Ever since two jetliners were crashed into the World Trade Center buildings by Al Qaeda on September 11, 2001, the United States has been working to eradicate gaps in aviation security. Despite these efforts, however, vulnerabilities continue to plague our nation’s airports—including several high profile security breaches involving airport personnel smuggling firearms onto commercial flights after bypassing security.
To prevent future incidents, the House passed legislation Tuesday that would require the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to consult with the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) before making any changes to the prohibited items list, which includes items such as knives and firearms.
The Partners for Aviation Security Act (HR 3144), sponsored by Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ), now goes to the Senate for consideration.
“Robust and continual collaboration between the TSA and key aviation stakeholders is essential to understanding security concerns and guiding smart aviation policy decisions,” Payne said. “Today’s vote brings us closer to passing into law legislation that enhances the security of our aviation infrastructure and our citizens.”
Payne said in 2012, then-TSA Administrator John Pistole failed to consult the ASAC before changing the prohibited items list to allow passengers to bring knives and certain sports equipment onboard airplanes. TSA ultimately reversed its decision under pressure from a wide range of stakeholders and members of the House Committee on Homeland Security who urged Pistole to utilize existing mechanisms to engage with all relevant stakeholders before enacting significant policy changes.
Subsequently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended TSA put protocols in place to consult stakeholders before making such changes to the prohibited items list.
Commenting on the policy change, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss) said, “Developing policies in a vacuum that will impact millions of passengers and thousands of front-line workers is a disservice to the American public. This is why I continue to champion stakeholder participation, through the ASAC, so that the voices of all those directly affected can be heard.”
In addition to requiring TSA consultation with key stakeholders, the legislation would also require a TSA report on the Transportation Security Oversight Board and a technical correction to existing law to ensure there are no lapses in activity for the Aviation Security Advisory Committee.
The Partners for Aviation Security Act would:
- Requires TSA to consult, to the extent practicable, with the Aviation Security Advisory Committee about any changes made to the prohibited items list;
- Requires TSA, within 120 days of enactment, to report on the status and activities of the Transportation Security Oversight Board (TSOB). The report may include recommendations for changes to the TSOB in light of the establishment of the Aviation Security Advisory Committee;
- Clarifies existing law by ensuring that after a member of the Aviation Security Advisory Committee serves for two years, he or she may continue to serve on the committee until a successor is in place.
The bill arrives on the heels of a hearing held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this month to discuss current challenges TSA faces and potential solutions to gaps in aviation security.
As Homeland Security Today previously reported, an internal investigation conducted earlier this year by TSA and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (IG) to test airport screeners and screening technology across the nation discovered numerous security failures at dozens of the nation’s busiest airports.
Undercover investigators posing as legitimate airline passengers for TSA and the IG managed to smuggle fake explosives and other prohibited weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials, the IG reported.
These results were concerning given the fact that 2014 was the fifth consecutive year in which TSA screeners discovered record-setting numbers of firearms, 2,212 — more than six firearms per day — in carry-on bags at airport security checkpoints across the country, This represented a 22 percent increase in firearm discoveries from last year’s total of 1,813, according to TSA.
Inspector General John Roth, commenting on the most recent covert testing in September 2015 — the results of which are currently classified — said they found “layers of security simply missing.” The testing uncovered a number of security gaps, including failures in technology, failures in TSA procedures, and human error.
Roth said the results were not unexpected, since previous covert testing in September 2014 of the checked baggage screening system uncovered human and technology failures. Despite a $550 million investment, checked baggage screening had not improved since the DHS IG issued a similar report in 2009.
Significant vulnerabilities were also identified in 2011 during covert penetration testing on the previous generation of Advanced Imaging Technology machines, as well as in 2012 during covert testing of access controls to secure airport areas.
However, Roth asserted the department’s response has been “swift and definite.” In response to the DHS IG’s recommendations, TSA immediately implemented a plan to improve checkpoint quality in three areas: technology, personnel, and procedures.
Roth said, “This plan is appropriate because the checkpoint must be considered as a single system: the most effective technology is useless without the right personnel, and thepersonnel need to be guided by the appropriate procedures. Unless all three elements are operating effectively, the checkpoint will not be effective.”
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the former chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the IG report “very alarming.” He said we need a complete overhaul, and that we hassle 99 percent of the people who pose no risk and yet continue to make little progress in identifying those who do. He believes “a system that continues to be failed cannot be fixed” and that the private sector should be responsible for screening instead.
TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, who took charge of the agency this summer, told lawmakers that the system as a whole remains effective, and that TSA has responded vigorously to the IG and GAO’s recommendations to ensure past failures are not repeated.
Neffenger stated, “Solutions to the challenges facing TSA will require a renewed focus on the agency’s security mission, a commitment to right-sizing and resourcing TSA to effectively secure the aviation enterprise, and an industry commitment to incentivizing vetting of passengers as well as creating conditions that can decrease the volume and contents of bags presented for screening in airports.”
Neffenger added, “As we move forward, we are guided by a principled, strategic approach, with specific projects already underway to advance our goal of ensuring we deliver on our mission to deter, detect, and disrupt threats to aviation.”