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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

State of America’s Airlines: Navigating a New Threat Landscape

Prior to 9/11, aircraft hijackings were a primary threat, and the tragic events of September 11 showed us that terrorists would weaponize the aircraft itself.

Two decades have passed since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, changed the world. That fateful day initiated 20 years of continuous evolution within the aviation security system. Over those 20 years, Airlines for America (A4A) and the U.S. airline industry has strengthened its commitment to prioritizing security and invested in strategic measures to mitigate and proactively address risk. We know our success in keeping our employees, passengers and aircraft safe is not the product of happenstance. Rather, it is the result of deliberate, systematic improvements over many years in collaboration with our federal government partners, and an industry that is constantly challenging itself to meet and exceed the highest standards. We play a critical role in keeping our skies secure, and we take that responsibility with the utmost seriousness.

When assessing the daily challenges of aviation security, it is important to understand the depth and magnitude of the global services provided by U.S. airlines. Prior to the global health crisis, U.S. airlines had seen 10 years of consecutive growth. And, in 2019, U.S. airlines carried a record 2.5 million passengers and more than 58,000 tons of cargo every day to and from more than 800 airports in nearly 80 countries. Although the industry has not yet fully recovered from the impact of COVID-19, we forecast that U.S. airlines will return to 2019 passenger volumes by 2023. As the industry prepares for this growth, we recognize that we must remain vigilant and committed to a nimble, multi-layered security regime. We must also identify innovative ways to ensure an appropriate level of security screening is applied in the most efficient manner.

Innovation Plus Technology

The immediate government response to increase screening of passengers, baggage and cargo in the years following September 11 and subsequent aviation security incidents served the sole purpose of enhancing security countermeasures. And understandably so. In more recent years, we have seen significant strides in our ability to leverage technology to enhance security. Our industry has always been at the forefront of innovation, and technology has been a key driver to enable an increase in security effectiveness as well as enhancing passenger facilitation and the customer experience. While security is always paramount, we have learned that these are not mutually exclusive goals. The question moving forward is how to maximize innovation to take the next great leap for security and facilitation of commerce.

Our industry is doing our part. U.S. airlines have partnered with Silicon Valley technology companies, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate, the DHS Centers of Excellence and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to pilot security innovations and enable other research and testing. In recent years, these projects have included Advanced Screening Lanes, Computed Tomography for accessible property screening, use of biometrics and the development of explosive trace detection applications for cargo screening purposes. And, in many cases, airlines have donated this technology to the TSA through the Capabilities Acceptance Process. Our members’ proactive partnership on technology innovation projects has served to expedite research and development, field testing and full deployment of technologies that have significantly increased our security posture.

Airlines have been encouraged by the TSA’s rapid deployment of Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) over the past several years. By itself, CAT is an important security enhancement to verify real-time vetting results at the checkpoint. However, CAT can also be integrated with facial matching capability, providing the TSA a platform for biometric verification at the checkpoint. This use of biometrics automates what is currently a manual identity verification process, thereby reducing the potential for human error and fraud.

“We need the ability to pool knowledge and leverage TSA’s ‘market demand signal’ to expand and incentivize research and development for additional cargo screening technologies”

In addition to supporting TSA’s efforts to expand its biometric capability, the U.S. airline industry has been eager to identify opportunities to incorporate technologies like biometrics into the passenger travel experience, combining advanced security technologies with customer service. In fact, one of the largest investments in technology by the aviation community over the past several years has been enhancing and integrating biometrics into the travel process. Airlines are partnering with TSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to implement facial recognition capability at check-in, baggage drop and boarding. And, as we continue to make progress toward broader implementation of facial recognition capability, airlines have remained strongly committed to strict privacy principles that include robust passenger communication efforts, opt-in options and non-retention of photos for business purposes.

Over the past year, the COVID-19 public health crisis has played a significant role in expediting rollout of technology solutions – including increased use of biometrics, enhancements to smartphone applications and touchless check-in options – that not only enhance security but also reduce touchpoints throughout the travel experience. We are pleased that data continues to indicate that there is enormous appetite among travelers to utilize these technologies. According to A4A’s most recent annual passenger survey, an overwhelming 80 percent of respondents who did not check bags while traveling checked-in electronically. And, even among those with checked luggage, more than 60 percent checked in for their flights digitally. Moving forward, airlines will continue to work with DHS, CBP, TSA and our passengers to ensure both security and privacy protections remain front and center, and we will continue efforts to increase consumer confidence in these technologies.

