Reason Foundation

http://www.reason.org
http://www.reason.org/news/show/airport-policy-security-june-2010

Reason Foundation

Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #58

Airport capacity crunch, registered traveler program and body scanners for screening

Robert Poole
June 30, 2010

In this issue:

Addressing the Airport Capacity Crunch on Both Coasts

There's a certain air of unreality in the FAA's most recent report on future airport capacity needs, generally referred to as the FACT 2 report. It's fine when writing about plans to add needed capacity at most of the country's large airports, but when it comes to the two coastal "mega-regions"-the Boston-Washington corridor in the east and the Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor in the west-the report has little to offer. So it's welcome news that TRB's Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) has faced up to this problem. Its Report 31, "Innovative Approaches to Addressing Aviation Capacity Issues in Coastal Mega-Regions," is must reading for anyone concerned about effective air service in these two congested regions. (www.trb.org/Publications/Public/PubsACRPProjectReports.aspx)

The researchers defined the two regions broadly, including in the eastern mega-region the secondary airports that serve portions of the Boston market as well as Philadelphia and adjacent airports such as Allentown. The western region includes not only greater Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area but also Sacramento, San Diego, and Las Vegas. The report's four broad conclusions were as follows. First, there is a serious lack of usable aviation capacity in these two mega-regions. Second, there is some potential for modal alternatives to take some of the load, such as highways and high speed rail (HSR). Third, there is also some potential for multijurisdictional efforts, to make better use of secondary airports (as Boston and adjacent airports have done). But the most important policy change is to make more efficient use of the capacity at the major airports in each region, via demand management.

I have space only to hit some of the highlights of this very important report. It provides up-to-date estimates of the value of time of air travelers (a weighted average of business and leisure travelers is estimated at $47/hour). For just the 12 largest airports from the two mega-regions, the annual cost of flight delay to air travelers alone (i.e., not counting costs to airlines or the regional economies) was $3.9 billion in 2007 and is projected to be $12.5 billion by 2025 (assuming continuation of the status quo). This congestion problem is far worse in the eastern mega-region, even though there is more than twice the level of air travel in the western mega-region. Using delay indexes created for this project, the seven most-congested eastern airports score as highly congested (from 20 to 33), while the most congested one in the west, SFO, scores only 19, and the others are all in the less-congested 10-13 range.

The report draws on the rather mixed HSR data available from Europe, showing that in some cases HSR that can connect cities with trip times of three hours or less can capture significant market share-but not in others. Reviewing speculative numbers for the planned California HSR and possible Northeast Corridor upgrades, the report's estimated airport-specific reductions in airline boardings due to diversion of air trips to HSR "ranged from a high of 6% at SAN [San Diego] to under 1% at JFK [Kennedy]and EWR [Newark]." But it also cites data from the Boston-LaGuardia market showing that as Amtrak gained market share that led to a 40% decrease in airline passengers, the level of flight activity in that corridor decreased by only 4%. What airlines did in order to compete was to maintain frequencies by substituting smaller planes; "average aircraft size fell by about 30% for the BOS-LGA route."

The report cites the unique example of Boston Logan Airport working with other airports in the region to spread out air service, via the New England Regional Aviation Systems Project, and suggests that comparable efforts elsewhere could help. It notes that there are no currently available databases documenting county-to-county trips on a multimodal basis. Thus, "the mode share of airline trips as a portion of total trips is not documented even for the largest, most dominant city-pairs." [emphasis in original] But overall, neither rail substitution, rail complementarity, nor better regional airport cooperation will solve the capacity problem of these two mega-regions.

Hence, the researchers conclude "The most fundamental change suggested by the research is for all the major parties to recognize demand management as a legitimate alternative to capacity expansion as a means of ameliorating airport congestion problems." They note the tragedy-of-the-commons aspect of the problem, in which if Airline A shifts to larger planes at less-frequent intervals, the capacity it frees up will likely be absorbed quickly by Airline B. This supports the case for policy intervention, such as DOT's recently revamped airport rates and charges policy which permits landing fees to be based on more than just aircraft weight. They also make the case that "the primary focus of demand management responsibility and action should be at the local level," but also suggest some modest federal policy changes to make doing that more feasible.

This is an important piece of work, and one I expect I will be returning to for more in-depth study.

Registered Traveler: A New Critique but Also Progress

Last month I reported that startup company AlClear had acquired most of the assets of the former "Clear" Registered Traveler program and that competitor iQueue had announced an agreement to launch RT service at Indianapolis. While the latter is now enrolling new members, AlClear has, in turn, announced its first airport, Denver. Both will only be able to offer front-of-the-line service in exchange for their membership fee, since the leaderless Transportation Security Administration has yet to decide whether this second-generation RT program will fulfill Congress's original intent of being a security program. To do that, it would have to employ serious background checks to "pre-clear" low-risk frequent travelers, who could then bypass at least some of the checkpoint routine.

