Seeking Safety in the Skies

There will be no going back to the days when a
traveler dutifully passed through a metal detector deliberately set at
the lowest possible setting so screeners wouldn’t be bothered with
using hand-held wands. Ten years ago, a distracted screener conversing
with a pretty young colleague impatiently waved me and my laptop
computer through the detector. By contrast, on a recent trip from San
Francisco, I repeatedly set off the detector and subsequent wand frisks
by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel. Off with the
Nikes! Off with the belt! The offending object? Ironically, it was a
staple on my airline ticket.

The collection of security measures presently
in place or contemplated may well be the staple that secures the future
of international air transportation. At stake is nothing less than the
industry itself, according to at least one of its spokesmen. Some
details of new security programs have begun to emerge, while others
remain, for obvious reasons, undisclosed.

One other thing is certain: The
implementation of these programs will require megadollars, amounts far
in excess of the budgets of TSA and the Department of Homeland Security

The US-VISIT program

The US-VISIT program, for which a contract is
expected to be awarded in the near future, would employ a network of
computerized databases designed to track visitors to the United States
long before their actual arrival. Called by some a “virtual borders”
program and by others a serious assault on privacy and personal
liberty, DHS believes it will significantly improve its ability to
monitor who is entering the country at more than 300 land, sea and air
border-crossing checkpoints.

The rub? The New York Times and other
newspapers reported on May 24 that the program’s implementation costs
would total more than $15 billion. And, according to one aviation
security expert, it is totally unnecessary — and in its ultimate form
will be watered down from its initial conception.

“TSA essentially is an agency that’s
dissolving, and quickly,” according to Andrew Thomas, a professor of
international business at the University of Akron, where he lectures on
a number of aviation-related topics. “I think that was evident during
the holidays when they had those major alerts and the warning about the
flights that might be hijacked while flying into the country. If you
remember, that wasn’t coming from TSA, it was coming from DHS, and what
you’re seeing is a movement within the federal government to make TSA a
kind of secondary player.”

Thomas, author of Aviation Insecurity: The
New Challenges of Air Travel, published by Prometheus in 2003, and Air
Rage: Crisis in the Skies, which, coincidentally, was published on
Sept. 11, 2001, by the same publisher, said TSA is becoming

“They’ve done a terrible job in many ways,”
Thomas said. “GAO reports and TSA’s own reports that have been released
to the media, as well as other assessments, just show that they have
not done a very good job in terms of all they were empowered to do.”

The visa waiver program

DHS Secretary Tom Ridge has called aviation
security “one of the areas of [DHS’s] greatest concern.” In testimony
before the House Judiciary Committee on April 21, Ridge called for
revisions to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), under which citizens of 27
participating countries are allowed to travel to the United States for
90 days or less without a visa. He said it creates a “potentially
significant gap,” because VWP users can avoid visa security checks at
US consulates abroad.

Under legislation effective next Oct. 26, VWP
countries must implement a program to issue their nationals
tamper-resistant, machine-readable passports that incorporate biometric
and document authentication identifiers that comply with International
Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. The law will require
visitors to present these new passports if they were issued on or after
that date. Passengers with non-biometric passports issued after Oct. 26
will need a visa.

As might be expected, the American Civil
Liberties Union (ACLU) has weighed in, arguing that the setting of such
a standard would “needlessly impinge on privacy and other human
rights.” It added that there is “no need to rush into implementing such
standards” before exploring “minimally intrusive alternatives [that]
may be just as effective in providing security and reducing fraud.”
Such a standard, according to the ACLU, “would inevitably be used to
create a system of global tracking and surveillance of travelers.”

Barry Steinhardt, director of ACLU’s
technology and liberty program, released the text of a March 30 letter
to ICAO by the London-based advocacy group Privacy International and
signed by the ACLU and other human rights and civil liberties
organizations. It warned that enactment of such a measure might tempt
some ICAO signatories to establish a “surveillance regime” by claiming
ICAO compliance for draconian laws that would not win political
approval at home.

“We call that ‘policy laundering,’”
Steinhardt said in statement accompanying the letter. “The US
government knows that the American people will never go for a national
ID card or a national database of every American’s fingerprints and
photographs, but this proposal, if approved, will allow the United
States to claim that large steps toward those policies are necessary to
comply with international standards.”


