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Airline Mismanagement

Security after 9/11 - a curious mix of hysterical over-reaction and inactivity!

Passengers hoping to fly out of Miami Airport this Thanksgiving are greeted by a National Guardsman, fully automatic M16 assault rifle at the ready, and - get this - atop a tank! All this to protect us against the possibility of terrorists armed with box cutters and pocket knives?

While the airlines rushed to subject their passengers to ridiculous scrutiny, they are resisting and seeking to delay the introduction of any type of scrutiny for passenger luggage.

Personally, I'd prefer the National Guardsman to be inside the baggage handling area and checking luggage, rather than enjoying the sun outside on top of his tank.

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The Weakest Link

Curbside checkin? The first thing in any security scare is always to eliminate curbside checkin, and then, a week or two or three later, to reintroduce it.

What is the point of this? Are we trying to deter terrorists by forcing them to briefly endure long lines and having to carry their bags inside the terminal?



Most people seem to think that the passing of the Airport Security Federalization Act earlier this week marks a solution to the problems which culminated in 9/11. Not so. The new legislation - good as it is - will not bring about any immediate fixes, and meanwhile the airlines are arguing and attempting to delay resolving a key vulnerability.

This week's column states a few essential facts about airplane security, and tries to expose some of the lies that are being passed off as truths.

Passing the Buck

This must be the only time in US history that the public has almost unanimously clamored for the government to take over the role of private enterprise, united in the fervent belief that government workers will do a better job than private employees!

And, as for the weaknesses in the security screening prior to 11 Sept, why is everyone now acting surprised about this? Anyone that ever walked through a security barrier could see that the screening process was close to completely haphazard and random. I can't count the number of times that I've had strange looking objects in my carry on pass through with no scrutiny at all - we all of us knew that the security screening process was patchy and imperfect, but no-one did anything about it.

In particular, the FAA knew this, and occasionally would fine the airlines ridiculously low amounts of money such that it was cheaper for the airlines to pay the fines than to buy improved services from the security companies they contracted with.  Now everyone is choosing to blame the security contractors, while ignoring the real problem - the airlines had lowballed their security services and made it essentially impossible for a high quality and more thorough screening procedure to be provided.

But, that's all water under the bridge, isn't it. Let's talk instead about the present state of play. While the airlines have rushed to secure their cockpit doors (you'd get whiplash from watching how fast they reversed their earlier arguments against doing this incredibly sensible thing!) they are still complaining that other security improvements will be complicated, time consuming and costly to implement, and (their ultimate argument) may result in customer inconvenience.

I'm talking about baggage security.  What's the easiest way for a terrorist to crash a plane today?  Easy.  Buy a ticket, and, and, being very careful to answer the oh so difficult questions at the counter correctly ('Did you pack this suitcase yourself', etc etc) check a suitcase with a bomb inside onto the flight.

Just a small lump of plastic explosive the size of a Coke can is all that is needed to make a really big bang and to cause any plane to crash.  Then, after having checked the suitcase and got a boarding pass, simply leave the airport.  Watch the plane take off with the suitcase on board, and listen for the loud explosion.  Presently, the domestic airlines have no positive baggage matching procedure, and test less than 10% of luggage for explosives, and so there is nothing to prevent the scenario I've just outlined.

Now - wait for it. Here's what the airlines say in response.  They say that if they had to implement a positive baggage matching system, this might mean that, on average, one flight in seven is delayed about seven minutes.  In other words, all flights will be delayed an average of one minute.

Let's see if I've got this right.  We're all being delayed an average of one hour or more in our check-in process at present so that the airlines can be absolutely sure we don't take a dangerous nailfile on board, but the airlines aren't prepared to delay the flights another minute so as to have a positive baggage matching procedure?  What's wrong with this picture???

A Shameful History of Delays

Almost exactly 13 years ago, on 21 December 1988, Pan Am's flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.  A bomb was in one of the unaccompanied suitcases on board the plane, and the act of sabotage highlighted the vulnerability of planes to bombs in the cargo hold.

Two obvious solutions presented themselves.  First, require all luggage to be transported together with its owner - ie, matching bags to passengers.  The reasoning for this is that a bomber is less likely to want to kill himself as well as the rest of the passengers.  This is, of course, imperfect reasoning, but it still presents as at least some level of precaution.

Secondly, screen luggage as well as carry-on items and check for hidden bombs.  Modern devices can not only Xray the luggage but also 'sniff' their contents and detect the tell-tale chemical traces of explosives.  This strategy would reduce the chance of terrorists smuggling bombs onto planes down to almost zero.

So, in 1990, Congress passed an Aviation Security Bill that gave the FAA three years to install explosives detection machines at US airports, with an escape clause allowing for delays if suitable technology did not yet exist.  Problem solved.

Suitable technology does exist, and some airports are now equipped with such devices.  But not all airports, and not sufficient devices.  Indeed, even after 9/11, fewer than 10% of checked bags were being checked for bombs and a survey of 30 machines at nine airports showed that 73% were not in continuous use!  Problem not solved.

On 17 July, 1996, TWA flight 800 crashed mysteriously shortly after leaving New York.  Later that year, Congress passed another law that ordered the FAA to establish rules for certifying the companies that hired the passenger screeners at airports.  Problem solved.

Apparently nothing much happened, and so in 2000, another law gave the FAA until May 31, 2001, to issue the regulations.  FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler said the agency was just about to issue new rules for screening companies before the terrorist attacks, umm, 'put them on hold'!  Problem not solved.

And now we have another airline crash and another piece of legislation to solve the problem.  Can you spot the pattern here?

The explosives detectors that were supposed to be installed by 1993 are still not installed, and those that have been installed aren't even being used all the time.  The security company certification requirements of the 1996 act have been delayed and delayed.  The new legislation gives until the end of 2002 for all checked luggage to be inspected by explosives detectors, and follows that up with a requirement that within 60 days of now, airlines must start inspecting all bags with X-ray machines, bomb-sniffing dogs, hand-searches or other methods, including matching bags to passengers.

Guess what.  Are the airlines saying 'Yes, certainly, we'll do that right away'.  No.  They're saying that this is too short a time (but, really, this requirement goes back to the 1990 legislation - how much time do they want?).  And, of course, they're also saying 'we can't afford it'.  Unbelievably, they're also saying that customer service might suffer - as if they care!

"It's tough for us," says Dick Doubrava, the Air Transport Association's security chief.  "Can it be done in 60 days?  We'll make a good-faith effort."

Meanwhile, the DOT is clearly not on top of things, either.  Although this is supposed to be done by 18 January, (a very short time frame that includes the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holiday periods), DOT's Lenny Alcivar said Tuesday, "It's really too early to discuss these details."

Question - When will it no longer be too early to discuss the details?  And just how much faith can any of us have in the airlines' 'good-faith effort'?

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Originally published 23 Nov 2001, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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