A Common Sense Approach to Airport Security

One of the first steps taken by Congress after 9/11 was to quickly agree that airport security in America was inadequate, and that new legislation was needed to correct its faults. The proposed new law was designed to restore faith in the ability of our aviation system to ward off acts of terrorism. It was quickly decided that the corps of airport screeners in place on September 11th was incapable of protecting us from terrorist acts and that they needed to be replaced. Some members of Congress, and the White House, believed that, along with tight government supervision and new training and employment standards, the private sector should continue to operate the system. Others in Congress believed that government should set new standards for operating the aviation security system and hire a new cadre of civil servants to perform the screening functions.

By emphasizing the low caliber of personnel hired by the private sector, a history of abysmal performance, and management corruption shared by the security companies and their airline clients, the pro-government worker group carried the day. “After all, we don’t privatize the FBI,” they were heard to say.

On November 19, 2001, President Bush signed into law the new Aviation and Transportation Security Act, federalizing all aspects of aviation security. The law provides broad discretion for federal aviation security managers to make the long-awaited and much-needed changes. In February of this year, the newly-created Transportation Security Administration took over the operation of all airport screening from the airlines. The first thing the new agency did was to sign new contracts with most of the existing security guard firms, a step that was probably needed to maintain continuity of airport security operations for the nation’s 429 commercial airports.

Ever so slowly, the TSA has been working with some of the nation’s airports on a variety of new security technology upgrades which have the potential to enhance our airport security in much-needed ways. Perimeters are becoming more difficult to penetrate, and workers and even some passengers will find themselves subjected to new technological advances to better confirm their identities. There is much about the new law that can make Congress and the President proud. The law has identified many of the existing system’s weaknesses, and provides government regulators, airport authorities, and the airlines the chance to use decades of experience to make security more effective.

In the rush to meet unrealistic technology goals, however, the TSA/FAA seems to have forgotten that the first goal of the new law was to replace a workforce that probably should have never been there, and certainly not on September 11th. Some predicted that, by converting the current workforce to government employees, whose numbers will exceed that of most government law enforcement agencies, politics rather than security common sense would play a disproportionate role. Some of the proposed hiring practices give pause to those of us who have spent decades trying to raise the level of airport security as we see political considerations taking precedence over security concerns.

Although I have long been in favor of uniform federal standards and law enforcement authority for all airport security personnel, I have tried to maintain an open mind as to whether the role should be carried out by civil servants or private workers. The House version of the new law called for deputizing screeners while allowing them to work for private employers. Common sense dictates that, before we grant law enforcement powers to any security worker, the minimum of a high school education and satisfactory evidence of a proper respect for the enforcement of the law should be required, whether they be public or private sector employees. The law now requires that the new cadre of screeners meet those and other standards before they assume screening responsibilities as government screeners; the question of which of them will be granted law enforcement powers remains an open one. Time will tell if the complete federalization of the system was the best choice.

Some in Congress and in other levels of government have voiced a concern over the displacement of airport screeners by newly-employed federal workers. In an effort to lessen the impact of job losses for current screeners, whose employer’s contracts are scheduled to run out this year, some members of Congress and the DOT officials plan to use the discretion granted in the law to the Under Secretary to determine standards for experience which can be deemed sufficient for the job to re-hire current screeners who are otherwise qualified under the statute. To overcome the citizenship requirement, some have proposed working with INS to develop “expedited citizenship” procedures for aliens currently holding airport screener jobs.

A reading of the new law in its entirety gives clear reasons why neither of these ideas serves the best interests of air passengers. It is clearly the purpose of this law to be forward-looking in its approach; it anticipates changing requirements, and calls for a workforce capable of performing in a more sophisticated security environment in the years ahead. A quick look at Sec.109 Enhanced Security Measures demonstrates why education will become ever more important as we begin to work with advanced computer technologies and biometrics in securing our airports. Sec.111 Training and Employment of Security Screening Personnel, with its strict background investigation requirements and concerns over national security risks, should serve to underscore the law’s United States citizenship requirements.

America has, thus far, been spared suicide bombers of the type seen in the Middle East on an almost a daily basis. While we continue to try to devise ways of keeping explosives off airplanes, we have yet to deal with terrorists willing to blow themselves up at crowded ticket counters, or in the midst of a serpentine line waiting to clear security in a busy terminal. Today, screeners stand at screening stations waiting for terrorists to come to them; tomorrow they will likely be looking for terrorists at curbside and in parking lots as they do in Israel.

Common sense dictates that for that job we need to seek the best personnel available, and we are not likely to find them in today’s workforce. While the federal government is busy considering myriad ideas for new technologies, hiring of the most qualified personnel is being overlooked. Proposals such as the one by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the use of highly trained and experienced law enforcement officers for screening at Kennedy Airport languish on a desk at the TSA. Common sense tells us that the war on terrorism requires that we use our best, but so far common sense has not prevailed.

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