Multinational Monitor

NOV 2001
VOL 22 No. 11


Pentagon Spending Spree: The Wartime Opportunists on High Alert
by William Hartung

Too Cheap to Deter: The Nuclear Power Industy Pushes Ahead Post 9-11
by Charlie Cray

Fear of Flying: The Political Economy of Airport Security
by Todd Paglia


The Great Game: Oil and Afghanistan
an interview with
Ahmed Rashid

A Resource War
an interview with
Michael Klare

A Corporate Tax Break Feeding Frenzy
an interview with
Nancy Watzman

The Corporate Attack on Electronic Privacy
an interview with
Chris Hoofnagle

Insuring a Fair Deal
an interview with
Robert Hunter


Behind the Lines

The Corporate State and the Public Interest

The Front
The Cipro Rip-Off

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Fear of Flying The Political Economy of Airport Security

By Todd Paglia

On September 23, 2001, Brian Fitzgerald, a thin and cleancut Caucasian man, entered the Seattle airport to fly home to Arizona. He was booked on Southwest Airlines flight 1439 direct to Phoenix. Knowing that security would be tight in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, he showed up early for his 11:45 a.m. flight. Security guards were stopping every vehicle driving up to the terminal. He knew this would take a little extra time, but he was glad to see the armed officers and felt reassured.

Fitzgerald arrived at the security checkpoint for Terminal B with his carry-on backpack, which he placed on the conveyer belt of the x-ray machine. As he walked through the metal detectors, the alarm went off and he was asked to step aside. He was frisked and given a thorough going over with a hand-held metal detector. Finding nothing amiss, the airport security screeners allowed him to retrieve his backpack and board the plane.

As Fitzgerald flew to Phoenix, in the bin right above his head, inside the backpack he carried on, was a 6-inch miniature Chinese short-sword that he accidentally smuggled on board. He didn’t realize it was in the pack until he got home — and neither did anyone else.

Fitzgerald’s experience was not unique. New York Daily News reporters went to the airports where the 9-11 flights originated and were able to sneak knives and razors onto flights. In total, the News team was able to sneak several of the following items on 10 out of the 12 flights they boarded: a camping knife with a 2 1/2 inch blade, a multi-tool with a knife blade, box cutters like the ones used in the terrorist attacks, scissors and pepper spray.

More recently, a Nepalese man was stopped at Chicago’s O’Hare airport after he had made it through the x-ray checkpoint. He was in possession of seven knives and a stun gun that had somehow escaped detection.

The Fitzgerald and other incidents highlight what air transportation safety advocates say is a startling post-September airline safety record.

While numerous plans have been expounded, regulations and legislation considered and a rhetorical commitment to safety ratcheted up, not much has changed in actual practice.

That has safety advocates alarmed.

Two presidential commissions and numerous reports by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General, Congress’s General Accounting Office and airline safety advocates have outlined dozens of serious gaps in security procedures over the years: lack of adequate screening for checked bags, access to high-risk areas by catering companies and others lacking security clearance, and inadequate training of x-ray operators, to name a few. A handful of improvements have made their way into law, but the bulk of the proposals for increased security have not been adopted; and even those adopted are often not rigorously implemented.

Lax regulators and a cost-conscious airline industry share responsibility for the dismal state of U.S. airline security, according to safety advocates. The airlines have successfully resisted calls for strengthened safety measures — such as matching checked bags with passengers and not letting a checked bag on without a corresponding passenger — primarily to avoid the additional expense. In the United States, airlines are charged with screening both passengers and luggage. Here too, they have cut costs and corners, with dire potential consequences, according to safety advocates.

“A month after the September attacks, much of the testimony on Capitol Hill is about lowering airline security,” says Paul Hudson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Aviation Consumer Action Project, “not, as you might expect, about maintaining current standards or increasing them.”

Sliding Back Toward the Status Quo

Immediately following the September attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered an unprecedented three-day shutdown of commercial air traffic. When commercial flights resumed, the FAA imposed extra security measures — but many of the new restrictions were relaxed soon thereafter. The FAA lifted the ban on curbside check in, for example, less than a week after the attacks. This allows a passenger to check luggage at the curb and thus avoid potential additional screening under the Computer Assisted Passenger Profiling System (CAPPS), a means of selecting high-risk passengers whose bags get elevated scrutiny.

