Airport Security - An Update

With the current congressional action on the Department of Homeland Security, national attention has once again turned to airport security, all the more so since the deadline for checking all baggage is fast approaching. Current news accounts are full of airlines requesting more time to meet this deadline, citing lack of equipment, funds and personnel.

This is no new issue. Three times in the past 12 months I have examined the state of airline security in the wake of 9/11 and our ability set up highly effective airport and airline security. We could have implemented this program ten months ago. We could implement it two months from now. (See "Airline Safety: Simple Steps for Better Security," DefenseWatch, Nov. 14, 2001, "Security, Common Sense and Gen. Joe Foss," Feb, 20, 2002, and "Another Enemy Within - Agency Turf Fights," June 26, 2002.)

Instead, we are wasting time and taxpayer's money debating ad nauseam fine points of pork and details of turf. Endless amendments are being tacked on already clumsy legislation in order to satisfy this or that benefactor, this or that party faithful, this or that constituency. This is an outrageous abuse of congressional power on the part of those charged with the responsibility for pushing this legislation through. What we have ended up with is a nonsensical mish-mash of pieced together legislation that no sane person could possibly understand, let alone implement.

From the get-go, the problem we faced was fundamentally profoundly simple. Strip away all the rhetoric and all the fuss, and the problem becomes: Prevent any bad guys or bad stuff from getting on any aircraft.

It really is that simple.

This is the seven-point program I suggested last November that would accomplish everything necessary in about three months. It's now been 14 months since 9/11, and we still don't have effective airport and airline security at all airports. The plan includes:

First, assign security responsibility to airports, not the airlines or feds. The simple reason is that each airport manager knows better than anyone else where and how to install and effectively implement security in the various airport buildings and terminals under his control. Give the airport managers the ball and let them run with it.

Second, the feds should pay the initial costs for manufacturing the necessary equipment - no matter how many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars this will take, and pay for the initial airport security installations. This needed to be done immediately, on a crash priority basis, like the bomber production during the initial stages of World War II. Then let passengers pay the final costs with a $25 per ticket surcharge, eventually reimbursing the federal government for all costs, and carrying the financial load going forward.

Third, there should be immediate inspection of all baggage, including hold baggage, using initial computerized screening to speed up the process, augmented by hand inspections of items rejected by the initial screening. Software is either available now to accomplish this, or can be generated in days to weeks, if sufficient cash is thrown at the problem. With the crash production of the various state-of-the-art machines that can carry out these inspections with increasing automation, the long lines would soon give way to efficient passenger processing.

Fourth, security should screen all passengers against databases of known suspects, applying the latest computer technology. Where possible, this screening can take place in advance of travel, by comparing ticketed passengers against various databases. At the time of check-in and boarding, face recognition technology and other state-of-the-art methods can be used to ensure that every passenger is positively identified. Bottom line is: If we don't know who you are, you don't get on that plane!

Fifth, match hold baggage to passengers using transmitting chips on baggage and boarding passes. This will insure that every piece of hold baggage belongs to someone actually aboard the aircraft. A twist on this is to attach a wrist band to each passenger upon boarding (like a hospital ID band), that registers on a panel available to crew members. The panel displays simultaneously the passenger's assigned seat, the hold luggage, and the passenger's actual location on the plane at any moment. An additional refinement would attach another band to each carry-on item, so that its location can be continuously monitored as well. This is mature technology, needing only to be adapted to this specific purpose.

Sixth, arm aircrew members with non-lethal weapons, or with weapons that will not threaten the integrity of the aircraft, and train them to use these weapons effectively. Which crew members and what weapons can be worked out during the initial implementation stages.

Seventh, require all personnel associated with airport and airline operations to take random, unannounced flights. Each person associated with any aspect of flight operations where safety could be an issue will make periodic flights with no advance notice. This process will ensure that no affected employee will perform haphazardly, since the result of such poor performance could materially affect that person's own safety. This follows the theory that if I am required to jump the parachute I personally packed, I will ensure absolutely that it is packed flawlessly.

Had Congress passed legislation implementing this program immediately following 9/11, within three months at most every major airport and most smaller ones would have been equipped with one or more of the machines necessary to implement my suggestions. The software would have been created and debugged, and the necessary building modifications would have been accomplished. By month six, the entire program down to the smallest facility would have been on line.

Sure it would have cost a bundle, but probably not so much as the 14-month delay has cost. Sure it would have affected the federal budget initially, but since the entire cost would eventually be repaid, cost to the government becomes a non-issue.

To have waited this long, and to have accomplished only federalization of the inspectors (is this stupid, or what?) and a modest installation of a small number of sophisticated detection devices is criminal. The Bush administration should hire a kick-ass, technology savvy manager with the authority to implement everything on this list, and then reward him with hefty bonuses for every week by which he beats the schedule, and - of course - penalize him for falling behind.

Do this now and do it right, and you will be safer in the air than crossing the street in Manhattan or Los Angeles. It's more than time to stop the foolishness and do what has to be done - now.