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Reason Foundation

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #24

Topics include: airport worker screening; landing fees for private planes at air-carrier airports; backscatter X-rays: privacy vs. security; AMBER Alerts at checkpoints; and other news.

Robert Poole
March 1, 2007

In this issue:


Screen All Airport Workers?

Just the other day, an airline employee at Orlando International Airport used his badge to gain access to a restricted area around 3 AM, depositing a duffle bag full of guns and drugs in a hiding place near a departure gate. The next morning he went through passenger security with a ticket for a flight to Puerto Rico, then retrieved the duffle bag and boarded his flight. Thanks to good police work, he was arrested when he stepped off the plane in San Juan. His crime was smuggling, but what if he'd been a suicide bomber?

That incident is sure to encourage those in Congress who are trying to enact legislation to mandate that all workers at airports with access to secure areas go through passenger-type screening checkpoints whenever they enter a secure area. It's not just grandstanding politicians who want to impose this new mandate. Security expert Charles Slepian of the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center says, "Nobody should be permitted to have access to the airplane, to baggage, to supplies, or to cargo without going through the same screening that you or I go through."

If only it were so simple. At most airports, the secure area begins just behind the ticket counter, and agents go back and forth between secure and non-secure areas a dozen or more times a day. At smaller airports, the same people who work the ticket counters often do double-duty as gate agents, and may even load and unload baggage. To be meaningful, the 100% screening policy would have to screen these people every time they went back into the secure area, all day long. And what about mechanics and carpenters and electricians, bringing tools to work? None of those tools could get through passenger checkpoints, but people can't work without their tools.

The TSA recognizes the access-control vulnerability. It has made two policy changes to improve things. First, last fall it required everyone working at airports—not just those going into secure areas—to undergo a background check. Second, it has begun a program that uses roving teams of security officers to do random checks of employees in secure areas. It's in place at many larger airports and plans call for extending it to all airports where TSA operates.

Those are sensible measures, and combined with continued intelligence and police work, they should make a meaningful difference, without imposing the huge burdens on airports of 100% screening of all secure-area staff. But two other steps would further reduce risk. At one smaller airport I know of, the background check requirement goes beyond what TSA mandates. Having a criminal record of any sort disqualifies one from working anywhere on the airport, even if the job is outside the secure area. Second, we need better employee badges. They should be biometrically encoded, so that only the person who was cleared can use the badge to get into secured areas. And companies with on-airport employees should be required (with severe penalties) to promptly turn in the badges of anyone whose job at the airport terminates.

These kinds of measures would not gain the kinds of headlines a politician gets from enacting "100% screening" laws. But they would meaningfully beef up access control without totally disrupting the functioning of airports.

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Landing Fees for GA Aircraft at Hub Airports

You may have seen a widely circulated graphic right after the Super Bowl, showing business jets fanning out across the country from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale airports. What you may not know, unless you live in South Florida as I do, is that planes like this can use many busy airports--like FLL--at no charge. There have been several notable occasions over the past few years when a major weekend event in South Florida led to huge delays for passengers on commercial planes, as the little guys flooded into and out of FLL and MIA. And with landing being free of charge to general aviation planes, last year 23% of all flight activity at FLL consisted of GA flights.

That changed in January when the Broward County Commission decided to start charging landing fees for GA planes at FLL. At a rate of 97 cents per thousand pounds of gross weight (and a $10 minimum), the fees are hardly onerous but just might cause a fraction of these flights to use the convenient, nearby reliever airport, Fort Lauderdale Executive. It's just 10 miles up I-95 from FLL. Other relievers are in nearby Pompano Beach and Boca Raton, or to the south at Opa-Locka.

As you might expect, the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association immediately protested to the FAA's Orlando District Office, calling these fees unfair. Yet in the ongoing national debate on a related issue—proposed user fees for air traffic control—AOPA, NBAA, and other GA groups repeatedly claim that GA planes avoid major airports and use relievers. That doesn't quite square with 16.9% GA use at Tampa, 8.5% at Charlotte, or 6.4% at Minneapolis. But I say, let's take the GA people at their word. Go ahead and use your reliever airports (most of which don't charge landing fees). But when you take up scarce and costly space at big airports, holding up planes with 200 people on board, at least pay a landing fee like everybody else.

Query: Does anyone have reliable data on which air carrier airports exempt GA aircraft from landing fees? It would be interesting to look at the percentage of GA flight activity at air carrier airports and see how it relates to the presence or absence of landing fees.

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Backscatter X-Ray Concerns Off-Target

Much of the discussion of the Transportation Security Administration's testing of a backscatter X-ray machine at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (and soon also at LAX and JFK) has been misleading. Self-styled privacy experts have talked as if (1) all passengers were forced to go through the system, and (2) it produced a fully-naked image for the screener to ogle (and perhaps later post on the Internet). None of that is the case.

In fact, the only people going through the new SmartCheck system are those designated "selectees" or who set off the alarm when they go through the metal detector. And they are given a choice between a physical pat-down (today's standard practice) and being scanned by the backscatter machine. The large majority of people choose the backscatter option, as being less intrusive. Some selectees are chosen at random (a good security system principle) while others are those whose CAPPS parameters suggest possibly higher risk (also a good security system principle). So the only security question is whether the backscatter system does at least as good a job at detecting dangerous items concealed under clothing as does a pat-down.

