On February 25th of this year, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey requested that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) designate John F. Kennedy International Airport as a pilot project under Section 108 of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (the section of the law signed by President Bush on November 19th of last year). The new law was passed primarily to replace the private-sector security work force employed by the airlines, whose history of failures reached its low point on September 11th, when 19 terrorists hijacked four airliners from two airports within an hour or so of each other. The pilot project requested for JFK — with the support of most of New York’s Congressional representatives and of both Senators — was rejected on June 19th by the TSA in favor of an award to the San Francisco International Airport, under circumstances that are, at best, shocking.
The Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center has long called for the use of trained law enforcement personnel for the important duty of securing America’s airports. While we have favored and sought the federalizing of airport security, we have also favored the use of private-sector workers — under government supervision — to ensure the flexibility necessary to respond to the rapidly changing security needs of our airports.
Congress, in its wisdom, chose to create a behemoth federal work force instead. More thoughtful members, however, insisted by way of compromise that the new law contain a provision for five pilot programs for the screening of passengers, baggage, and cargo, against which the federal workers could be measured. If, after two years, an airport with a pilot program elected to keep its private-sector workers, it could opt out of the federal program and do so. Key to the pilot project program is that all private-sector screeners must conform to all minimum standards required of the federal workers, and that their employers pay them at least the same wages with the same benefits afforded the federal work force.
With the guidance and support of Congressman Gary Ackerman of New York, whose district includes parts of Queens County (home to JFK and LaGuardia airports), and parts of Nassau and Suffolk Counties (all of which have large numbers of active and retired law enforcement personnel), the pilot for JFK was presented to the TSA.
After recruiting more than one thousand retired law enforcement personnel from the New York Metropolitan area — representing federal, state and local law enforcement agencies with such diverse backgrounds as Immigration and Naturalization Service Police, corrections personnel, and police officers from agencies large and small — a group was assembled with special skills and abilities to make a real difference at JFK. It was planned to bring workers already highly trained — at government expense and experienced beyond any other similar group — into our airports. Ready to go were:
- Former bomb squad members who could identify the wide variety of explosives which might try to find their way through security.
- Emergency service personnel who could not only respond to an airport disaster, but also know how to evacuate a facility before it occurred.
- Officers with foreign language skills who could interrogate passengers as needed but for whom English is not a second language.
The possibilities to put into use at JFK the technical skills used in modern day security and law enforcement which this group possesses, and perhaps, above all else, to reap the benefit of their fierce desire to do something to correct the ills that contributed to the losses they suffered among former colleagues and friends, made the selection of this program, as was often said by the press, a “no-brainer.”
It seems as though the TSA and the Department of Transportation has gone out of its way to reject this project right from the start. When months passed without even an acknowledgement of the Port Authority’s request, telephone calls and letters to Secretary Mineta and Under-Secretary Magaw of the TSA were forwarded by Congressman Ackerman and the New York delegation without any response. In April of this year, after Congressman Ackerman succeeded in arranging a meeting with representatives of Secretary Mineta, it became apparent that the Department of Transportation had no intention of implementing section 108 of the law at all. In response to a letter from Secretary Mineta concerning pilot projects in many categories other than passenger screening, he was reminded that section 108 was a mandate under the law that had to be met by November 18th of this year. On May 15th Under-Secretary Magaw responded.
Obviously disgruntled over being advised that TSA would be held accountable for the implementation of section 108, Under-Secretary Magaw informed the Port Authority that it would be implementing the pilot project for screeners but that all earlier applications had been voided. If you still want it, re-apply, they were told. On May 23rd, the Port Authority, still very much in support of the project, re-applied.
Prior to that time, Congressman Ackerman and members of the press had been told that no other application for a pilot project at a Category X airport had been made. On June 19th, the day that San Francisco Airport was announced as the Category X pilot project, Kennedy’s airport director received a telephone call advising him that San Francisco and JFK were the only two airports in their category to have applied, and that SFO had been awarded the designation.
In the interest of fairness, the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center has tried to learn what San Francisco has proposed to make its project more worthy than that of JFK. We have been repeatedly advised that San Francisco simply plans to keep the same private sector screeners in place that it has had all along. Senators Boxer and Feinstein of California have long complained that the new law’s requirement of American citizenship and a high school diploma place a heavy burden on the existing workers, who have families to support and who rely on the screening jobs to do that. Senator Boxer has even introduced legislation to waive the citizenship requirement.
Secretary Mineta, who, coincidentally, is a former California Congressman, has similarly stated that it was his intention to re-employ as many of the existing airport screeners as possible, and to do that the requirement of a high school diploma has been waived for workers with one year’s experience. Whether moved by those expressed sentiments or not, the fact is that, rather than getting highly-trained and carefully-selected former law enforcement personnel to screen passengers and baggage at Kennedy Airport, the public is getting the same workers at San Francisco International who were on duty on 9/11.
The depth of the feeling over 9/11 cuts a lot deeper in the New York area for reasons that are already well known; those feelings are deeper still amongst our uniformed first responders. Trying to explain to a Port Authority Police Officer or a member of NYPD or FDNY that we need to keep foreign nationals with minimum training, backgrounds that are often impossible to check, poor language skills, and no understanding of such things as biometric technology, computer assisted profiling, and explosives identification as screeners because they need a job could be, in and of itself, dangerous. Nevertheless, over the days ahead they will be asking those questions, and somebody in authority better have good answers.