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
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,
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
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
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
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
“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