When Less is More – Airport Security Fiasco

I once saw a bumper sticker that read: “If you like the Post Office, you’ll love socialized medicine!”

Point taken. Who hasn’t visited the Post Office on lunch break, only to find that nearly all the windows are closed – for lunch. This is not to say that we don’t have some fine people working at the Post Office, or that this or that station is run efficiently and well. But few will argue that FedEx or UPS runs a lot better.

Yes, I know that the U.S. Post Office is the most efficient and best run in the world. In a race of losers, however, even first place means very little.

Should you take the time to examine other government programs, you will discover similar inefficiency and waste. It’s inherent in the system, built into the process, an inescapable part of doing business in the public sector. It’s part of the military as well – inefficiency – as any grunt, sailor, or airman knows. Any Army clerk can tell you about multiple part forms: one for the applicant, one for headquarters, one for the file, and one for the round file. It’s endemic, and we’re not likely to change it dramatically any time soon.

So why, four years ago, did everyone assume that by putting the feds in charge of airport security after 9/11 we would get better airport security? Does anyone really believe that the guys who run the Post Office, the Department of the Interior, Immigration, and the Pentagon will suddenly start doing the job right at airports?

Four times in the wake of 9/11 I have examined the state of airport security and our ability to set up highly effective airport and airline security screening. We could have implemented this program within three months of 9/11 – three years and six months ago. We could implement it three months from now. (See “Airline Safety: Simple Steps for Better Security,” DefenseWatch, Nov. 14, 2001, “Security, Common Sense and Gen. Joe Foss,” DefenseWatch, Feb, 20, 2002, “Another Enemy Within – Agency Turf Fights,” DefenseWatch, June 26, 2002, “Airport Security – An Update,” DefenseWatch, Nov. 20, 2002).

On June 5, 2005 , The New York Times reported on a confidential study prepared by the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security. According to the Times, this report was requested by Congress and produced by staff members from the Department of Homeland Security and employees of Northrop Grumman who examined the current screening processes in place in five domestic and sixteen foreign airports. They examined four areas: passenger checkpoints, checked baggage, air cargo, and in-bound international flights. They were specifically charged with looking for quick ways to modify existing operations.

So this is a good thing. Somebody finally has realized that airport security is not going very well, and we are doing something about it – right?

Remember the Post Office at lunchtime?

It seems that work on this report has been underway for more than a year. As reported by the Times, Homeland Security Department spokesman Donald W. Tighe said, “[The Report] is not gathering dust on a shelf. It is translating into action.”

The Times did not indicate the report’s cost, but with both Homeland Security and Northrop Grumman working on it for more than a year, you can bet it is in the tens of millions. So, what have we gotten for out tax money?

From the report: “There is increasing pressure to increase the flow of passengers and their property through security checkpoints. Unfortunately, our analysis has shown there are significant security gaps at checkpoints as they currently exist.”

Okay – that observation has got to be worth a couple of million dollars.

The report offers: “Widespread delays caused by security breaches could be reduced by simply preventing passengers from dashing through exits leading from secure areas.”

(Worth at least another million.)

And, it concludes: “Checkpoints operated by the Transportation Security Administration, [which oversees airport security] should have gates or lockable doors at those exits.”

Yea … lockable gates …. Gee! And I suppose they should be locked!

Twelve months, several million dollars … lockable gates. Okay; at least we’re getting somewhere.

Back to the report: “If, say, a handgun were discovered, the terrorist would have ample ability to retain control of it. T.S.A. screeners are neither expecting to encounter a real weapon nor are they trained to gain control of it.”

The report explains that T.S.A. currently has arrangements to call local law enforcement officials when such a weapon is discovered, and points out that it can take “several minutes” for an armed response. It proposes to include armed personnel at each checkpoint.

Guys with – like – guns, who – you know – know how to use them. Like, Gosh, that must have cost another million or so.

The report stated that most X-ray examining machines stood idle for about 30 percent of the time, because passengers queued up to the screening table were delayed waiting for another bin, or for a previous passenger to get everything prepared to go through the machine. The report suggested longer tables.

Excuse me, but did that have to take a year to figure out? And cost another million? When I have more than three guests for dinner, my kids are smart enough to put a leaf in the table to make it longer. And I don’t have to increase their allowance to make it happen.

Mark O. Hatfield Jr., another spokesman for T.S.A., told the Times that steps were already being taken to solve these problems at airport checkpoints in Atlanta, Denver, and Washington, D.C. He said that they had actually reduced the peak wait time from thirteen to twelve minutes.

Wow, that’s impressive. One whole minute at three airports for a year’s worth of effort. That really makes me feel better, and a lot more secure. One whole minute; are these guys good, or what?

The report, which consists of 214 pages of similar stuff, explains that the current problems exist because government officials rushed to the task of better protecting airports, and simply made some mistakes along the way – because they were moving too fast.

For the record: This is a crock!

Two years and seven months ago I wrote: “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 (see “Airport Security – An Update,” DefenseWatch, Nov. 20, 2002 ).

And now, years and millions of dollars later, we have a new report about locked gates, longer tables, and guys with guns. And the lines are just as long, the screeners just as stupid, they still confiscate my fingernail file and let me keep my ballpoint pen (that I can kill you with in three seconds), and they still strip search little old ladies, Medal of Honor retirees, and infants in baby carriages – while a terrorist with half a brain can still get his stuff aboard a plane and access it in flight with a bit of planning and some knowledge of how the system works.

As I have written several times, from the get-go, the problem we face is 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.

Once again, here is the seven-point program I suggested in November, 2001, following 9/11. This program would have accomplished everything necessary in about three months. It’s now been three years and six 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. Remember the Post Office at lunchtime. 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. But it still needs to be done, right now, immediately! 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. And – yes – make the tables long enough, and lock the gates.

Fourth, 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 both hold baggage and carry-on baggage to passengers using transmitting chips on baggage, boarding passes, and the passengers themselves. This will insure that every piece of hold baggage belongs to someone actually aboard the aircraft. Attach a wrist band to each passenger and each piece of carry-on luggage 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, the passenger’s actual location on the plane at any moment, and the location of the passenger’s carry-on stuff. 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 are to be involved 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 or so 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 could have been on line. Even if you don’t buy my time line, by now, three years and six months later, we certainly would not still be talking about the length of screening tables.

Sure it would have cost a bundle, but probably not so much as the now three-year six-month delay has cost – and we wouldn’t have had to pay for a multi-million dollar useless study to tell us about table lengths and locked gates. 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.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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