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 June 2005

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Has Airport Security Improved Since 9/11?

by George McClure

Before 9/11, airport security consisted of a ticket agent asking if you packed your bag yourself, if it had been in your continuous custody since you packed it, and whether you had been given anything to carry aboard by a stranger. Then, you walked through a metal detector, after putting your keys, coin change and pocket knife (or box cutter) through an x-ray machine. Except for international flights, checked bags were not x-rayed or otherwise inspected. If you were served a meal on board, you may have been provided with a metal dinner knife.

After 9/11, sharp or pointed knives, screwdrivers, box cutters and other cutting tools were banned on domestic and international flights. By the end of 2002, all checked bags at the nation’s 450 airports were checked for explosives. In September 2004, new regulations required that passengers’ jackets without metal in them still had to be removed and x-rayed, and passengers selected for secondary screening could be patted down [http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/defenseandsecurity/a/coatsoff.htm].  Although removal is not officially required, screeners often asked that shoes be removed and x-rayed, especially if they had steel shanks that would trigger the magnetometers used for walk-through metal detectors [www.tsa.gov/public/interapp/editorial/editorial_1050.xml]. Even suspenders were suspect [www.thepowerhour.com/news/fashion_airports.htm]. Some have questioned whether all the new procedures are necessary or were put in place to reassure people that something was being done.

Dual government role – management and inspection

Airport security screening of passengers costs about $4 billion per year. In November 2002, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), within the Department of Homeland Security, took over screening duties from private services engaged by the airlines after news reports that some of the private screeners were ex-felons. Under the new screening standards, Swiss Army knives left in carry-ons were confiscated, as were nail clippers at first until they were considered non-threatening and could be carried aboard. Cups of coffee were momentarily banned, while a student, demonstrating holes in security, left several box cutters in lavatories on major U.S. carrier's flights, then tipped off authorities.

One-way air tickets are considered suspect and carry an “SSSS” code on boarding passes, requiring a full-body wanding of the hapless passenger. This also applies for round trips, using different carriers for the two legs, and even to code-share flights where one carrier issues the ticket, but a shared carrier is used for one one-way segment. The second carrier must issue a “SSSS” boarding pass. The logic seems to be that a terrorist planning a suicide mission would not buy a round-trip ticket if he did not plan to use the return part, in the interest of economy.

Computer bag-matching with passengers has been implemented. Any bag checked by a passenger who later did not board the aircraft must be pulled from the cargo hold before the aircraft can leave the gate. Even in the 1990s, some foreign airlines, such as Lufthansa, followed the El Al practice of lining the checked bags up on the tarmac, then putting a bag on board only after a passenger pointed it out as his.

Air cargo vulnerable

Air freight carried in the same cargo hold on domestic flights is not inspected, if it comes through a “known shipper.” Pilots see the lack of cargo screening as the greatest threat to U.S. aviation security [http://news.corporate.findlaw.com].  Trials of equipment to detect explosives in cargo are being conducted at Atlanta, Dallas, and Miami [www.geindustrial.com].

To profile – or not

Profiling of passengers has been the subject of much debate, with majority public opinion opposed to it before 9/11, as a violation of privacy rights, but favoring it afterward. A variety of approaches have been tried, including matching names on a watch list against passenger manifests. The computer-assisted passenger prescreening system (CAPPS I), operated by the airlines, became CAPPS II, which was killed as too intrusive. There is a No-Fly list, intended to provent suspicious people from flying, but different people have the same name, so some high-profile individuals, including Senator Ted Kennedy, have found themselves blocked from boarding an aircraft at times. In mid-May 2005, a family group was removed from an overseas flight bound for Boston at Bangor, Maine, as one of the group’s name turned up on a no-fly list. After the family was removed from the flight, authorities found they had the wrong person with the right name [www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/nation/3179997].  A new program, called Secure Flight, would improve the pre-screening, with airlines providing TSA with full name and birthdate information, if provided by the passenger. To increase accuracy, intelligence analysts would scrutinize passenger lists, but the program is still in the development phase [www.usatoday.com and  www.gao.gov].

Passenger privacy concerns

Not everyone is happy with the screening measures. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), a civil libertarian, noted that by the 2004 Thanksgiving holiday, “you undoubtedly witnessed TSA agents conducting aggressive searches of some passengers. A new TSA policy began in September 2004 calling for invasive searches of random passengers; in some instances pat-downs have taken place in full public view. Some female travelers have understandably burst into tears after being frisked, and one can only imagine the lawsuits if TSA were a private company. But TSA is not private, TSA is a federal agency and therefore totally unaccountable to the American people” [www.antiwar.com].

