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What everyone should know about airport security

By Dallas Pierce
web posted July 29, 2002

What happened on September 11 had nothing to do with airport security. Federal Aviation Administration regulation did not prohibit the carriage of box cutters through airport security checkpoints. Moreover, because the federal government was (and currently is) so concerned about racial profiling, had screeners attempted to take action against the individuals or groups making up the 19 hijackers, as they passed through security with these legal items, they would have faced criticism and possible disciplinary action. In the end, their fear of disciplinary action and potential termination would have prevented them from taking action, even had they perceived a threat from these individuals. This has not changed.

What did the government do as a result...they federalized a portion of airport security in the largest expanse of governmental authority in history, and they are uncertain as to how or whether they can complete the task. The former head of the Transportation Security Administration, John Magaw, asked for $4.4 billion in supplemental appropriations for fiscal 2002, in addition to the 2.4 billion the TSA has already been given. Yes, you read those words correctly..."supplemental" and "2002". Short of outright chicanery the government cannot meet their self-imposed December 31st deadline for the screening of all passenger baggage in the manner in which they've committed themselves, with or without the supplemental funding. No way, no how...and the airline industry told them so-both before and after they made this pronouncement.

The federal government has not shared detailed information about the travel characteristics of the 19 hijackers with the airline industry, and by that fact, they have not been incorporated into any airport/airline security program. That's right...how did these nineteen people fly? Well, some thing's we know; they were all Arab; they traveled in teams of 4 or 5, and they all had box cutters. But what we know is only superficial, what we don't know is crucial. How did they buy their tickets...did they purchase them all through a travel agency, on line, or directly from the airlines? Were they members of the airlines frequent flyer programs? Were they one-way tickets? Were they purchased with credit cards or cash? If they were purchased with a credit card, were they all charged against one credit card account or were several used? What about the phone contacts they supplied the booking agent or agents...was the same phone number in each of the hijacker's reservations? This is no small matter; airline reservations systems hold billions of customer reservations that should have been screening for these characteristics since September 11 and are not.

Why has the government failed to adopt a trusted traveler program? Because they don't know who can be trusted. The airlines do, but the federal government is preventing them from adopting or even testing such a program. This is a matter you should watch closely. Databases to which the government has access cannot be easily accessed. Moreover, such databases will not tell the government what they need to know. None of the hijackers from September 11 had criminal files and each could have been in the country legally (Whether they were or not is irrelevant).

Where does this leave us? Well, it is here you come back to two elements that neither the government nor the American people can wrap their heads around: profiling for terrorists and moving airline security back into the private sector-one the government is unwilling to do and the other they cannot. It is also here where a fundamental aspect of international terrorism has been overlooked. International terrorism of the September 11-type requires a psychological nurturing that precludes someone from spending a long amount of time in the U.S. For whatever psycho-sociological reason, extended periods of time in the U.S. and a willingness to commit fanatical, suicidal terrorism are apparently mutually exclusive propositions. The longer Arab males spend in the U.S. the more entrenched they become in western custom; the more comfortable they become with their families, neighbors, employment situation and the less likely they are to sacrifice their lives for a cause.

Whether an Arab male has a criminal record; is in the country legally, or when it comes down to it, purchases a round-trip or one-way airline ticket, may be of little consequence...how long he's been a member of an airline frequent flyer program and how frequently he's been flying over time could tell you whether he's a potential terrorist better than anything. Certainly when such a membership is associated with other elements of an individual's travel history with which airlines routinely come in contact and record (i.e., passport country of issuance, country travel history, employer, etc.).

Would Arab males residing in the U.S. be precluded from trusted status? Not at all, Arab males have been working productively and patriotically in the U.S. for decades and have earned the respect and trust of their companies and the U.S. government. The same goes for other Middle Easterners, Indians and Pakistanis.

The government arguably has a role in airline security; it just may not have changed as a result of the events of September 11. The government's move into the domestic airline security business is another matter altogether. Just because an attack is levied against Americans on U.S. soil-an act of war-doesn't necessarily follow that they should take over airline security. President Bush had it right the first time; airport screeners should have been moved under government direction-not be made federal employees. This accomplished nothing. Airlines came under fire by government officials and others for not requiring a high school diploma for screening positions. What was the first thing the government did when they took over this responsibility? ...You guess it...removed the requirement for a high school diploma.

What all this may mean in the end is little...you're still safer on an airplane than you are taking your morning shower. If you are worried about safety there are plenty of other things you can start looking at...the average person is exposing him or herself to a range of activities 150 to 4000% more dangerous than anything they could ever do on an airplane. Let's get real.

The answer at this point is not how do you make the government security machine run more effectively, it's how do you make it stop. Examples of government relinquishing massive programs to the private sector, on the magnitude of what airport security has now become, are slim and this appears to be what's badly needed at this point.

In the meantime, the following is short list of indicators that the government's about to pull another fast one on you:

They will announce that explosive trace-detection technology (ETD) constitutes the screening of passenger baggage for explosives. This is not true. The screening of bags with explosive detection systems (EDS) involves X-raying an entire bag, not just checking for traces of explosive residue. Or;

They will announce that they've extended the deadline for the explosives screening of all passenger bags, in direct contrast to that which was set forth in the Transportation Security Act.

They will realize that they cannot constructively meet their self-imposed deadline of November 19, 2002 for taking over the checkpoints with government employees so they will discontinue the secondary gate screening of passengers they once thought too important to let the airlines discontinue.

They will announce the testing of a trusted traveler program that has less to do with recognizing potential terrorists than it will those who shouldn't have been screened in the first place: airline and air transport workers, law enforcement and government employees (yeah politicians!), and so on.

Let's stay tuned.

Dallas Pierce is the pseudonym of an employee of a major American airline.

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