Keep Your Eye on the TSA

Few, if any, have been more critical of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) performance in creating and operating a security program for the nation’s 429 commercial airports — and for its timid leadership in enforcing a similar plan for the 19 thousand general aviation airfields across America — than I. Created in haste in an effort to restore the confidence of the traveling public in the security of commercial aviation after 9/11, the TSA stands as a testament to the hubris of government in believing that decades of neglect of commercial aviation security could be fixed simply by willing it so. Now that it appears that the departure of Admiral Stone as the TSA’s head will bring with it a reduction in the TSA’s role in aviation security, we must ask what future mischief is in store for commercial aviation.

Even while some gleeful members of Congress were anticipating the creation of some 60 thousand Federal screener jobs to be created after the passage of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, those same members were incorporating Pilot Project and Opt Out provisions into Sec. 108 of the law. These provisions would set the stage for the transfer back to the private sector (by 2004) the very same public sector jobs that government was preparing to spend billions of dollars to create.

The cornerstone of the argument being offered by the drafters of the new law to support a new federal workforce was based on disingenuous protests over private screeners defending our borders from world-wide terrorism. Few in Congress opposed the notion with any vigor. Having inserted an escape hatch in the form of the Opt Out provision, which was designed to destroy their handiwork after three years if things didn’t go well, Congress and the President delivered a Thanksgiving turkey to the public that was filled with enough stuffing to please everybody’s palate.

With great fanfare, a new law-enforcement agency, purportedly created to prevent similar events to those of 9/11 from ever occurring again, was paraded out across the nation. Designed to appeal to the eye (if not the intellect), the TSA quickly:

  • Minted new screeners dressed in red, white, and blue at screening stations in 429 commercial airports
  • Installed bigger-than-SUV-sized explosive detection machines to prevent bombs from slipping onto planes
  • Added some five thousand armed air marshals to protect passengers in the air
  • Promulgated scores of new regulations to keep suspicious-looking travelers in line (very long lines), while they started their collection of “dangerous” pen knives, cuticle cutters and other sharp, and not so sharp, items.

At first glance, the program appeared to have something for everybody — but, in time, its deficiencies became obvious. The inability and unwillingness of the TSA, and the governmental authorities which oversee it, to do anything about it has made it apparent that the program was never intended for the purpose for which it was advertised.

Security has always suffered from a misunderstanding over its role in the scheme of things in America. When we are threatened, either personally or globally, no cost is too great nor inconvenience too burdensome so long as we perceive the threat as real. History has taught, though, that once we perceive a threat to have passed, we have little tolerance for the cost and inconvenience of “oppressive” security programs.

Why else after the real tragedy of Pan Am 103, and the perceived tragedy of TWA 800, did we remain willing to let air travelers remain unreasonably vulnerable to hijacking and bombing, and in the care of airline security ill-prepared and unwilling to protect them? Why do we invest so much in planning for the aftermath of a terrorist attack in our cities, and so little in preventing them at our ports, train stations, and public schools? The answers can be found in our failure to incorporate reasonably effective security programs into commercial and institutional operations without rendering those operations unproductive, inefficient, or prohibitively expensive.

For commercial aviation to manage both the real threat of terrorism and the public’s perception of an industry that is neither secure nor user-friendly, security personnel that provide protection against real vulnerabilities such as explosives, perceived vulnerabilities such as chaos and bottlenecking at checkpoints, and operational necessities such as efficient handling of baggage and cargo, must interface seamlessly and with equal consideration for each service. Accomplishing real security at our airports will require the input of airport operators whose voices have not been strongly-enough heard by a domineering TSA, the cooperation of airlines willing to overcome their inclination to minimize security needs as an unnecessary burden on already over-burdened bottom lines, and a new TSA with the willingness to oversee effective security operations — but with the wisdom to understand that overbearing and unnecessary regulation is not in the best interests of any of the stakeholders in our nation’s commercial aviation industry.

If the departure of Admiral Stone and the change of the TSA‘s role from operator to overseer of the nation’s airport and in-flight security is to be the harbinger of an important and beneficial change in support of commercial aviation, Congress and the President will need to be heard from. If the passing of the TSA into the night is just another cynical attempt at a redistribution of jobs and contracts back to the private sector without any benefit to the public, then we will have wasted time and money and learned little.

Government is about to have the chance to finally right that which has for so long been wrong with our aviation security. The question is: Will they have the will to do so without a vigilant public prepared to hold them accountable? I think not.

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