That risk-based concept came under a blistering attack from aviation consultant Mike Boyd last week. On his blog, Boyd warned that "a background check is not a security check," and that even with such a check, RT members "must not be allowed any less screening than anyone else." I will return to that contention below, but first I must respond to Boyd's challenge to "do the math." With over 700 million annual enplanements at US airports, comprising over 550 million passenger trips (accounting for hub connections), Boyd guesses that adds up to about 200 million individual travelers. And if 10% or even 15% of that 200 million sign up, it won't reduce the crunch at the checkpoint very much, he says.

Here Boyd makes a fundamental math error. The case for RT being able to reduce the burden at the checkpoints lies in its disproportionate appeal to frequent travelers. So let's do some math on this. On any given day, let's assume that 50% of those who show up at an airport are from group F (frequent) and the other 50% are from group L (leisure). Let's also assume that those in F make an average of 20 trips per year, while those in L make just two. Let NF represent the total number of people in F and NL the total number in L. The 550 million annual total equals (20 x NF) + (2 x NL). We also know that on any given day, the average total number of travelers is 550M/365 = 1.5M, of which (by assumption) half are from F and half from L. Simple math then finds that NF = 13.7M and NL = 136.8M. So the potential market for RT membership (group F) is 13.7 million. If RT marketing succeeded in recruiting all of them (and they all passed the background check), that means half the daily checkpoint population could bypass the regular lanes and get expedited processing.  If a more pessimistic 50% of group F signed up and passed the background check, then one-quarter of the load would still be removed from normal checkpoint processing.

 Nor would this be an insuperable burden on the background checking process. The Transportation Security Clearinghouse run for airports by AAAE processed over 1.3 million TSA-required Security Threat Assessments for airports and more than half a million biometrically based criminal history records checks last year. It would take RT firms a number of years to build up to even a million members, let alone 7 or 10 million. So this is certainly do-able.

But how about Boyd's point that we must never let even a background-checked person pass through a checkpoint without the same rigorous screening as random persons? To make that case is to accept a double standard regarding threats to aircraft. The Security Threat Assessments for airport workers are considered sufficient for people who have access to the secure areas of airports, including the ramp area, baggage compartments, etc. A would-be terrorist could do just as much harm to a plane by having access to the baggage compartment as could a passenger with access to the cabin. Either our standard for airport workers is much too low, or our standard for background-checked passengers is much too high. Boyd and other RT critics can't have it both ways.

Moreover, as I've pointed out several times before, the TSA's parent agency-DHS-seems comfortable with the security of Customs & Border Protection's international RT program called Global Entry. It operates on exactly the kind of risk-based, background-check vetting of trustworthy international frequent travelers, allowing them to bypass re-entry formalities by using a kiosk that checks their biometrics against what was encoded on their ID card. Global Entry is now available at 20 US international airports, and enrollment has grown from 16,000 to 54,000 in the last nine months.

A real, risk-based RT program would be a boost, not a detriment, to security, in that it would focus a larger fraction of TSA's limited resources on those more likely to be threats. That is what Congress called for in the Aviation & Transportation Security Act of 2001-and we are still waiting for the TSA to deliver.

Body Scanners for Primary Screening Raise Concerns

The TSA continues to install full-body scanners at US airports, with 80 in place as of early June and a projected 450 in place by year-end. Until recently, body-scanners have been used mostly for secondary screening-for those on the selectee list and a random number of others (presumably for testing purposes). But as their numbers increase, the TSA has begun using them for primary screening-in effect, as a substitute for the magnetometers we've all been walking through at checkpoints since the 1970s. This decision raises at least three types of concerns.

First is the obvious privacy issue. That doesn't bother me, but it really does bother many people (as well as the ACLU). Three Republican Senators in April sent a letter to DHS Secretary Napolitano urging that the TSA switch from the current backscatter X-ray machines to the kind of millimeter-wave machines in use at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. These scanners are programmed to present only an outline of a stylized human body with boxes around any anomalous area that might be a weapon or explosive.

Second is the time it takes to process each passenger with the current body-scanners. I've had just one experience so far, but instead of the couple of seconds it takes to walk through a magnetometer, it took what appeared to be about 20 seconds, including removal of my wristwatch and other items, raising my arms, and standing in two different positions, as instructed. If this becomes the primary screening method, it will dramatically reduce checkpoint throughput, meaning much longer lines and wasted time.