The ban on having commercial airliners carrying unscreened mail and cargo was also lifted. Restrictions that limited the nation’s thousands of private aircraft from flying near major metropolitan areas were phased out a little over one month after the September attacks.

The evolving response to September 11 fits a familiar pattern, says Paul Hudson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Aviation Consumer Action Project. After air disasters, he says, “more often than not there is a substitution of plans and proposals for real actions. Then the heat goes down and nothing happens.” The post-September 11 restrictions are fading away; and new farther-reaching rules are on hold in Congress, where controversy over federalizing baggage scanners has stalled new safety rules.

For now, the most visible change in airport security is the dramatically increased presence of law enforcement officers and national guardsmen. But many security experts see these deployments as cosmetic.

“It’s a dog and pony show, these soldiers with AK-47s, but security isn’t much different,” says Peter Williamson, vice president with Rapiscan Security Products, makers of airport security inspection equipment. Law enforcement personnel on site may provide some modest deterrent effect, but probably does little to slow determined terrorists.

Where changes are perhaps most needed, say safety advocates, is in the handling of checked and carry-on baggage.

Checked Bags: Lockerbie Ignored

The importance of security on checked bags was made apparent over 13 years ago. En route from London to New York in 1988, Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland after a bomb was planted in its cargo hold. Two hundred seventy people died in the blast and ensuing crash.

Although many called for the scanning of all checked bags after the Lockerbie explosion, the FAA never mandated advanced bomb screening. It appears that progress on this front will remain slow going after September 11.

Prior to September 11, the FAA had set 2009 as a target for when all checked bags should be screened by advanced machines. The machines, called CT scanners or CTX machines, are able to detect various threats from plastic explosives to more traditional bombs.

Under current rules, air carriers are responsible for operating and maintaining the bomb detection machines purchased by the FAA, but the airlines are not forced to accept them. According to Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead, prior to September 11 a major U.S. carrier had one machine while a small airline had four. One airport refused an advanced machine because it did not match the terminal’s color scheme. Twenty of the million-dollar machines were sitting in a government warehouse collecting dust, though post-9-11 the FAA has claimed that deployment would once again move forward.

Of those machines that have been deployed, most are underused. Mead told the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure exactly one month after the September attacks that a July 2001 study found that one-third of the machines were being used to scan fewer than “225 bags per day, on average, compared to a certified rate of 225 bags per hour.”

After 9-11, the FAA required that all airports with advanced bomb detection machines use them continuously, rather than occasionally. But even after the September 11 tragedy, the Inspector General found that at seven high-risk airports the machines were not being used at their capacity. Mead told the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that “at some locations the machine was not turned on; at others, the machines were on and staffed with screeners, but no baggage was screened.”

Security experts say at most 5 percent of checked bags are now screened for bombs using the advanced machines and estimates are as low as one in 10,000.

“Enforcement actions are certainly being looked at” to compel more screening, says Rebecca Trexler of the FAA Public Affairs Department, though she expresses frustration that further motivation would be required in the wake of September 11.

Carry-On Bags

Low wages, little chance for advancement, lack of training and mind-numbing conditions combine to make carry-on bag screeners another weak link in the security system. Training for x-ray machine operators averages around 12 hours — yet experts maintain that they need between 40 and several hundred hours of training to become truly proficient.

Even with well-trained screeners, the job is inherently difficult. If there is a relatively low rate of incident, for example, finding a gun in a carry-on bag once every couple months or even years, the accuracy rate for detection when a dangerous item does appear on the x-ray screen will be low. This is a predictable result, given the difficulty of focusing on x-ray screens with bags rapidly passing by. With high rates of incident — assume a knife or gun is in every few bags — very high detection rates can be achieved. But screeners at airports typically deal with the former not the latter.

The post-9-11 FAA ban on almost all metal objects that might be used as a weapon — everything from nail clippers to sewing needles to scissors — is increasing the frequency of incidents, and almost certainly elevating the attentiveness of screeners.

But attentiveness is not the only challenge. Many potential weapons are hard to detect. “For example, a gun in profile is easy to see,” says Peter Williamson, a vice president at Rapiscan, a company that makes the x-ray screening machines used at airports, but detecting a gun when it is viewed from the top, with the barrel facing down and the trigger obscured, is much more difficult.

