Who (And What) Is Flying On Your Flight?

One month before the September 11th tragedy, I accepted an invitation to give a workshop on aviation security at a conference in San Francisco. In substance, the workshop considered the recommendations made by the panel investigating the causes of the Lockerbee bombing; the recommendations and legislation coming from the Gore Commission on aviation security in 1997; and the findings from several other private and public studies on the terrorism threat to America and American commercial aviation. Our goal was to determine whether implementing recommended broad changes to the system was warranted by the foreseeable risks of terrorism against airports and airliners in the United States. The overall sentiment of the group of aviation industry and government personnel attending was that things were working well as they were. After all, we hadn’t had a terrorist attack against commercial aviation in the United States, and that was proof of the effectiveness of the system, wasn’t it?

Between September 11th and November 21st of 2001, the Congress of the United States and the Executive agreed to implement every recommendation for tightening aviation security on the table and to do it fast. First and foremost, it was agreed that the United States Government had the legal duty to protect American aviation from international terrorism directed at commercial aviation, and for the first time it legislated that obligation by passing the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, thereby taking that responsibility under federal stewardship. Today, aviation security is wholly owned by the United States government, and every rule and regulation regarding security at airports and aboard airliners originates with the federal government. Who and what are flying with you are questions that — under the law — it must be prepared to answer.

Recent events have once again highlighted our concern about who and what are flying aboard our commercial airliners because there is still no reassurance from the government that the issues raised are under control. To many of us, it appears we continue to be probed and tested for aviation security vulnerabilities:

  • A Saudi Arabian citizen headed for the U.S. several months ago on a business visa was stopped and searched by customs and immigration personnel upon arrival at Boston’s Logan Airport. In his backpack, the only baggage in his possession, officials found three incendiary devices which were described by him as crayons. Further investigation revealed they were small incendiaries about the size of firecrackers. He was subsequently prosecuted for carrying the devices aboard an airliner and found not guilty.
  • A Sudanese man boarded an aircraft at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport en route to London, where he was found by British screeners to be in possession of several rounds of rifle ammunition. He proclaimed he didn’t know how they got into his possession.
  • Fourteen Syrian nationals boarded an airliner in Detroit en route to Los Angeles. Their conduct, which included loitering around the forward lavatory, failing to be seated prior to landing, and other suspicious conduct, was catalogued by a journalist on board and verified thereafter by the Northwest Airlines cabin crew and the federal agents who intercepted them upon arrival. The individuals claimed to be part of band on their way to L.A. for an appearance.
  • A Lebanese doctor en route to Indiana missed his connecting flight from Chicago’s O’ Hare. In circumstances which remain unexplained, his bag was boarded and forwarded without him; another exception to the rule that requires that there be a positive match between bags and passengers on board airliners. The bag contained a substance that leaked out, causing a variety of ailments to the ground crew at the airport who handled it. When located by federal agents, the Lebanese doctor claimed that the liquid was nothing more than a perfume additive he was transporting in three bottles.

All of the individuals fit profiles that should have alerted us to a potential threat. All were foreign nationals from the Middle East, all were male, all traveled under circumstances that warranted special observation, and all penetrated one or more security protocols designed to protect us.

Since 9/11, the Transportation Security Administration and the media have alerted us to the potential of shoulder-held missiles threatening our airliners, the need to escort foreign airliners with fighter planes, the vulnerability of airport runways to intruders from adjacent waterways, the theft of checked baggage by federal screeners and other workers with security clearances, the inability to physically screen workers at airports with access to aircraft, baggage and cargo, the failure of screeners to intercept a large percentage of weapons passed through screening (in tests conducted by the General Accounting Office and other government agencies), and the inability to clear a United States Senator for travel. (The name “T. Kennedy” still appeared on a “no fly list” designed to keep terrorists off airliners after weeks of being informed that it was also the name of Senator Ted Kennedy.) In short, we still don’t seem to have a handle on whom and what is aboard our commercial airliners despite almost three years of federal control over aviation security.

As we approach the third anniversary of 9/11, and with a presidential election shortly thereafter (one which was statistically so close that any catastrophic event orchestrated by terrorists, whether real or threatened, could have determined the outcome), the question of our homeland security preparedness should be upper-most in the minds of all. If we don’t have confidence in those whose duty it is to reasonably protect us at home, will our next major catastrophe simply be al Qaeda’s successful attempt to influence how we vote? Will a terrorist act or the threat of one determine whether we vote Republican or Democrat? And if that is the case, regardless of the outcome of the election, will we not have handed control of our government over to the terrorists?

We need to avoid the syndrome which blames the victim for the victimization and seriously address the vulnerabilities which make America such an attractive target for terrorists. The first and most vulnerable activity is our unprotected commercial aviation system. Terrorists have repeatedly defeated us there. They know how to use it to paralyze our economy. They are continuing to test it and to prove how vulnerable it remains. Let’s fix it before it’s too late.


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