Third is the radiation exposure from the backscatter X-ray. The American College of Radiology has stated that "A traveler would require more than 1,000 such scans in a year to reach the effective dose equal to one standard chest X-ray." But other medical experts point out that the elderly, pregnant women, children, and others may be more susceptible to radiation than the average person. And flight crews and airport workers who have to pass through the scanners every day would receive far more radiation than most passengers.

With all these concerns, I'm not surprised that an amendment to the TSA Authorization Act currently pending in Congress would prohibit the use of full-body scanners in primary screening. I've written before that our current non-risk-based checkpoint screening policy-which treats every passenger as equally likely to be a threat-leads inevitably to things like full-body scanning. If every man, woman, and child is equally likely to be hiding a weapon or explosive underneath clothing (or in a body cavity), then how can we not subject everyone to a technology that has a reasonable chance of detecting such threats?

Thus, one alternative is to move decisively toward risk-based screening, with tougher selectee criteria on one end of the spectrum (where full-body scanning or an actual strip search would be mandatory) and expedited screening on the other end for pre-cleared Registered Travelers.

If Congress is unwilling to go that route, here's a possible technology alternative. Just installed at Bradley International Airport near Hartford are two free-standing SPO-7 millimeter-wave scanners. Produced by QinetiQ, these mobile, tripod-mounted devices are in the pre-security portion of the terminal, where they continually scan passers-by. Like the devices at Amsterdam Schiphol, they do not produce "naked" images but do alert the operator to locations on the body where more body energy than normal is being blocked, alerting him or her to a possible concealed object. The SPO-7s can scan people as they walk past, so conceivably they could be deployed as a replacement for magnetometers in primary screening.

Large-scale deployment of the current backscatter X-ray machines for primary screening is costly overkill. I hope Congress will curtail this process before it goes much farther.

Replace LaGuardia?

I was blown away by late-April reports that the head of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, Chris Ward, had called for LaGuardia Airport to be torn down and rebuilt for the 21st century. He really did say that, at a Crain's New York Business breakfast on April 28th. "LaGuardia was built over decades, and it's not the kind of integrated aviation facility that the 21st century really demands," he told the breakfast forum at the Grand Hyatt. "On top of that, we've layered in post 9/11 security, and because of that you have an experience for the air traveler which is unnecessarily chaotic and difficult to manage."

Ward conceded that the PA doesn't have the financial means to do such a project at this point. But he said the agency has hired planning consultants to "re-imagine" the airport in a truly 21st-century form. "It will improve aeronautical efficiency, improve gate utilization, and give the flying public a state-of-the-art terminal that they really deserve."

Reuters reports that when asked if the PA would consider privatization of the airport (as it's doing to replace the obsolete Goethals Bridge), he replied, "At this point, it would be foolish to rule out any funding option."

Let me make a bold suggestion on this matter. Since runway congestion pricing would produce considerably more airport revenue than current landing fees, that could be an additional funding source for the new LGA. And since the private sector is probably much better at coming up with airport plans that are commercial in nature (i.e., the airport as a business), why not invite conceptual proposals from global airport companies? Give them the freedom to reconfigure (on paper) everything-runways, terminals, parking, retail, etc.-with an eye toward creating a replacement LGA that could be self-financed, under a 50-year concession agreement. The five best proposals would receive $1 million apiece as compensation for their creative work, and after public debate and airline feedback, the PA would select the top-ranked choice and attempt to negotiate a workable concession agreement, holding the #2 and #3 proposals in reserve.

Ward has put forth a very bold idea. But it needs to be followed up with an equally bold method for implementing it.

News Notes

Airport Privatization in Russia

The first airport privatization in Russia took effect April 29th, when Fraport's Northern Capital Gateway consortium took over Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg, under a 30-year concession agreement. The consortium will build a new terminal capable of handling up to 25 million passengers a year, expand the terminal apron, and develop real estate next to the terminal. Total investment in these projects is estimated at $1.6 billion.  The city government will receive 11.5% of the airport's revenues.

Global Airport Investors Database

Big Pond Aviation has announced the release of what it calls "the most comprehensive and powerful tool ever published for anyone involved with airport financing." The Excel spreadsheet provides company information, current airport investments, previous investments, failed or lapsed bids, and recent financial results. Details are available from www.bigpondaviation.com.

Replacement Lisbon Airport On Hold

As part of austerity plans aimed at reducing its budget deficit, Portugal has postponed going forward with its planned $4.3 billion airport at Alcochete. The project had been expected to proceed as some form of public-private partnership. The government has also canceled the Lisbon-Oporto high-speed rail line.

