highly reliable. As for trace detectors, a panel of scientists working for the National Research Council concluded earlier this year that there is no way to gauge such machines' effectiveness. Bomb experts have questioned the TSA's decision, noting that various odors may confuse the machines. The TSA won't say how many CT scanners and trace detectors it already has in use around the country, although it is purchasing 1,100 CT scanners and up to 6,000 trace detectors.
Cargo shipped on passenger planes remains a significant security threat. Prior to September 11, the focus of cargo screening was hazardous material, a concern heightened by the c-9Progress Report:et Flight 592 over the Florida Everglades, which was caused by an illegal shipment of oxygen tanks. Last fall, Kenneth Mead, the Department of Transportation's inspector general, raised the issue of cargo safety before a group of aviation safety advocates meeting outside Washington, D.C., and since then, both his office and the TSA have been studying ways to reduce additional risks from terrorism.
True, planting an explosive in cargo would be difficult—terrorists wouldn't necessarily know what flight their shipment would go on, and wouldn't know when to detonate the explosives. But it's worth noting that cargo shipments, which are carried on most passenger flights, are rarely screened. (Neither the TSA nor the ATA will disclose what percentage is screened.) They're also almost never opened and searched; more often, inspectors simply give them a visual once-over, looking for leaking hazardous material.
Immediately following last September's terrorist attacks, the FAA, then still responsible for overseeing security, forbade all businesses without federal clearance to ship cargo on passenger planes. Earlier this year, the DOT Inspector General's office noted that it would nonetheless still be relatively easy for someone to pose as a legitimate shipper and gain clearance.
It's uncertain whether the year-end deadline for screening passenger bags also applies to cargo; the TSA's lawyers are studying the matter. At press time, the TSA was also reviewing recommendations from the DOT IG's office on improving cargo security. That report was expected to be made public sometime this year.