Who's to Blame for Lax Aviation Security?

July 7, 2008 - 8:28 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The lax security at America's airports prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was the fault of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), according to the chairman of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation.

Click to enlargeRep. John Mica (R-Fla.) believes the FAA should have had rules in place to prevent passengers from carrying box cutters and other types of knives and razors onto airliners prior to the attacks.

"Box cutters passed through X-ray screening technology without restrictions," Mica said Thursday. "FAA failed, not the technology."

He also believes the airlines' failure to use existing technology ... not low pay or poor training for airport security screeners ... is to blame for the terrorists' apparent ability to carry "plastic" knives through security checkpoints.

"With 1970s screening technology that has limited detection and definition, we could employ Ph.D.s in criminal justice and we'd still have a failed airport screening operation," said Mica.

He said the FAA's five-year program to deploy state of the art threat detection systems has also "been badly bungled."

FAA Administrator Jane Garvey defended her agency, saying new technologies have been aggressively pursued.

"We've invested $440 million," she said. "We have invested every penny that Congress has provided us over the last four years to purchase and deploy explosive detection systems, explosive trace detection devices, and threat image technologies."

But Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General Kenneth Mead says buying the machines isn't the same as using them. The machines "continue to be seriously underutilized," he said.

"In July of 2001, the average usage rate per machine was 350 bags per day," Mead said, of the "cat scan" type machines used to screen some checked luggage, "compared to a certified rate of 225 bags per hour."

click to enlarge photoMead said the biggest hurdle to overcome is the manner in which the machines are deployed at most U.S. airports. European airports install them as part of the conveyor belt system that carries all checked luggage to the cargo holds of the various airplanes waiting to take off. Therefore, every checked bag is scanned by default.

By contrast, U.S. airports have chosen stand-alone installations, requiring bags to be physically removed from the conveyor belt and transported to another location for screening. Mead said, in addition to being inefficient, such a process is unnecessarily time-consuming.

"No matter how great a machine it is," Mead added, "if it's not integrated in with your regular baggage system, you're going to hear again and again about the delay and inconvenience factor."

Garvey said the FAA realizes there is no "silver bullet" solution to security technology or deployment issues.

"Just as we build a number of redundancies into our air traffic control system," she said, "we need to look at security layers, and there will not be just one single answer, but a combination of approaches."

One approach that might have caught the "plastic" knives allegedly carried through metal detectors by the terrorists on Sept. 11 is the "body scanner" technology. Unlike magnetometers (metal detectors), which key on metallic objects to warn of a threat, body scanners use a low dose of radiation to "X-ray" the passenger and any contraband hidden on the passenger's body.

Peter Williamson is vice president of Rapiscan Security Products, one of the manufacturers of body scanners. He agrees that such scanners should be part of a comprehensive, layered security program.

Under the system Williamson proposes, passengers would be chosen for body scanning only if metal detectors, explosive materials trace testing, or threat criteria assessments (profiling) identified a passenger as a potential threat. They would then be asked to walk through the body scanner, located just behind the initial security checkpoint.

"In fact, passengers should be offered the choice between a body pat down (by a same-sex security officer) or a body scan," he said. "The U.S. Customs Service has used this approach successfully for the past two years."

American Science and Engineering also provides body scanning technology to the aviation security industry. Company President Ralph Sheridan points out that the main objection to body scanning offered to the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security was that passengers would object to the detailed images displayed by the machines.

"I think, after the events of Sept. 11, the traveling public would vote for security over modesty," Sheridan said.

Administrator Garvey says the available technologies hold great promise for improving the security of air travel. But, she says, there are also challenges, such as the passenger modesty issues mentioned by Sheridan, that must be addressed.

"The goal must be, for all of us," Garvey said, "that the end result is 100 percent screening of all passengers, of baggage, and of airport and airline personnel."