Signing on the DOTted Line

It was barely over one year ago that representatives of the General Accounting Office attended my workshop on the state of aviation security at an airport security conference held in San Francisco. In preparing for the workshop, an associate of mine and I spent some time with the commanding officer of the Port Authority police detachment at Kennedy Airport. The officer was more than generous with his time and help in bringing us up to speed on the state of airport security. A little more than a month later, he would be killed by terrorist airplane hijackers in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

At that workshop, we discussed many of the flaws in domestic aviation security and what could be done to correct them. While there were widely divergent opinions on the seriousness of the threat of terrorism against domestic aviation, there was little disagreement with the conclusion that our airports had a long way to go to achieve goals set by a number of independent and government agencies over a period of two decades. The events of September 11th regrettably confirmed the flaws; correcting them still remains problematic. Over the past year, the TSA has spent more than $3 billion in an effort to implement the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, which passed in the hope that we would finally plug long-recognized holes in the our nation’s aviation security system. To date, little evidence can be found in our airports of how that money was spent.

The DOT has contracted with Lockheed Martin for approximately $350 million in training and placement of personnel to conduct airport screening. Estimates vary over the actual number of screeners who are employed by the TSA and are now working in our 429 commercial airports. About two months ago, the number given by the DOT’s deputy inspector general was about 4,500; in recent days, the TSA’s head, Admiral Loy, has claimed the number to be 26,000. To the traveling public, it still appears that the vast majority of screeners are the same contract workers who manned those positions before September 11, 2001. Recent complaints by TSA screeners that they are yet to be trained, although they are already assigned to airports, add to the confusion. An affirmative statement of the actual number of screeners now employed as federal workers and who have already received their 40 hours of training, together with a statement of where they are assigned, would help the TSA with its serious credibility problem, and the public with its lack of confidence in airport security.

Now that Congress has all but assured us that the long-heralded CTX machines — explosive detection systems for checked baggage — will not be fully in place until December 2003, the status of the $500 million contract for the installation of these machines should be revealed. Indeed, it is uncontested that the CTX equipment, first certified in 1994, still has a false positive rate of 35 percent, and those machines in service are severely under-utilized, in part because they are not trusted. It has been known for years that they are too slow, subject to frequent breakdowns, and so unreliable that both the FAA and many airports had them stored in their original crates on and after 9/11.

That being the case, it begs the question of why we are spending billions of dollars on a machine that is too large for most airports, often too heavy for existing structures, and, most of all, doesn’t perform at a level that will enable its practical use in the examination of checked baggage for bombs. And if these machines are somehow forced down the throats of airport managers who don’t want them, when will the TSA have screeners trained and available to use them?

Airports around the country are eyeing with interest the opt-out provision of Section 108 of the Transportation Security Act, which would allow any airport to contract (by December, 2004) with a private security company that meets federal standards to conduct passenger and baggage screening. In addition, any airport that receives a “pilot project” designation for passenger and baggage screening can take itself out of the federal worker program immediately — and permanently.

In an effort to assist airports in making a determination about whether to stay in the federal system or operate on their own, a technical amendment to the Homeland Security bill is being introduced by Senator Larry Craig of Idaho that will expand the Screener Pilot Project Program from five airports to 40. This would allow airports to test other ways of conforming to the requirements of the new law while working with the private sector to accomplish the security goals set forth in the legislation. Thus far, we have heard nothing of the five-pilot project programs for passenger and baggage screening already awarded to airports around the country. Their designation as pilot project airports, however, will keep out federal screeners and thereby freeze in place the existing screeners who would have been replaced by federal workers. In light of the real possibility of airports opting out of the government run program after three years, the propriety of pouring billions more into the program will need to be reconsidered.

Another issue has been the way many of the largest DOT contracts have been parceled out to subcontractors, often resulting in great difficulty in the tracing of the performance of the contractors. Chief among those subcontracts are those for the training of airport screeners.

Lockheed/Martin’s program for the education of personnel to train screeners is almost impossible to follow. Lockheed apparently contracted out its duties to a company called Homeland Security Corp., whose origins are unclear, as are its ties to Lockheed Martin and its assigned duties. Homeland apparently purchased yet another company called PPCT, which for many years trained law enforcement personnel on use of force issues. PPCT apparently used its contacts with law enforcement agencies from around the country to recruit personnel to train screeners.

A group of other companies, some in the security business and some apparently created for purposes of implementing the original Lockheed contract, recruited still other personnel from law enforcement agencies and other sources to provide a training cadre. The terms of the hiring of these personnel and their status as independent contractors doing work for the federal government gives, at the very least, an appearance of possible impropriety which is ripe for review. Many of those hired in these training capacities, or as training managers for the nation’s airports, have been assigned little work and have been paid at different wage rates for similar work. Some have been dismissed after short periods of employment without explanation and despite the expenditure of large sums of money to train them. In short, the management of taxpayer dollars now in the hands of some of the contractors requires accounting for; and the hiring and firing practices of these personnel employed to carry out functions being undertaken on behalf of the United States Government likewise need to be audited.

As we approach the first anniversary of the signing of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, it is time for an evaluation of the performance of those charged with transforming our airports into safe, efficient, and secure facilities. The law itself, though not perfect, is a solid piece of legislation capable of providing skilled managers with a roadmap for developing reasonably secure airports and airliners.

As is always the case with new legislation, it will take very skilled administrators to craft the legislation into a workable program. So far, the DOT’s and TSA’s performances have been abysmal. Instead of providing us with a well-trained and managed screening force, their programs result in screeners who fail every test of their ability to stop the flow of dangerous weapons onto airliners.

Six years after the certification of the CTX machine as the preferred instrument for detecting explosives in checked baggage, it is still unreliable, and we still have no satisfactory substitute to do the job. Our flight attendants are still untrained in self-defense techniques; cockpit doors for the most part still remain insufficiently fortified; because we can’t keep terrorists and weapons off of airplanes, we are trying to figure out how to safely arm pilots with handguns; we still haven’t installed cameras in cabins and monitors in cockpits so that the cockpit crew can evaluate and report on security threats in the cabin; we lack a sufficient numbers of highly-trained air marshals with the skill, discipline and ability to respond to real or potential terrorist threats without holding an entire passenger compartment at gun=point; we are still unable to provide positive passenger bag match on connecting flights; and we still haven’t been able install secure transponders on every airliner so that we can track an aircraft in flight from takeoff to landing.

This is hardly $3 billion worth of progress.

Share this post: