Is it safe to fly yet? A transportation official says there still are `alarming lapses of security’ and `systemic vulnerabilities’ associated with U.S. air travel. Should new airline-security laws calm our fears?

Is it safe to fly yet? A transportation official says there still are `alarming lapses of security’ and `systemic vulnerabilities’ associated with U.S. air travel. Should new airline-security laws calm our fears? – Office of Inspector General, Federal Aviation Association

Sheila R. Cherry

Signing a landmark aviation package into law on Nov. 19, President George W. Bush called for “a new commitment to security in the air” that would make air travel as safe as possible. The most-traveled holiday of the year had arrived, and it remained to be seen whether such assurances would get the public to return to commercial flight.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesman Paul Takemoto describes some of the security enhancements that already have been put in place to make flying safer. “We have bolstered security in every phase of the flying process, from the moment passengers first arrive at the airport to when they are actually on the plane,” he tells INSIGHT. “They’ll see scrutiny all the way around: They’ll see canine teams, uniformed law-enforcement presence, increased security at [baggage-] screener checkpoints, increased security at the gates themselves.” Not that it will be apparent to the flying public, “but there also are more federal air marshals flying onboard.”

Passengers meanwhile are being limited to one carry-on bag and one personal item, such as a purse or a laptop computer. But, Takemoto advises, “When in doubt, check with the airlines or put it in your checked luggage.”

While all of this is going forward, says the FAA spokesman, National Guard troops are being deployed at baggage-screener checkpoints. There is more and tighter screening of passengers going through those checkpoints, more hand-wanding, more random checks and “other measures that we can’t talk about,” he says.

But for fearful fliers will that be enough? Some of the same issues reported earlier in INSIGHT (see “Are Friendly Skies the Safest Skies?” Jan. 1) apparently still remain. At a congressional hearing on Nov. 14, Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead gave a grim assessment. “Despite existing and new security requirements there are still alarming lapses of security and some systemic vulnerabilities that need to be closed,” he warned. The two problems named were no surprise: airport baggage-screening checkpoints and checked-baggage security.

Since Oct. 30, more than 100 Office of Inspector General (OIG) personnel have conducted security observations at 58 airports nationwide, Mead reported. “On Sept. 14, three days following the terrorist attacks, we arrested 12 non-U.S. citizens who illegally obtained security badges to gain admittance to secure areas at a major U.S. airport.” Joined by FAA security specialists in mid-October, for example, the OIG officials were dispatched to scrutinize screening operations at Philadelphia’s International Airport. During that investigation they discovered that, despite already being on probation for past violations, “shoddy practices in the hiring and training of security screeners continued to exist.”

Those employees worked for the country’s largest airport-services contractor, Argenbright Security. “A random sample of Argenbright employees at these airports found cases where employees (1) were not able to pass a skills test, administered on the spot by OIG personnel, required for employment; (2) had criminal records disqualifying them from employment as screeners; or (3) were foreign nationals not authorized to work in the United States” Mead reported. In 2000, Argenbright’s managers pleaded guilty to criminal charges of falsifying documents on screener background checks.

DOT Secretary Norman Mineta and Attorney General John Ashcroft promptly directed the OIG to expand their investigations to 13 other airports where Argenbright performed security services. Meanwhile, politicians and industry representatives were doing their best to calm customer fears about flying.

On the Southwest Airlines Website recently, company President and Chief Operating Officer Colleen Barrett told passengers: “We are doing everything possible to provide safe, secure and dependable travel for you, your family and your business associates. Safety has always been our most important duty, without exception, and since the awful events that turned our world upside down, we have quadrupled our safety and security efforts.”

That sounded good. But according to the Associated Press, even as DOT inspectors were preparing to report their latest problematic findings concerning Argenbright’s employment practices, both Southwest and United airlines were in the process of awarding the foreign-owned company contracts to manage their respective security services at Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport.

Meanwhile, the incidents of security violations continued. Those reported since October included a man who was arrested in Dallas with multiple passports and Social Security numbers, a fake pilot’s license and a fraudulent airmen’s medical certificate in his flight bag; a Maryland woman who reportedly was trying to conduct her own airport-security test by proving that she could carry a knife through a security checkpoint at Baltimore-Washington International, a crime for which she was indicted; and even the case of a 76-year-old chef arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare International for attempting to take two meat cleavers onboard in his carry-on bag. The most shocking case, in the midst of the claimed security alert, was perhaps that of a man in Chicago who managed to get through screeners all the way up to the final checkpoint, where he was at last caught with an armory of knives and a stun gun.

But as troubling as all of this has been, it at least confirms that airline passengers are coming under heightened scrutiny. How much such scrutiny extends to airport and airline employees is another matter. The OIG officials have reported cases since October that include a former employee at Miami International who was ordered deported after pleading guilty, along with 12 illegal aliens, to making false security badges; a California employee of a certified airplane-repair station who pleaded guilty to, and was indicted for, falsifying the air-worthiness certificates of avionic components and illegally selling the parts over the Internet; and an airline customer-service representative who tried to ship 300 pounds of fireworks labeled as lightbulbs and was caught by a cargo employee in Hawaii verifying the shipment.

Partisan battles in the House of Representatives about whether airport screeners should be federal employees or federally supervised private workers frayed the nerves of lawmakers as well as passengers. The heated debate at first threatened to delay passage of airline-security legislation until after the Thanksgiving recess. But the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in mid-November jolted lawmakers into action. Perhaps chastened by the coincidence of the tragedy, Congress quickly reached a compromise and sent the measure to the president to be signed into law.

The new legislation creates a Transportation Security Board within the DOT to include aviation security, and establishes uniform, consistent security rules for airports nationwide, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska) explains in a written statement. Under the new law, screeners will be federal employees, accountable to a DOT undersecretary. Young points out that the law allows the undersecretary to decide whether to allow the new workers to unionize and prohibits such employees from striking. He says it requires that screeners be U.S. citizens, provides a hiring preference for veterans, gives DOT the discretion to authorize guns in the cockpits and establishes the aforementioned Transportation Security Board to review the actions of the undersecretary.

But the three-year plan also establishes a five-airport pilot program where screeners would be private workers with strict federal oversight. The pilot program, which is a compromise, allows officials to measure the performances of the two classifications of screener employees. Republicans demanded and got 100 percent baggage screening to replace random checks and explosive-detection systems, scheduled to go online by the end of 2002. The plan also assures full authority to discharge underperforming federal screeners.

The Air Transport Association (ATA) expresses satisfaction with the new law but notes that it comes at a high price. ATA President Carol Hallett points out in a written statement, “After Jan. 1, taxes and fees for passengers will include a new security fee of up to $10 per roundtrip ticket, a 7.5 percent domestic ticket tax, a $3 per-person, per-flight segment fee, and a maximum of $18 in airport passenger facility charges (PFCs). Thus, $55 in taxes and fees would likely be applicable to a $200 domestic roundtrip ticket purchased next year. For lower-priced tickets, the taxes and fees could amount to 40 to 50 percent of the total cost. Airlines will also be required to pay an additional $4 per passenger, on average, to the government to cover security screening costs.”

Nevertheless, the decision has been made and the transition is in progress. In the meantime officials navigating through the new roles and reforms might do well to understand why the public is edgy. The same old screener workforce “is out there today,” FAA spokesman Takemoto says. “They’ve been trained [under the existing system] and they are in place…. So they are the [primary current] active workforce. That same [previous] mechanism of training is what they are operating under today.”

Israeli Airport Inadequate Model

Even the most ardent proponents of increased airport security — including the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the Consumers Union (CU) and the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) — have not suggested that other airlines mirror Israel’s EI AI. Why?

EI AI, Israel’s national airline, has not had a terrorist attack for 32 years. While Boston’s Logan International Airport is consulting Raft Ron, a former EI AI security officer, few others consider Israel’s draconian airline-security approach a model to follow. “Israeli citizens voluntarily give up certain rights when they are searched and questioned. The method is too severe for Americans,” says Dawn Deeks of the AFA.

Others feel that comparison is unfair. “EI AI has only one major airport, with a few ancillary stations,” says Sheryl Stein, EI AI’s public*relations officer. While Israel’s airport handles less than 50 flights a day, a normal load for many U.S. airports can exceed 2,000.

Still, as its safety record suggests, we might be able to learn a few things from Israel’s government-owned but privately employed airline.

EI AI Security Measures

* All personnel with access to a plane are accompanied by guard

* Single women and non-Jews/Israelis are profiled

* Screeners are ex-military personnel

* Three-hour boarding procedures

* Armed undercover guards on all flights

* Meticulous carry-on baggage inspection

* Secret security procedures

* Changes flight schedule frequently

* Boarding-interview process

* All luggage goes through a pressurized box to detect pressure bombs

* Flights routed away from cities

Security Reforms Proponents Say They Want

Security Request Advocates Compliance

P — Air Line Pilots Association; F — Association of Flight Attendants;

C — Consumer’s Union

1. Securing access to cockpit: dead

bolts, fail-safe (P, F, C) Some (S)

2. Updated employee security training:

from 1970 (P, F, C) S

3. Timely dissemination of intelligence

information (P, F, C) None (N)

4. Standardize carry-on limitations:

one bag (P, F, C) S

5. Limit employee access to sensitive

areas (P, F, C) S

6. Prevent pilot uniform/credential

duplication (P, F, C) S

7. Ban employment of convicted criminals (F, C) S

8. Eliminate curbside and offsite baggage

check-in (F, C) S

9. Remove unclaimed or unattended baggage (F, C) N

10. Electronic employee IDs (P) S

11. ATC Com. Code: alerts nearby planes of

distress (P) N

12. Update common strategy: hijacking

protocol (P) N

13. Don’t use planes to deport visa

violators (P) N

14. Remove pilot information from the

Internet (P) N

15. Publicity campaign: ensure public

cooperation (P) N

16. Emergency hotline (P) N

17. Preparations for bio/chem attacks:

air sensors (P) S

18. Cabin-to-cockpit communication system (P) N

19. Allow pilots to carry necessary repair

tools (P) S

20. Ensure knowledge of all passengers

onboard (P) N

21. Photo of passenger w/baggage encoded

on ticket (P) N

22. Information of passenger capability:

first aid … (P) N

23. Certify flight attendants as safety

personnel (P) N

24. Standardize electronic ticket/check-in (C) S

25. Improve security of connecting flights (C) S

26. Revamp standing vehicle and delivery

procedure (C) S

27. Zero tolerance for threats and “air rage” (C) N

28. Employ CFX bomb detectors on all baggage (F) S

29. K-9 bomb-sniffing dogs at all airports (F) S

30. Trained & certified aircraft-search

personnel (F) N



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