Among the measures DHS hopes to adopt is a
security tool called the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening
System II (CAPPS II), some details of which were announced at a March
17 hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation
Subcommittee by acting TSA Administrator David M. Stone.

Its purpose is to determine which passengers
should undergo additional scrutiny prior to boarding by conducting
“risk assessments.” This assessment would include passenger name record
from the airline, which includes name, address, phone number, date of
birth and the flight number and itinerary information for a passenger.

Again, the ACLU said the program poses severe
threats to personal privacy and basic civil liberties. The US General
Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, voiced
additional concerns.

“It is a deeply significant step for the
nation’s airlines to begin feeding … details of Americans’ travel
records to the government for CAPPS II,” the ACLU’s Steinhardt said in
a statement issued after Stone’s testimony. “It’s a sign of things to
come with a program that is simply incompatible with privacy and
fairness for travelers.”

“Imagine a travel system where everyone is a
suspect—based upon secret information they can’t review, let alone
dispute—that’s CAPPS II,” added LaShawn Y. Warren, an ACLU legislative
counsel. “Even after admitting that they are uncertain about the
accuracy of the databases the CAPPS II system will use, TSA still plans
to rely on this information to assess air passengers’ risk levels,
which could mean detention or, worse, land some passengers in jail.”

Norman J. Rabkin, managing director of the
GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice Division, presented a report at the
hearing highly critical of the program.

“Key activities … have been delayed, and the
Transportation Security Administration has not yet completed important
system planning activities, including … testing and developing initial
increments of CAPPS II,” the report said. This is due to delays in
obtaining passenger data from air carriers because of privacy concerns,
the report said, adding that TSA also has not identified specific
system functions, the schedule for delivery and estimated costs.

Further, it also has not completely addressed
seven of the eight issues identified by Congress relative to the
program. As of Jan. 1, only one—the establishment of an internal
oversight board—has been completely addressed. Other issues, including
ensuring the accuracy of data used by CAPPS II, stress testing,
preventing unauthorized access to the system, and addressing privacy
concerns remain unresolved, according to the GAO.

It identified three additional challenges,
including the development of international cooperation needed toobtain
passenger data, the possible expansion of the program’s mission beyond
its originalpurpose and assurance that identity theft cannot be used
to negate the system’s security benefits.

James May, president and CEO of the Air
Transport Association (ATA), also expressed some reservations. “While
the promise of CAPPS II is impressive, many significant issues … remain
unresolved. Any final judgment … must await resolution of those
issues,” May told the aviation subcommittee. “Favorable resolution …
will require [it] to meet three basic tests.” May said CAPPS II must be
efficient, economical and protective of passenger privacy rights.

“Acceptance … will largely depend on the
government generating public confidence … in the legitimacy of the
system. Importantly, however, public acceptance will also depend on …
avoiding CAPPS II-related delays during the reservation and airport
check-in processes. CAPPS II cannot be seen as contributing to the
‘hassle factor.’

“Achieving these objectives is imperative,”
May warned. “If they are not realized, the public could come to regard
CAPPS II with suspicion or hostility. All of us in the commercial
aviation community have a stake in this outcome; if the public rejects
CAPPS II, the very real risk could emerge that travelers will forgo the
use of air transportation.”

Stuart Matthews, president and CEO of the
Flight Safety Foundation (FSF), told HSToday that the FAA, for its
part, is prepared for and to date has reacted appropriately to the
terrorism threat.

“However, it does concern me that, as
presently proposed, funding for the agency will be reduced in the next
financial year. The rationale is that there will be organizational and
other changes that will make it more efficient,” he said. “I hope that
is right, because I would not like to see a major accident occurring
that might be blamed in part on the FAA’s inability to provide
appropriate oversight or services due to a reduced level of financial

Added Darryl Jenkins, a visiting professor at
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a well-respected Washington,
DC, aviation authority: “The direction is for more and more money.
These issues cannot be addressed without committing too large a portion
of our gross domestic product to aviation security.”

As to whether CAPPS II will be implemented as
envisioned or will be watered down, Jenkins, who was a member of the
Executive Committee of the White House Conference on Aviation Safety
and Security several years ago, called it “better than a kick in the
pants, but it’s no silver bullet. When it comes to legislating on
matters of personal privacy, it’s very scary; very scary stuff.”

The University of Akron’s Thomas said the
predecessor program, CAPPS I, was effective, but predicted that CAPPS
II will be weakened by demands from federal officials.