The evidence on this is mixed—due to the exaggerated privacy concerns. The system being tested in Phoenix has its software adjusted to fuzz up the image, so that it does not display the original sharp, crisp image that TSA research chief Susan Hallowell courageously demonstrated in February (New York Times, Feb. 24, 2007, p. A10). Instead, what the screener sees is a chalky outline of the body, with metallic objects like knives and guns clearly visible. However, as pointed out by a recent National Research Council report for TSA, this deliberate fuzzing makes the system unreliable for detecting plastic explosives, especially if they are contoured to match body shapes. In other words, ridiculous prudery is standing in the way of a superior alternative to pat-down searches.

Privacy experts try to scare people by using the word "radiation," yet these very low-power devices subject you to the equivalent of two minutes of flying at 30,000 feet. And in his rebuttal to a USA Today editorial favoring backscatter, the ACLU's Barry Steinhardt backed puffer booths as a superior alternative. Sorry, Barry—puffer booths are very slow and will not reveal ceramic knives or conformal plastic explosives.

Keeping explosives off planes is a deadly serious business. We must not let prudery or imaginary radiation fears trump security.

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AMBER Alerts at Screening Checkpoints?

Early last month the TSA announced that security screeners at all 450-odd airports will get notices and photos of abducted children as part of the AMBER Alert network operated by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Who could possibly object to that?

Well, since no one raised their hand, let me offer a serious reservation. Airport screening is an intrusion on personal liberty. In a free society, it should be nobody's business where you go or who you are. Freedom of movement has been recognized by the Supreme Court as one of our basic liberties. It's only because of the serious threat posed by today's terrorists that we have agreed to this (we can hope, temporary) restriction on our freedom, in the interest of preventing further mass murders in the sky.

To begin giving ordinary law-enforcement duties to TSA screeners is the first step on a slippery slope of considerably reduced liberty. I have friends in South Africa, and other friends who used to live there. They all remember the Pass Laws, in which people were required to carry a kind of internal passport. You could only travel between cities if government gave the OK in advance. We're a long way from that, to be sure. But every time a non-terrorism responsibility gets added to TSA's duties, we move one step closer.

It's those kinds of concerns that killed the proposed Total Information Awareness program and the planned CAPPS-2 system. And they continue to hinder the speedy implementation of the much-needed Secure Flight program intended to replace the primitive CAPPS that predates 9/11 and is still in use. These programs must not become all-purpose probes into people's lives.

Even though Americans seem like sheep when we meekly submit to whatever screeners tell us to do (after all, they have the power and we need to make our flights!), our support for airport screening is—and should remain—conditional. It is conditional on this awesome power being limited to fighting terrorism, not becoming a kind of Big Brother control of travel. Diverting screeners from their narrowly prescribed function of keeping dangerous people and objects off of airplanes risks undermining Americans' support for this unfortunately necessary program.

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News Notes

Another Case of Privatized Screening. Another airport has joined the TSA's Screening Partnership Program, under which airports opt out of TSA-provided screening. New York's 34th Street Heliport will have its baggage and passenger screening carried out by McNeil Security, Inc., reports Aviation Week (Jan. 8, 2007). US Helicopter, the airline providing air service at the heliport, will pay for the operating costs of the contract, while TSA will provide the screening equipment. This is the seventh airport operator to take part in the opt-out program.

Correction re ICAO. Last issue I suggested that a policy of the International Civil Aviation Organization called for the separation of aviation security oversight and regulation from security operations—and that TSA was apparently in violation by being both the airport security regulator and the provider of screening services. Several readers pointed out flaws in this reasoning. First, one noted that the ICAO annex in question deals with quality control of aviation security, and hence TSA could readily cite the fact of independent oversight by the Homeland Security Inspector General's office and the Government Accountability Office. Another pointed out that "any state can not comply with any ICAO standard by notifying ICAO that they are not doing it—it's called 'filing a difference.'" So TSA has a couple of ready outs if someone wants to challenge it on these grounds.

Follow-up on Jacksonville Registered Traveler. After my last-issue report on JAX signing up with a newcomer Registered Traveler firm, I quickly heard from an established firm pointing out that the company in question, Vigilant Solutions, was not a TSA-approved RT service provider, which was then confirmed by TSA's John Martinez, Director of the RT program there. Since then, JAX has decided that it needs to become part of the official program. So it told Aviation Daily (March 2, 2007) that "Vigilant is currently completing the steps required by the TSA to be an approved service provider, which requires the ability to provide interoperability among Registered Traveler airports across the country."

RAND on Security Systems Against Terrorism. A new report from RAND Corporation (which I've not yet had time to read) conveys the message that when designing systems to protect against terrorist attacks, government officials should take into account that terrorists actively seek and find ways around defensive measures deployed against them. It's "Designing Systems to Guard Against Terrorist Attacks," at www.rand.org/rnbrd/0207/pubs/monographs/2007/RAND_MG481.pdf

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Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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