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Reason Foundation

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #7

Topics include: air hassles, risk-based cargo screening, and missile defense.

Robert Poole
January 1, 2004

In this issue:

Hassle Factor Takes Its Toll on Short-Haul Flights

Except for some special cases (such as Miami International), American air travelers made their holiday journeys without facing unusually long airport screening delays. But that only illustrates how accustomed we've grown to the long lines, shoe removals, and other petty intrusions that have become a matter of routine when we travel by air.

But there's the rub. Not as many of us are choosing to travel by air. While full-year 2003 figures are not available yet, a recent comparison of second quarter 2003 with air travel in 2000 showed that overall traffic (passengers per day) on all routes was down by four percent. How much of this overall decline is due to the economy and how much to the "hassle factor" can only be guessed at. But when Ed Smick of SH&E crunched the numbers for the top 100 short-haul markets, he found traffic there had declined by 21 percent. And for the top 10 short-haul markets, all but two showed declines of between 26 and 36 percent.

The concentration of the decline in short-haul markets suggests that the new security regime is largely to blame. Having to add an extra hour of pre-flight time to a one-hour airline trip starts to push door-to-door time for these 200-300-mile trips much closer to driving time. Add to that the post-9/11 security fee, which is a much bigger fraction of the ticket price for a Los Angeles-Las Vegas trip than for LA to New York, and the picture becomes clear.

And there's yet another unintended consequence of pushing would-be air travelers onto the highways: more deaths and injuries. Several reputable studies have found that since driving is far more dangerous than flying, this kind of mode shift kills and maims. (This has been carefully studied in the case of proposed mandates that parents purchase a separate ticket for infants instead of holding the little one on a lap; there's good evidence that enough price-conscious parents would switch to driving in the face of such a mandate as to make overall travel deaths go up.)

All of which should provide further incentives to streamline airport security as the Transportation Security Administration reorganizes to cope with a broader array of transportation security issues.


TSA Adopts Risk-Based Approach to Air Cargo

Rejecting emotional pleas from some quarters for it to mandate 100% inspection of all air cargo, the Transportation Security Administration in November unveiled a sensible strategic plan for air cargo. It is a —threat-based, risk-managed approach� that includes a cargo pre-screening system under which high-risk cargo will be 100% inspected, oversight of freight forwarders and shippers will be increased (strengthening the existing "known shipper" program), the same rules will henceforth be applied to foreign as well as domestic air carriers, and cargo-security R&D will be beefed up. Until all the new rules are in place sometime later this year, carriers are to institute random inspection of a certain portion of both belly cargo on passenger planes and cargo on all-cargo planes.

The new plan largely follows the thrust of the recommendations of the 27-member Aviation Security Advisory Committee, whose report was submitted in early October, but rejects the dissenting views of a few members who wanted 100% inspection of all cargo. TSA stuck to its guns in rejecting such calls, despite all the hoopla attending Charles McKinley's stunt of shipping himself in a crate from Newark to Dallas . Outgoing TSA Administrator James Loy got it exactly right, when he told Congress, "Proposals to require the physical inspection of every piece of cargo shipped on passenger aircraft without a risk-based targeting strategy are no more practical than similar calls to physically inspect each of the more than 6 million containers that enter the United States each year through our seaports." If Reps. Markey and Shays were really serious, they would be calling for 100% inspection of all containers at seaports and all trucks at U.S. border crossings, not just air cargo.

In fact, the new air cargo strategy is completely consistent with current risk-based practice at seaports and border crossings. It is only in dealing with airline passengers and their luggage that current policy is out of step. That's the only part of transportation security where (1) low, medium, and high-risk people and bags are treated the same, and (2) federal employees must do all the screening. In the new air-cargo random inspections, it will be the air carriers (or their contractors), not TSA screeners, who do the inspections.

More R&D on cargo inspection technology certainly makes sense. There are technologies out there that offer promise: gamma-ray inspection, pulsed fast neutron analysis, new forms of sophisticated X-ray analysis. But as we've seen in baggage screening, there�s a huge difference between a machine that can look inside a container and one that can do so quickly, reliably, and at reasonable cost. In the post-9/11 panic, Congress forced airports to install EDS and EDT technology that did not meet these tests — and we are still paying the price. So far, at least, we are not making the same mistake with air cargo.


Missile Defense: What Makes Sense?

November saw two attacks on planes in Iraq by shoulder-launched missiles: a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down, and a DHL A-300 cargo plane was hit but managed to land safely. Those attacks led to further calls by members of Congress and editorial writers to equip all commercial planes with anti-missile systems.

There is, indeed a threat. Reasonable estimates are that tens of thousands of Soviet-made SA-7 shoulder-launched missiles are available on the black market, hundreds of them from Iraqi stockpiles alone. And the going rate is apparently as much as $5,000 or 10 times as much as the military is currently offering. So clearly more could be done to dry up the supply.

Meanwhile, rather than launching a crash program to slap something onto all 6,800 U.S. airliners, the Department of Homeland Security has begun a two-year, $100 million applied research effort that will select two prototype systems (probably using different technologies) for flight testing on commercial-type planes. This will give us a better idea of the possible cost, not only of equipping each plane but also to operate and maintain such systems. And rigorous testing will make it possible to estimate how effective each system is likely to be. Without both cost and effectiveness data, you can't make any kind of sensible judgment about whether something like this is worth doing.

One interesting approach has been suggested by Sens. Barbara Boxer and Charles Schumer. They have proposed that the first installations of any such system should be on 300 aircraft that are participants in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. These are planes that airlines modify to be able to handle military transport tasks; they are subject to being "called up" during conflicts, as they have been during both Gulf wars. Since CRAF planes do have to fly into higher-risk air space than most commercial jets, equipping them with missile-defense systems should be a higher priority than the rest of the fleet, if and when a cost-effective technology emerges.


Interest in Screening Opt-Out Increases

Frustrations with the level and quality of passenger and baggage screening provided by TSA are leading a growing number of airport directors to consider opting out of TSA-provided screening. Opting out becomes possible for all airports as of November of this year, under the provisions of the 2001 legislation that federalized airport security and created the TSA. In the interim, five airports have been taking part in a pilot program, using TSA-certified security contractors. The five are San Francisco, Kansas City, Rochester, Tupelo, and Jackson Hole.

SFO reports that it gets a call "at least once a week" from another airport asking about its experience in the pilot program. "And every Category X airport has called." Category X is a federal designation of various large airports considered to be at greatest risk; there are 21 such airports (accounting for about 29% of all originating passengers). At the other end of the scale, small airports, too, are expressing interest in opt-out. For example, at last month's airport security conference of the American Association of Airport Executives, the director of the Salisbury , MD airport expressed concern that, due to TSA screening cutbacks, his airport will not be able to handle flights that span 14 hours of the day (which means two shifts for TSA agents). So he, too, is exploring opt-out.

Steve Van Beek, senior vice president of Airports Council International-North America, cites two main reasons for the growing airport interest. First, the quality of security could be improved if screeners were more under the control of the airport; they could be cross-trained to do tasks such as perimeter security and access control during non-peak hours. This would relieve some of the tedium and repetition involved in doing just screening all day. Second, a non-TSA workforce should be more flexible, adjusting better to the peaks and valleys of daily flight activity but also being able to be expanded or contracted during the year as airlines add or drop service. This would cut the length of security lines, reducing the hassle factor, and probably cut costs, as well.

Thus far, TSA has not announced any guidelines or procedures for the opt-out that will be available to all airports come November. Its Inspector General's office has done a study of the five pilot program airports, not yet released, and TSA has Bearing Point under contract to study the opt-out issue. The General Accounting Office also has a study of the pilot program airports under way, expected to be released in June. I expect we�re going to be hearing a lot more about this issue as the year goes on.


Notable and Quotable

"Security is an issue that goes far beyond aviation. It is a government responsibility, just like war and peace, and the costs must be assumed by society at large, not just by one industry. . . .Terrorism is a threat against the state. The cost of aviation security must be borne by governments through general revenue and not from special taxes and user fees. Aviation cannot be discriminated against when the state provides security free of charge for other modes of transport."

— Giovanni Bisignani, Director General, International Air Transport Association, Nov. 18, 2003


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


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