Airport Security: A Promise Unfulfilled

I love to fly. I still find most airports exciting places. I have always tried to arrive early enough to walk the concourses and look at the gate departure announcements for places I hope someday to have a chance to visit — Moscow, Prague, Hong Kong — and others to which I hope to return — Paris, London, Fiji, Sydney. I have always considered myself lucky to be born in America, a nation with so many blessings; and high on that list is our commercial aviation system. For an ever increasing number of Americans, the freedom to travel and the means to do so have become a reality. For more than 40 years, I have taken for granted my freedom to get aboard an airliner to explore my country and much of the rest of the world whenever I was ready to do so.

On September 11th, that all changed.

Many Americans, myself included, have known for three decades that terrorists have been planning to strike at our commercial aviation system. Few of us have been willing to even attempt to prepare for it. Too many of us are still in denial, believing that the events of 9/11 events were a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, an anomaly. I hope they are right.

In all, or almost all cases, commercial airliners fall from the sky as the result of intentional acts or negligence. It makes little difference to the victims whether an airliner is intentionally driven into a building or the ground, or if a fatal disaster is caused because a mechanic failed to check for loose bolts in an engine mounting or tail section, or because management allowed prohibited explosive cargo to be carried on board. What needs to be acknowledged by the living is that, in each case, the deaths were avoidable.

Because intentional criminal acts against airliners are few, maintenance is generally reliable, and commercial pilots and aircraft prove their worthiness about 40,000 time each day, I still consider air travel the safest means of transportation. However, when an airliner goes down, it is generally because somebody in the cockpit or on the ground made an avoidable error; and I believe that to be the case even for acts of terrorism and sabotage. We have all been told that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were unavoidable because the terrorists were willing to go down with the planes. That statement is incorrect and is likely made in an effort to cover the fact that reasonable security under the circumstances against a foreseeable risk was not employed, which would have kept them and their weapons off the planes in the first place.

Thirteen years ago, Congress, the aviation industry, the media, and the public were put on notice that Islamic terrorism was aimed at America and Americans through our commercial aviation system; other warnings have followed regularly. On December 21sr, 1988, one half pound of semtex, a plastic explosive, that was packed into a portable radio inside of checked baggage was placed aboard Pan Am 103, a flight headed for New York, bringing mostly Americans home for Christmas. At 31 thousand feet, the semtex exploded, and The Maid of the Seas, a 747 airliner, crashed to earth, killing all 259 passengers and crew, as well as 11 residents of the village of Lockerbee, Scotland. The owner of the checked bag was not on board. \In the official report of the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism published in 1990, the commission stated in its Executive Summary: “The destruction of Pan Am 103 may well have been preventable. Stricter baggage reconciliation procedures could have stopped any unaccompanied checked bags from boarding the flight from Frankfurt.”

On November 19th, 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, implementing some the recommendations made by his father’s presidential commission investigating the terrorist attack on Pan Am 103. The new law, when implemented, will federalize both the process of airport security and the screeners who are the cornerstone of the new program. The FAA’s role in airport security will be transferred to the new Transportation Security Administration within the Department of Transportation. Through proper training, federal supervision of the screening process, and the installation of enhanced security procedures and new technologies, terrorist acts like those of December 21st, 1988, and September 11th, 2001, should never again occur.

But for the new law to have any real affect, it will require the good faith of the parties necessary for its implementation, including Congress, the Secretary of Transportation and the aviation industry. The constant vigilance of the public will also be needed. So far, indications are that the new law is in trouble. Within one week of the signing of the legislation, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation said that his agency will not be able to comply with the requirement that all checked bags be examined for explosives within 60 days as called for in the law. A week later, Secretary Mineta said that he will be unable to even hold the current unqualified private sector screeners in place until he can provide qualified new federal workers. Neither of these concerns was expressed to Congress before the law was passed last month. With some of the promise of the new law already dead on arrival, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the reforms promised.

In airports, the ramp (the airside of the airport) is where the action is, but the terminal side of the airport, where the passengers are, is where the security is – and therein lies a serious problem. The new law is designed primarily to provide for the screening of passengers and property. Nothing is said of the screening, if any, to be imposed on the many thousands of workers who have daily access to sterile areas of the airport, passenger baggage, and cargo. Unless they too are screened, and in the same manner as passengers and flight crews, reasonable airport security will remain little more than a promise. And even if it is determined that all workers, vendors, and others who may from time to time need to visit airport sterile areas unescorted will be screened, questions still open are: Who will do the work, what will the screening consist of, and what authority, training, and supervision will those “screeners” have?

Although long mandated to do so, in the past it never seemed practicable to conduct full FBI criminal background checks for workers; install available three-dimensional x-ray baggage scanners in airports; replace minimum-wage and minimally-skilled security workers with competent workers adequately paid; or have the government assume its duty to protect the flying public from the foreseeable risks of terrorism, sabotage, and other crimes. It is therefore worrisome that so many of the mandates of the new law call for implementation “as soon as practicable,” “after consultation with,” or “as soon as possible.”

Although money has been available for the purchase and installation of electronic detection systems for years, airports and airlines have resisted their installation. Airport workers who were identified by their jobs as requiring employment and criminal background checks have been “grandfathered” in because printing and checking was not practicable. Security guard companies that have repeatedly failed FAA tests by allowing weapons and simulated explosives through security have been allowed to remain in place because it was not practicable for airlines to employ security companies that would work effectively. Nor has it been practicable in the past to ensure that no bag was boarded unless the passenger who checked it was also on board; and even though that is now the law, we are told that such a system is still not practicable.

For more than ten years, we have called for the federalization and standardization of airport security across America; for removing any airport security from airlines; for the federal deputizing of airport security personnel to enforce federal law; and above all, for thorough background checks, both employment and criminal, for all employees with access to sterile areas, aircraft, baggage, cargo, and catering. Recently, we have called for the use of CCTV aboard passenger aircraft so that cockpit crews can monitor cabins; for tamper proof transponders for the monitoring of aircraft in fight; for the ability to override cockpit computers from the ground in emergencies so that a passenger aircraft can be landed by remote control; and for the upgrading and bullet-proofing of cockpit doors. Some of these “enhanced” security measures are anticipated in the new law. If the Transportation and Security Administration is truly independent of the will of the FAA and the airlines, there is a chance that many of the technological advancements and procedural changes proposed to secure our airports and aircraft will be incorporated in the future. If the fears of the airlines and the FAA that tighter security is a threat to the solvency of our aviation industry prevail, we will be left with just the window dressing now seen in our airports

Despite the more than three decades of debate and disaster which have preceded the takeover by the federal government of what we believe has always been a federal responsibility, we have a new law which still faces an uphill battle for implementation, and only a 50-50 chance of making a significant difference if implemented. In 1990, I was told by a member of the Senate’s transportation committee that, regardless of the security problems faced at our airports, “we will not fix it until an American carrier departing a U.S. airport is taken down by a terrorist over our country.”

The good Senator was wrong. On September 11th, four planes departing three of our high security airports were taken down by a score of terrorists, and we still haven’t fixed it.

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