“What everybody needs to remember is that
CAPPS I worked; it did profile nine of the 19 hijackers on 9/11,” he
said. “ But … the problem was training. There were no protocols in
place for these people to be checked except for their luggage that they
had sent through, which very few of the [hijackers] had. So the
security protocols and the training weren’t up to snuff. Again, we can
institute all of these new technologies, but if we don’t have these
very human elements— like training, like recognition on the part of the
individuals involved in these processes—the technology is pretty much
wasted”, he said.

“A lot of people have doubts about it, but I
think at the end of the day you’re going to see a very watered-down
version of it,” Thomas added. “In principle, I think it’s a good idea,
but … until we get the human element working, including the training
and the assessment of that training, it just does not give us what we
really need. We miss the human domain here, and that’s critical. The
threat [to aviation safety] is human … not technology. The way you’re
going to fight this stuff is with good, human interaction, and that
starts with training.”

Congressional action

On May 6, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), senior
member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, along with
31 co-sponsors introduced new legislation, HR 4312, designed to patch
existing holes in the infrastructure. The so-called Safe Passengers and
Lading in Aviation for the National Enhancement of Security Act (Safe
PLANES Act) of 2004 consists of 14 steps designed to strengthen
existing measures.

“In the wake of [Sept. 11], this country has
made a multibillion-dollar investment in aviation security, yet
security gaps remain,” said Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), ranking minority
member of the House Select Committee, upon the bill’s introduction. “We
need to make sure our skies are as safe as they can be so Americans
never have to relive that tragic day and to make sure that our valuable
security dollars are spent as wisely as they can be.”

The bill is currently in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and had not been acted upon at press time.

As is the case with other programs under way, the SAFE Planes Act would take money—and lots of it.

“When we talk about air-cargo
security—because the supply chain is so broad and so globalized—the
amount of money to secure the air cargo on commercial aircraft will be
billions and billions of dollars. Those are Carl Sagan-type numbers,”
said Andrew Thomas. “I just don’t know where TSA is going to get the
money for any of this stuff. The air cargo, the antimissile systems
that they’re spending a couple of million to research—these test
programs—all sound good, but if you’re going to implement something,
you’re talking a ton of money.”

Still, the debate on balance between personal
privacy and security continues and will be subject to ongoing
modification. Both Jenkins and Thomas believe that many compromises
will be made before an improved air security program is in place to
which all parties can agree.

“I assume that one will be found and will also be ignored,” Jenkins told HSToday.
“Nobody just reacts; if they under-reacted before, they have
under-reacted this time. Let’s just say that I’m kind of skeptical that
a good answer will be found,” he concluded.

Thomas said aviation security could be made seamless and unobtrusive if done with the right training.

“The problem is that training is not sexy.
Nobody gets elected; nobody makes great proclamations about how
wonderful the training program is at TSA. There’s a lot of value for
politicians and bureaucrats to point and say, ‘Look, we’re doing this
new computerized system. It’s going to identify the terrorists for us.
We’re doing this new air cargo database that we’re creating.’

“There’s a lot of politicalcapital … gained
in that. But when you institute a training program that’s rigorous,
ongoing, but you can’t put it on television and most people don’t
understand it, don’t really care about it, then there’s not a lot of
return on the investment from a political perspective.”

Jenkins and Thomas disagree with the concerns
about the potential effect of increased passenger “hassle” and
hostility against air transportation expressed by ATA’s James May.

“[T]here are always people who will need to
fly and will, but it has been devastating to short-haul travel in
airplanes,” Jenkins said, downplaying May’s warning.

“If people aren’t flying, we have some
serious economic issues in this country; everything we’ve done is
[designed] to get people traveling again,” added Thomas. “When we get
to the summertime, it’s going to be a real problem around the country.
We’re going to have to [either] offset the ‘hassle factor’ by reducing
the effectiveness of security or try to increase the level of security
and create more hassle.”

Seeking solutions

What should the government do—or not do—to
avert the impingement of added security on the bottom lines of the air
carriers? The secret may lie in some of the provisions of the Safe
Planes Act.

“It wasn’t the checkpoints on 9/11 that
caused the breakdown; that was the big mythology that came out of 9/11,
that bad screening … allowed 9/11 to take place,” said Thomas. “It had
nothing to do with 9/11; it was the cabin, the cockpit door, lax
security in the cabin, no flight-attendant training on hijacking. ….
Those were the security breakdowns.”