Avoiding long lines

Long lines at screening stations require early arrival for flights. Known Traveler is a new start-up program in which frequent flyers can pay a fee to be vetted in advance to avoid the long delays. Participants in the program will be required to complete an application, provide biometric data including fingerprint and iris identification, and pass a security assessment which includes checks with federal law enforcement and intelligence data sources.

The Greater Orlando Aviation Authority has reached an agreement with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to initiate the nation’s first "Private Sector Known Traveler Program" at Orlando International Airport. Participant enrollments are expected to begin by mid-May [www.orlandoairports.net].

Although Orlando has four airside terminals, very long lines for screening occur every afternoon, as three 747 aircraft prepare to load passengers bound for London and Manchester from the same terminal.

"AirTran Airways and Verified ID Pass, along with the Greater Orlando Airport Authority, expects to obtain clearance for such a private sector program to be launched in Orlando," the airline announced last year.

Under the planned program, travelers would enroll, have their identity verified by another partner in the venture, ChoicePoint Inc., of Alpharetta, Ga.; have either their fingerprint or iris scan, or both, captured by biometric equipment; and pay a $50 fee. When carrying the registered traveler card at participating airports, the traveler would still have to pass through a metal detector and send his bag through an X-ray machine, but enjoy the benefit of being directed to a "fast-line," which presumably would save them waiting time [www.gsnmagazine.com].

ChoicePoint was recently involved in the compromise of 145,000 individuals’ personal record data [http://news.com.com].

New technology may help

New technology applications are in pilot testing. The TSA is conducting a pilot program at several airports testing so-called explosives trace detection portals. These machines aim puffs of air at passengers to dislodge and sniff out explosive residue. TSA also plans to test X-ray backscatter portals, which create an image of a passenger's body and reveal any concealed weapons.  Privacy advocates argue that the images are so detailed they can be embarrassing to the passenger being screened [www.usnews.com].

Problems still remain

With 68 reports on airport security since 1986 [www.gao.gov], the Government Accountability Office recently completed a study of the efficacy of airport screening and airport security measures [www.gao.gov/new.items/d05457.pdf]. Some of its findings include:

  • Training for airport screeners is spotty, and deadly weapons continue to get through security.
  • All checked baggage is being screened for explosives, but not all carry-on bags and passengers.
  • The screening technology itself, which experts say is the future of aviation security, needs refining.

Former Homeland Security Department Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin said improving aviation security means deploying more equipment and technology at airports as well.

Although TSA is rolling new technology — such as explosive detection devices and backscatter sensors, which allow screeners to see through passengers’ clothes — Ervin said the agency is not deploying the technology fast enough.

In February, TSA launched a pilot program at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to test an explosive-detection portal that will use puffs of air to trace explosives on passengers as they walk through. BWI is one of eight airports across the country using this technology. TSA will spend $28 million this year to install 147 portals at 40 of the nation’s largest airports, according to TSA administrator David Stone. Next year, TSA is requesting $72 million for an additional 195 portals at 41 more airports.

Another weakness in aviation security is the division of security responsibilities at airports, Reason Public Policy Institute transportation expert Robert Poole points out. TSA does passenger and baggage screening, and the airport management does everything else, including access control to airport facilities, perimeter patrol and other miscellaneous security services.

“A fragmented system is less secure than a unified system, so it really would be better if each airport had the total security responsibility, and if TSA was there as a regulator, not a service provider,” Poole said [www.rppi.org].

Five airports have participated in a new pilot program to opt out from use of federal screeners — re-privatizing the function. Last November, all airports were offered this option, though only one — Elko, Nevada — out of 340 has applied for the program [www.washingtonpost.com].

DHS's Ervin said handing security responsibilities over to airports is not a good idea. The private sector is more efficient, but also most concerned with cutting costs, he said [http://federaltimes.com/index2.php?S=685947].

Are we safer now?

Homeland Security's acting inspector general, Richard Skinner, says: "The ability of TSA screeners to stop prohibited items from being carried through the sterile areas of the airports fared no better than the performance of screeners prior to Septmber 11, 2001" [www.theconservativevoice.com].



George McClure is chair IEEE-USA's Communications Committee, a member of the IEEE-USA Career & Workforce Policy Committee, and technology policy editor for IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

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