The same problems apply to knives and other potential weapons. A backpack that has been modified so its steel frame can be removed for use as a weapon is even harder — if not impossible — to spot as a weapon.

The airlines, which control carry-on security, are not using available equipment and technologies that would help address or counteract these problems.

For example, threat image projection (TIP) is a software system that imposes a digital image of a dangerous item into a bag being screened, or it creates an entirely fictitious bag containing a dangerous item, in order to keep screeners on their toes and keep accuracy high. It also measures each screener’s rate of detection for the imposed images.

This performance data could be used to identify areas for additional training — which the TIP program can also provide. It could also be used to terminate employees that do not maintain a certain level of proficiency (currently, low performance screeners are neither required to get additional training nor disqualified from operating x-ray machines).

But the FAA does not require use of this technology in a systematic way. TIP has only been activated on a little more than half of the TIP-ready machines, according to the Inspector General. In at least two airports where the program has been activated, a recent Inspector General investigation determined that operators had learned the password and disabled the program during their shifts.

The Cost of Safety

Providing an adequate level of air traffic safety would “involve commercial losses and inconvenience,” says ACAP’s Paul Hudson. “This is the transportation business and when security bumps up against convenience, security loses,” though in many but not all cases convenience can be maintained at greater airline expense — for example, by hiring more staff to offset delays from additional precautionary measures.

But the airline industry has displayed a long-term reluctance to spend money to enhance safety. It has resisted deploying and using new security technologies, and failed to provide competent and well-trained baggage screeners.

The result, say safety advocates, is a terrible gamble with passengers’ well-being.

“No new form of terrorism has ever not been repeated unless there is much heightened security or a strong deterrent,” says Hudson.

“Right now we have neither.”

Todd Paglia is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

Background Checkered

The airline security business reads like a case study in the pitfalls of privatization and subcontracting.

The U.S. government has lodged responsibility for screening of passengers and carry-on bags with the airlines, which in turn subcontracted responsibility to five private security firms.

The industry has compiled a spectacularly poor record.

In May 2000, industry leader Argenbright, which controls roughly 40 percent of the market and is owned by the British firm Securicor, pled guilty to two counts of making false statements to federal regulators and paid $1.55 million in fines in connection with charges that it failed on a massive scale to do background checks on airport screeners employed at the Philadelphia airport and failed to provide them with required training, and then lied to federal authorities about it.

“We could have charged them with 100 counts, or 1,000,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Pease told the New York Times. But the government settled for a plea agreement that included a new compliance program and a three year probationary period.

Prosecutors’ hopes that the compliance program would change the company’s culture appear misplaced. In October 2001, the parties returned to the U.S. District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania with a new plea agreement. That plea extended Argenbright’s probationary period from three to five years, and required the company to do new background checks, including fingerprinting, of its employees.

In submissions to the court, the federal government claimed that Argenbright continued with the same practices for which it had been earlier cited, including failing to do background checks on screeners, making false submissions to the FAA, failing to do compliance checks, and engaging in a host of new FAA violations.

Argenbright’s shoddy record highlighted what almost everyone agrees are pervasive problems in the industry, including low-pay (average wages for screeners are $6 an hour) and extremely high turnover. These are problems that the screeners say are due to pressure from the airlines to cut costs. If they paid more, they say, the airlines would not hire them.

After September 11, it was immediately clear that the industry’s future existence was in danger. The tragedy generated momentum for the federal government to take over the responsibility of airport screening and to make the screeners federal employees.

Showing an efficiency that critics found absent in their normal functioning, the security companies had within two days formed a trade association, the Aviation Security Association, to try to forestall federalization and save the industry.

The association hired Kenneth Quinn, a partner in the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop, to carry its water. Quinn had served as counsel at the Department of Transportation in the Bush I administration, as well as chief counsel at the Federal Aviation Administration. He worked in Bush I for Andrew Card, now chief of staff in the current Bush White House. The association also hired leading PR flacks Burson-Marsteller to handle media requests.

At press time, however, it appeared that even deployment of high-powered Washington insiders was not going to be enough to overcome the September 11 momentum for ending the national experiment in private security at airports.

— Robert Weissman

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