As we enter the next era of aviation security, we look forward to working closely with DHS and TSA to mirror TSA’s same success in driving the innovative marketplace for passenger and baggage screening technologies towards new cargo screening technology options. The mass scale movement of critical, life-saving personal protective equipment, vaccines, food and other goods during the pandemic illustrated to the world what we in aviation already knew: the movement of these goods by air cargo is vital to our modern world. Unlike passenger and baggage screening, the industry remains responsible for screening of air cargo and investing in the screening technology to be used. This screening is very complex given the wide variety of commodities to be shipped and the time-sensitive nature of the shipments. We need the ability to pool knowledge and leverage TSA’s “market demand signal” to expand and incentivize research and development for additional cargo screening technologies beyond the tools available today. The airline industry stands ready to expedite this important work in the same spirit of partnership as has been achieved in other areas.

Accommodating Growing Demand

Although the aviation industry has not fully recovered from the pandemic-induced downturn in travel, passenger volume exceeded capacity in certain markets during the summer of 2021. Pre-pandemic, we focused on staffing and throughput at large, high-volume airports that required a large footprint for TSA checkpoints. As a result of the largely leisure travel-driven recovery in 2021, these were not the airports that saw a quick return to travel. Many small- to medium-size airports in proximity to outdoor recreational activities recovered the quickest, in some cases exceeding their pre-pandemic volumes. For example, TSA screened 14.5 percent more air travelers at Montana airports in July 2021 than it did in July 2019.

While we all hope for continued growth of air travel that exceeds 2019 levels in the near future, the answer to managing larger volume cannot simply be to continue expanding airport infrastructure. In the years to come, it is critical we think beyond the static TSA checkpoints of the past 20 years and think outside the box. We will need innovative solutions that provide opportunities for more efficiency within the current infrastructure. We need solutions that are flexible and bring together the latest technology, leveraging vetting of passengers to better apply the appropriate level of security to those we know the most or least about. Recent experience has shown us once again that we need to be nimbler and more responsive to both evolving threats and quick changes in the marketplace.

Staying Ahead of the Adversary

As aviation security has grown more robust and challenging to circumvent, our adversaries have become increasingly creative in their attempts. Prior to 9/11, aircraft hijackings were a primary threat, and the tragic events of September 11 showed us that terrorists would weaponize the aircraft itself. Since that time, we have seen a variety of plots against aviation. We saw the shoe bomb attempt in December 2001, the liquid explosive plot in 2006, the underwear bomber in 2009, the printer cartridge bomb plot in 2010, the second underwear bomb in 2012, the MetroJet bombing in 2015, the Daallo Airlines bombing using insiders in 2016, the need for enhanced screening for personal electronic devices in 2017, and the Australian bomb plot in 2017. The list is long.

Today, these threats have evolved, and the U.S. airline industry is facing new challenges, including cyber threats and potential threats from unmanned aircraft systems. Our industry operates in a rapidly evolving, complex security environment on the ground and in airspace around the world, and we must acknowledge that the type of threats we are confronted with will continue to change. We must be prepared. One of the key findings of the 9/11 Commission Report was the U.S. government’s inability to effectively share intelligence and other information to guide decision making. While enormous strides have been made to address those shortcomings over the past two decades, it is equally important that a two-way information flow between government and industry – the operators of the critical infrastructure at risk – be robust.

State of America's Airlines: Navigating a New Threat Landscape Homeland Security Today
A pilot in the cockpit of an airplane being targeted by a laser FBI photo

When considering the scale and complexity of the U.S. aviation system and the agility needed to operate a successful, risk-based security system, it is easy to understand why we believe it is so important to approach security in a smart and coordinated manner. That is why a key question for the airline industry as we look toward the future is how to best partner with government as well as lean on our own independent resources to understand potential future threats so that we can proactively mitigate risk.