Reference Guide on Common-Use Facilities and Equipment

The Airport Cooperative Research Program has produced a "Reference Guide on Understanding Common Use at Airports," as ACRP Report 30. It may be downloaded from the Transportation Research Board website, along with the accompanying CD-ROM; both can also be purchased in hard-copy form. (www.trb.org/Publications/Public/PubsACRPProjectReports.aspx)

Alaska Airlines' Game-Plan for On-Time Performance

If you've ever been frustrated by your plane pulling up to the gate, only to suffer a long wait for the door to be opened because the airline's ground staff were unprepared, you're not alone. But Alaska Airlines has focused on this issue over the past year, in the process moving from last place to first place in on-time arrivals. The story of how Alaska accomplished this appeared in The News Tribune of Tacoma, WA on May 30th, and is well worth reading. (www.thenewstribune.com/2010/05/30/1206268/how-alaska-beats-clock.html)

Follow-up re "Inherently Governmental"

Last month I reported an item from the Washington Post about new draft guidelines on what federal functions are and are not "inherently governmental" and hence able to be outsourced. The Post article had included airport security screening as an example of a potentially "inherently governmental" activity, despite congressional authorization for the TSA's Security Screening Partnership, under which airports may opt to have TSA-certified security firms perform passenger and baggage screening. One of those firms did some follow-up and learned that airport screeners are not included in the draft guidelines; that example had been supplied by the reporter, not the government. A program such as SSP that has been established by Congress cannot be changed by regulatory action.

Expert Critiques Tarmac Delay Rule

Dr. Amy Cohn of the University of Michigan (and an affiliate of the MIT Global Airline Industry Program) has written an enlightening critique of the DOT's unfortunate tarmac delay rule which went into effect April 29th. One version appeared as a Viewpoint column in Aviation Week's May 24th issue. A slightly different version ran as a Departures column in Aviation Daily, April 27th.

FAA Approves Gwinnett County Privatization Application

On May 26th, the FAA approved the preliminary application filed by Gwinnett County, Georgia to privatize Briscoe Field. This clears the way for the county to develop a specific plan to sell or lease the airport and a process to seek bids. Since Briscoe Field is a general aviation airport, the FAA decision means the slot in the Airport Privatization Pilot Program reserved for a GA airport is now occupied. There remains one open slot in the program, open to any type of airport except a large hub.

Quotable Quotes

"Our ultimate objective is to build resilience and security into the global supply chain," [DHS assistant secretary for policy development Arif] Alikhan said. . . . The resilience factor will help the DHS deploy its limited resources. The idea supports a risk-managed strategy, or what Alikhan calls a "risk-informed" strategy: "The secretary said we have limited resources, so to deploy resources, you have to do it in the most effective way possible. We will use risk to inform how we do that."

--R. G. Edmonson, "Withstand, Respond, Rebuild," The Journal of Commerce, May 31, 2010, pp. 18-20.

"I'm thinking it might be time to open up the airports to free commerce again, and spend our taxpayers' dollars on more intel and presence of local law enforcement at our nation's airports. Local law enforcement actually has a history of playing a big role in airport security through the years (a fact about which the Transportation Security Administration had to be educated initially). If the Mall of America in Minneapolis is the victim of a terrorist attack, do we have full body scanners in malls across the country? If a child day care center is the victim . . . ? If . . . ?"

--John F. Infanger, "Call Me Crazy, But . . ." AirportBusiness.com, May 5, 2010 (www.airportbusiness.com/interactive/2010/05/05/call-me-crazy-but/)

"Prior to giving a speech at the Wings Club . . . [former DHS Secretary] Tom Ridge said 'we're not doing a very good job' of securing America's airports, as reported by Conde Nast Traveler. Specifically, Ridge said that the Transportation Security Administration needs to change the way it approaches security. Rather than focusing on adding more machines such as whole body imaging equipment, which has caused significant public controversy, Ridge supports implementing a more comprehensive registered traveler program. . . . Ridge said that during his tenure as head of DHS he pushed for such a program that would collect biometric information and perform voluntary background checks to identify travelers. 'We determined it would identify people who don't pose a threat with up to 99.9% accuracy,' he said. But the idea was not accepted for reasons he doesn't understand. Implementing such a program would help prioritize passengers who required additional screening and allow the TSA to focus its screening strategy. 'In 2006 TSA screened 700 million people and 500 million bags, and I'd feel better if they paid more attention to the luggage and people they know nothing about.'"

--"Tom Ridge on Airport Security," Security Director News, May 25, 2010.


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


Print This