The Case of the Ubiquitous Box Cutters

The nation was alarmed to learn that box cutters, bleach, and false explosives were found on two different Southwest Airlines planes, secreted away in the lavatories. All of Southwest’s airliners were searched overnight last Thursday, October 16th, and orders went out to search the nation’s entire fleet of commercial airliners immediately, if not sooner.

That the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was notified in advance by the admitted “terrorist,” 20-year old Nathaniel Heatwole of North Carolina, that there are flaws in the nation’s airport security system needing to be addressed only emphasizes that our “world-class” security system remains little more than a Peter Sellers movie script. Since 9/11, our aviation security system has been breached with box cutters by the General Accounting Office, the DOT Inspector General’s office, and the media, to say nothing of a workforce that boards planes with box cutters daily. Whether an airliner can be hijacked anymore with a box cutter or any other hand-held weapon is debatable, given reinforced cockpit doors and the like. What is more important is the fact that a box cutter can still make it through security after an $11 billion effort to keep it out.

Last week, the TSA conceded that box cutter blades can still get by screeners when removed from their readily-recognizable handles and packed properly. That concession by the TSA is welcomed in the interest of full disclosure, but is, nevertheless, a sad commentary on a security system which had as its first goal to keep box cutters and all cutting tools off airliners after the prominent role they played on 9/11. The TSA is proud of the number of potential weapons it has collected at screening stations from passengers who inadvertently continued to carry them (as they had in the past) for non-criminal purposes. The challenge, however, is to discover those that have been deliberately concealed to pass through security. In those test cases, too many got through. Is it the training, the equipment, or the screeners that are deficient? After two years, it’s time we found out.

Because security breaches at our airports have become the norm, stories such as the Southwest Airlines case flare up, receive heavy media attention, and then disappear with little investigation of their causes and virtually no remedial action. Today, young Nathaniel Heatwole will appear in court, presumably to explain how he accomplished the not-so-difficult feat of having contraband placed on a commercial airliner. The “how” is what we are all waiting to hear. Of more importance to us should be what will be done to plug the security flaw that enabled it to occur. Many people have come to accept the notion that we cannot have 100 percent security, and therefore, when breaches occur, they accept them as exceptions to the rule. In fact, many breaches can be prevented close to 100 percent of the time if we just insist upon good training, vigilance, and competence; three characteristics that seem to be in short supply when it comes to security in our airports.

In January of this year, a passenger seated in the first class section of United Airlines’ flight 179 from Boston’s Logan Airport to fly to San Francisco reached into the seatback in front of him for a magazine, and came away with a box cutter. The 757, which was still in the process of boarding, was held on the ground, and the passengers removed. How the box cutter found its way into the seatback remains an open question — as does how and why a box cutter was found stuffed into a seat cushion on another flight from Logan in September (after the 9/11 events) and another found in an airplane’s trash bin on a flight from Atlanta to Brussels in the same month.

Because so many security breaches, training irregularities, hiring issues, and perimeter threats (to name just a few of the events which keep us focused on airport security) continue to occur, all but the most critical analysts cannot keep focused on the rate of progress made in implementing the Transportation and Aviation Security Act (TASA), which will be two years old next month. To date, the training of pilots to carry guns in the cockpit remains incomplete, security training of flight attendants remains undone, recurrent training of screeners remains unscheduled, management training of supervisors has just reached the planning stage, perimeter security of airports remains an open question, physical screening of airport workers on the ramp side of airports remains unplanned for, and the installation of explosives detection systems (EDS) for all checked baggage to be delayed beyond the December 31st schedule date.

It is entirely foreseeable that the ubiquitous box cutter will continue to find itself onboard commercial airliners. Indeed, it would not be surprising if we find ourselves allowing their carriage as we continue to role back many of the prohibitions against nail files and the like, and begin to focus on explosives detection and passenger profiles. It would appear that the TSA has changed its focus from screening to technology, new uniforms for its personnel, and a future in which our airports will be secured by private-sector security companies. Perhaps, in a future role as overseer of the nation’s aviation security system rather than its provider, the TSA will be more comfortable in monitoring the performance of contracted security personnel than it has been in policing itself.

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