In fact, Thomas believes that certain
constituencies, including the airlines, capitalized on the events of
9/11. The airlines, he alleges, never wanted to be in the security
business in the first place, and saw the terrorist attacks as an
opportunity to turn that over to the government.

“They had the political capital and the will
of the American people behind them and they were able execute that,” he
concluded. HST

Dan Cook was founding editor of Military Aerospace Technology, a monthly magazine launched in 2001, and a former editor of Air Safety Week,
a weekly publication reporting on air safety, law and technology. He is
a graduate of Stanford University and has been a licensed pilot for
nearly 30 years.

Legislative relief

The Safe PLANES Act of 2004 would:

  • Require
    a study of the necessary TSA screening workforce size, and DHS
    certification that security levels will be maintained if airports are
    allowed to opt-out of TSA screening. The measure would list criteria by
    which TSA will evaluate applications;
  • Require
    that priority be given to airports that are not screening 100 percent
    of checked baggage in determining which airports should receive federal
    assistance. It also would remove the matching of bags to passengers as
    an acceptable alternative when electronic baggage screening is
    unavailable, leaving physical and canine inspection as allowed options;
  • Require
    a report on the research and development underway for technologies,
    including its maturity and planned deployment schedule. It would
    require TSA to update the standards used to certify detection
    equipment, and DHS to establish and begin implementing within 120 days
    a program to fully inspect all cargo carried on passenger aircraft;
  • Require TSA tocomplete a known shipper database by April 1, 2005.
  • Require
    DHS to set a security standard for federal law-enforcement officers to
    meet before serving as alternate air marshals, and direct the agency to
    work with foreign governments to coordinate air marshal training,
    procedures and information-sharing;
  • Require
    hardened cockpits for all passenger and cargo aircraft flying over the
    United States and require regulations for daily aircraft searches for
    weapons and other prohibited items and funds for training of flight
    crews and others;
  • Direct DHS to provide flight
    crews with appropriate in-flight communication devices and to report on
    implementation of previous statutory requirements for perimeter
    security and access control, and that all airport workers go through
    screening and require more in-depth background checks for airport
    workers accessing secure areas;
  • Require a
    detailed report on deployment options after the completion of the
    man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) countermeasure study and
    diplomatic and international programs to reduce the MANPADS threat.

A victim speaks out

The interest in aviation security goes well
beyond government officials, airline executives and every passenger who
flies. Those who have dealt with the consequences of terrorism are also
speaking out.

Alice Hoglan lost her only child in the crash
of hijacked United Airlines (UAL) Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pa., on
9/11. She complained to HSToday that the Bush White House “has
thwarted” the efforts of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks
Upon the United States (also known as the 9/11 Commission).

Hoglan, whose son, Mark Bingham, is believed
to have been involved in the attempt by a group of passengers to storm
the hijacked Boeing 757’s cabin and overpower the four hijackers, said
the federal government is “going in several directions, one step
forward and two steps back.”

The retired United flight attendant from Los
Gatos, Calif., said she believes the Administration “is gutting the
efforts of the committee.” She was critical of the “egregious problem”
of failure of the TSA to provide mandatory security training for flight
attendants, adding that her former employer, United, initially agreed
on its own to provide such training to cabin personnel, but abandoned
the plan after the carrier declared bankruptcy.

“United Airlines is not interested in
aviation security; they are only interested in the appearance of
security,” Hoglan said, adding that there’s “an attitude” by airline
management that the government, not the airlines, should be responsible
for security. The Air Transport Association, she said, believes the
government should be in charge.

“The fact remains that four flights were hijacked by knife-wielding murderers who slit the pilots’ throats,” she concluded.

Hoglan flew to Washington on May 11 to join
fellow members of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) for what
organizers billed a “day of action.” They lobbied members of the House
and Senate and presented a petition to TSA’s Stone demanding that the
agency give attendants mandatory antihijacking and security training. A
provision to provide such training was removed from the FAA
reauthorization bill prior to its passage last year.

“Perhaps the most crucial aspect of onboard
security that has been consistently overlooked to date is onboard
coordination between flight attendants, pilots and armed federal air
marshals,” said AFA International President Patricia Friendly in a
letter to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) “If [DHS] does not issue a rule
specifying crewmember security training, these three vital pieces of
security will remain unable to effectively unite against an onboard

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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