Challenging Aviation Security Issues for 2006

Department of Homeland Security has announced new initiatives for 2006 to jump-start efforts to achieve major improvements in security for air travelers. The New Year began with new rules on carry-on items which indicate a trend toward loosening restrictions on previously banned items including some small tools and personal gadgets no longer to be considered “weapons” when presented at screening stations. While these changes are at best a token of what needs to be done if we are to free-up screeners for more important security searches it is an indication that more serious thought is going into aviation security protocols. In addition, the willingness of the TSA to employ behavioral profiling and increased reliance on screening technology in the search for explosives and other mass destruction weapons are further examples of the more sophisticated programs we will see in 2006. In the year ahead, if the Department of Homeland Security is willing to institute new initiatives to further secure the ramp side of our airports by instituting the physical screening of ramp-side workers and filling in the gaps in the porous perimeters that allow unauthorized access to buildings, roadways and runways, 2006 will bring us close to the promised “world-class” airport security announced in 2001.

Establishing an even more trimmed down list of prohibited “dangerous” articles carried into airliner cabins should be undertaken to further reduce the need to search for items that don’t present a realistic threat to commercial aviation. Continuing the ban on pocket knives of any size as well as all cigarette lighters while permitting matches and plastic cutlery with serrated edges in passenger cabins is drawing a distinction where there is no security related difference. Because we are far better off focusing on human behavior than compiling exaggerated lists of “weapons” and the hypothetical mayhem they might be used for, time and money would be better spent in training flight attendants to identify aberrant behavior, developing new protocols for dealing with intoxicated and stressed passengers and in-flight security training to police general security issues of concern to cabin crews and passengers. Such programs, if developed in conjunction with flight attendant associations and organized passenger groups could provide much needed insight into daily minor security problems that could be handled before they become major ones.

TSA has once again announced its intention to engage in the use of profiling as a technique to identify high risk passengers. Combined with other initiatives such as the Registered Passenger Program and the increased use of biometrics to identify passengers and industry workers alike, TSA is taking steps to become more proactive in its approach to safeguarding airliners and airports from individuals deemed more likely to present a threat of violence. There will continue to be criticism of programs designed to identify passengers deemed possible criminal threats based solely on immutable characteristics. The overriding concern seems to be on the misuse of characteristics such as race and gender as stereotypes for identifying some individuals as more likely to be prone to illegal behavior, in this case in the context of terrorism. The behavioral profiling being anticipated will hopefully include many passenger characteristics including no doubt some of those already in use in the CAPPS program dealing with travel patterns and the like for identifying passengers for questioning by trained personnel. Profiling is surely an art that calls for special training and experience to be effective; any simplistic approach which serves to single out a group solely on the basis of biased generalizations will surely be rejected.

Current efforts to develop a security umbrella of sorts to protect airliners on take-off and landing from shoulder held missiles will no doubt receive increased attention in the months ahead as government funded research on developing new technologies comes to fruition. So far, the problem of developing a system that protects airliners flying at altitudes lower than 10,000 feet, altitudes that are within range of SAM missiles continues to elude us. At some major airports there are no surveillance systems of any kind beyond the perimeter fence. Efforts to effectively “push back” perimeters on take-off and approach patterns by covering them with electronic surveillance and response systems could reduce some of the vulnerabilities of airliners at airport perimeters. Introducing electronic perimeter security systems could be a relatively inexpensive and effective method for securing perimeters while waiting for a new high-tech approach to intercept missiles, and would also add the benefit of being able to intercept trespassers to those vulnerable areas adding a crime prevention element as well.

This year will also likely see new considerations on the number, assignment and protocols relative to the Federal Air Marshal Service. This past year has produced the first use of deadly physical force incident by Federal Air Marshals. The on-board marshals shot and killed a passenger threatening to detonate an explosive in the jet-way adjacent to a loaded airliner. The incident is likely to generate new speculation over the response protocols currently in place particularly as they relate to passenger behavioral patterns and the manner in which carry-on baggage is screened and stowed. While all of the evidence indicates that the FAMS acted appropriately under difficult circumstances, questions will remain over whether there might have been a better way to handle the perceived threat. The need to have armed FAMS aboard commercial airliners that are now presumably hijack-proof still generates debate. The nature of their assignments, which suggests that their role is essentially one of hijack prevention, will likely be reconsidered as we become more comfortable with the notion that airliner cabins are reasonably secure from hijackers, armed assailants and weapons of mass destruction. Until that time, the notion of unidentified FAMS aboard airliners remains comforting. New and existing protocols regarding the use of FAMS in a more expansive police role aboard airliners carrying many hundreds of people on ever-longer flights might also offer a deterrent to general concerns of disorderly conduct and provide an enhanced role for an otherwise tedious job.

We have identified forty-four issues of continued concern on aviation security for the months ahead. Newly expressed threats of future terrorism against America al-Queda underscore the need for continued vigilance over aviation security, a target with which terrorists have long singled out for attention and one in which they have invested years of planning. As we continue to make efforts to secure our commercial aviation system we at FRAC will continue to report on it.

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