The air domain is extremely complex, and there are myriad players who need to work together seamlessly to make the system secure. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence designates a National Intelligence Manager for Aviation for this very reason: to bring unity of effort across the intelligence community focused on threats to aviation. We’ve had success in recent years in bringing together this diverse community, including cleared industry partners, to better understand threats. We must continue this progress.

We’ve also made tremendous headway to establish routine collaboration with the TSA and other government partners when confronted with specific risks to aviation. Today, when facing a new risk, we can have real-time, collaborative exchanges of information to quickly determine whether the existing security measures are effective and to determine if any additional action is required by both industry and government to mitigate such risks. This is particularly important for flights from last point of departure airports to the United States, where airlines have a critical role in executing enhanced security measures necessary for flights to the United States.

The U.S. airline industry brings immense value to discussions with government about risks in particular locations or what countermeasures may be most effective and feasibly implemented in a time-sensitive business operation. Airlines are the front line of security. Our employees are the professionals who understand and run the operations day in and day out, and it is our people and our customers whom we are all trying to protect. A “one size fits all” security measure is not the optimum response to threats, and airlines can provide the operational insight and on-the-ground context required to make well-informed security decisions. Such collaboration allows the government and industry to focus resources on the highest risks and most effective security measures. We are grateful for the progress that has been made to enhance such communication and remain committed to continuing to build on the success of the past several years. With a two-way information flow between government and industry seamlessly integrated as standard practice, we will all be better prepared and more proactive in confronting what may come next.

Looking Forward

The obvious seismic change in the threat landscape in recent years is the increase in cyber-related threats. In fact, there is recognition from both industry and government over the past several years that cybersecurity has become as critically important as our focus on physical security measures. Our industry is naturally incentivized to invest in and protect our infrastructure from cyber threats to ensure systems are safe, secure and reliable. Over the past three years alone, A4A’s member airlines have invested billions of dollars each year on information technology (IT), cybersecurity and other related efforts to preserve operational integrity and information security. These investments include cybersecurity: protection; governance; detection; threat and vulnerability management; incident response; and identity and access management.

The U.S. airline industry continues to make significant cyber investments in IT infrastructure, training, exercises, assessments, along with consistently partnering with the federal government and other private sector stakeholders to share information, best practices and lessons learned. As the federal government works to strengthen its own cybersecurity posture, we will continue to partner with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, TSA and the Federal Aviation Administration on how best to work together to confront cyber threats.

As we reflect on the progress made in aviation security since the tragic events of 9/11, we also recognize that our commitment to ensuring security in the skies must continue. U.S. airlines are committed to building on the progress that has been made over the past 20 years and further strengthening relationships with the federal government to enhance efforts to collaboratively mitigate risks. We recognize the importance of continuing to invest in new technologies and systems to stay ahead of the evolving threat landscape and continuing to support efforts that ensure our federal government partners – particularly the TSA and CBP – are appropriately resourced. Security is not taken for granted by our industry, and it never will be. There is much work to do, and we are committed to ensuring that commercial aviation remains the safest mode of transportation in the world for decades to come.

Lauren Beyer
Lauren Beyer is the Vice President for Security and Facilitation at Airlines for America. In this role, she is responsible for security, cargo, and passenger facilitation issues. She oversees all aspects of interaction with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and other federal security agencies. Beyer joined A4A with 11 years of U.S. federal government experience. She previously served as the Director for Aviation and Surface Transportation Security at the National Security Council where she was responsible for directing and coordinating national aviation security policies, including revision of the National Strategy for Aviation Security and spearheading efforts to obtain legislative authority to counter unmanned aircraft systems. Prior to the NSC, Beyer held several positions at TSA including as Europe, Africa, Middle East Bureau Chief, managing engagement with transportation security stakeholders across these regions. Prior to joining TSA, she served in various roles at DHS including as a Senior Policy Advisor in the Visa Waiver Program Office, as well as serving as the DHS Liaison to the European Union Presidency, stationed in Budapest, Hungary and Warsaw, Poland. Beyer holds a B.A. in Government from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. in American Government from Georgetown University.

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