How safe are airports and commercial airplanes? The aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, has shed light on the lax standards of airport safety and security throughout the United States. After all, the hijackers were able to board four different U.S. flights with box cutters either on their person or in their carry-on luggage. With these box cutters (which, prior to 9/11, would not commonly have been considered ”weapons”), the terrorists were able to hijack four flights and ultimately kill thousands of innocent Americans. Since the tragic event, recommendations have been brought forth to help make airports safer and more secure. Proposals have included changes in training and staffing, restructuring airport access points, elevating standards and regulations, utilizing various technological advancements to detect explosives and weapons in baggage, and preventing unauthorized access to secure parts of airports, to name just a few. A combination of changes have been planned and implemented, ensuring a safer flying experience and greater airport safety at the growing number of airports throughout the United States.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks have prompted us to revisit airport safety and security standards from new perspectives and with the intent to employ an even more proactive approach to prevent attacks. Security prior to the attacks was much more lax in various ways. There was no requirement to screen all checked-in baggage on domestic flights. Additionally, there were no stringent restrictions preventing access to secure areas within airports. A number of reports indicated that individuals with fake badges were allowed access to secure areas seven out of ten times. Traffic control devices, plane cockpits, and facilities were not safe from attack. Criminal background checks and fingerprints were not always performed on flight crews and security workers employed by airports. Also, the screening of passengers and carry-on baggage failed to detect numerous threat objects. The crux of the problem was that there were no true uniform safety standards and security measures to begin with. Each airline carrier was given the responsibility of handling safety issues for itself, in some cases with a few loose guidelines set forth by individual airports. Generally, the airline carrier would either hire individual screeners or use a contracted security company. It is possible that a number of airline carriers (especially in times of low estimated threats) followed more lax safety standards in order to cut expenses, thereby increasing corporate profits.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, and even thereafter in many instances, passenger screening consisted of three major components: X-ray machines, metal detectors, and manual baggage checks (the third for baggage that required extra attention). The X-ray machines that were utilized before and continued to be used after the hijackings were not capable of detecting every single type of threat object, because certain hazardous substances or objects may not have stood out as being suspicious. Metal detectors, likewise, failed to detect threat objects that were not made out of metal; plastic knives, for example, would easily pass through the metal detector. Finally, manual baggage checks, being the only human factor, led to many problems. Approximately 20% of all threat objects pass through manual baggage inspection unnoticed. Clearly, this percentage was found to be unsatisfactory by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

There are a plethora of reasons for this unsatisfactory level of work. First and foremost, the screeners are essentially unskilled workers. By 2004, the turnover rate of screeners in the United States had risen to levels ranging from 100% to more than 400%, in comparison to Europe, which has had turnover rates ranging from 10% to 50%. Minimum wages and low benefits are partially accountable for this, as is the monotony of the job. Until screeners can maintain their positions, have adequate training, and gain experience in finding threat objects, less-than-optimal effectiveness will endure. On a positive note, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), by December 2005, there were forty-three thousand newly classified transportation security officers trained to detect and combat terrorist threats deployed to all of the major airports and about four hundred TSA Explosives Detection Canine Teams deployed to more than eighty U.S. airports.

There are many ways in which airport security can be improved. In fact, many of these steps have already been taken. Incompetent passenger screeners can be replaced with more skilled screeners. Cockpit areas on aircrafts can be made secure with reinforced doors for the protection of the pilot and copilot. Pilots can be trained and licensed to carry firearms—by the end of 2005, about one-third of the pilots of commercial planes had been trained to carry firearms. More federal air marshals can be deployed for every flight. Airports can be restructured to promote safety. Most importantly, various technological advancements such as biometrics for airport access control and identification of authorized personnel can be employed, which would significantly increase airport safety and potentially expedite the screening process. Also, important is the training and deployment of Explosives Detection Canine Teams to all 420 commercial airports nationwide, not just to 80 or 85 airports at random.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, action has been taken at the federal level to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again in the future. The Aviation and Transportation Act of November 2001 formed the Transportation Security Administration, which would be held responsible for overall mass transportation security. Since its creation, the TSA has come up with various ways to heighten security at airports throughout the United States.

So, what has the TSA done so far? By December 2002 the TSA had hired approximately 40,000 screeners to help make passenger screening more effective. By the following month, most ”marked” bags (those that required additional security attention) were being screened. Technology to detect traces of explosives, or ETD, an acronym for Explosives Trace

Detection, has been utilized on 90% of all baggage. As of December 2005, as a result of increased training and enhanced standards, all forty thousand screeners hired since 2002 plus all three thousand newly hired screeners were reclassified as transportation security officers. Alternative measures such as canine explosive sniffing teams, hand searches and pat downs, and passenger-bag matches have also been randomly employed to ensure security. Additionally, the U.S. Air Marshal Program has been expanded, allowing for air marshals to be deployed on more commercial flights. Furthermore, approximately 98% of all commercial fleets have an approved design in place for the installation of secure cockpit doors; 80% of all commercial fleets already have this secure door installed. Air traffic control systems have been made more secure from attack and intrusion. All contractors are now required to have criminal history background checks performed. Air cargo safety is also on its way to heightened security. A database of known shippers is in the process of being compiled to increase the safety of the cargo being transported. General aviation, which encompasses private fleet and air travel, is also in the process of being scrutinized to increase security. Perimeter access to airports has also been under restriction. The number of access points in airports has been reduced. Background checks are now more frequently performed on airports workers.

Much is yet to come. The TSA has laid out a five-year plan covering the period from 2003 to 2008 to measure the effectiveness of the changes put into place. This plan includes both random and scheduled reviews of the security process, oversight of compliance with standards and regulations, the measure of performance against the standards set forth, and the collection and communication of performance data.

To address the competency of the passenger screeners, TSA is working on the Threat Image Projection (TIP) system.

The TIP system randomly places threat objects on the screen during actual passenger baggage screening to see if screeners are able to identify them. Once the screen-er ”marks” the baggage for further security attention, he or she is informed that it was only a test. This system had actually been in place prior to the terrorist attacks but was halted in the effort to prevent screening delays. Overall, the TIP system is an excellent way to measure a screener’s alertness and ability to identify threat objects.

The government is seeking to create uniformity in standards and training for all transportation screeners and security officers. An annual security officer recertification program is also under development for security personnel hired by the federal government. This program will measure the security officer/screener’s ability to recognize images of threat objects, the screener’s knowledge of standard operating procedures, as well as the screener’s practical demonstration of these skills. For screeners other than those hired by the federal government, studies are being conducted to compare their ability in comparison with the ability of federally hired security offi-cer-screeners. Screening companies will also have to measure up to federal performance standards and will be subject to automated readiness tests.

Another technology in the development stage is CAPPS II, also known as the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, which will replace the CAPPS system already in place. The system in place now was launched in 1998, operated by air carriers in conjunction with reservation systems. The original CAPPS system helps to identify high-risk passengers. Passengers who express strange or suspicious behavior are marked in the system as high risk (to be placed under a watchful eye from then on). Unfortunately, however, the system is now out of date and is difficult to modify. Many of the suspicious behavioral traits examined by the system have now become public knowledge, making the system less effective. The new CAPPS II program will be different from the existing system in quite a few ways. It will be government run, which will allow it to be more up to date and effective. CAPPS II will prescreen all passengers, tabulating a risk score for each. The system plans to increase the authenticity of identity, to prevent identity theft or fraud. Further, the system hopes to identify high-risk flights, airports, and geographic regions. As of the start of 2006, the system was not quite ready for launch because many of its facets were still being studied. The accuracy of the system has not yet been determined. Once development is complete, CAPPS II is expected to provide an enhanced computer-assisted prescreen-ing system. The implementation of CAPPS II has been delayed primarily due to privacy laws and concerns about obtaining passenger data as well as high costs and the continued attempts to develop a proven method of preventing unauthorized access and identity theft.

Advanced scanning technology has been put into use in some airports even as they continue being developed. This includes machines that are able to detect explosives. The Explosives Detection System (EDS) and Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) are both systems that help security officers to detect explosives contained in baggage. The ETD system has already been deployed in many airports. The system, as its name suggests, helps to detect traces of explosives and hazardous materials in baggage. The Explosives Detection System, which detects explosives carried in bulk, is still under research and development. Fine-tuning still needs to be done for EDS to find out how much of an explosive needs to be carried in order to be detected.

The perimeters of airports have also been under more scrutiny. The TSA plans on randomly checking people to make sure that they are legitimate employees. Because access points to perimeter areas have become more limited, this in combination with random checks will heighten security in those areas. Ensuring the safety of the airports requires that no area of an airport is overlooked.

The future will pave the way for even more advanced technological equipment. One of the most advanced technologies in consideration for use in the future is biometrics. Biometrics is one of the most recent technological innovations for identifying authorized personnel at airports, seaports, railways, and other mass transit facilities. When examining the advantages and most promising aspects of biometrics, it is important to point out that automated biometrics recognizes and identifies a person based on his or her facial features, hand geometry, iris, retina, handwriting, body odor, heartbeat, inner ear bones, and voice. According to Don Philpott’s article entitled ”Physical Security—Biometrics,” published in the Homeland Defense Journal in May 2005, biometrics links the identification of a person to his or her own individual physical and/or physiological features, which cannot be faked. Biometrics utilizes an individual’s physical characteristics and personal character traits to assist in the identification of an individual. In Biometrics: Facing Up to Terrorism, the author, John Woodward, describes biometrics:

Fingerprints, faces, voices, and handwritten signatures are all examples of characteristics that have been used to identify us in this way. Biometric-based systems provide automatic, nearly instantaneous identification of a person by converting the biometric—a fingerprint, for example—into digital form and then comparing it against a computerized database. In this way, fingerprints, faces, voices, iris and retinal images of the eye, hand geometry, and signature dynamics can now be used to identify us, or to authenticate our claimed identity, quickly and accurately.

Thus, we can see that there are various different ways in which we can employ the use of biometrics. Fingerprinting and palm printing have been common practice in many different areas and would be a useful way to enhance security at airports.

Passengers, for example, can have their prints taken at the time of reservation (or some other time prior to their arrival at the airport) and airport personnel can have their prints taken at the time of hire. These prints can then be used to gain access through secure checkpoints or before boarding a plane. Similar to finger and palm printing, a scan of facial characteristics can be employed to allow access to secure areas, by previously having photos of individuals on file. Woodward also addresses a system called FaceCheck, which can scan a crowd to find an individual who may be flagged in the system as a possible suspect.

The use of biometrics will also enable the use of smart cards. Smart cards are capable of storing biometric data such as finger or palm prints and facial characteristics, as well as other data such as name, address, and so on. Passengers can bring their smart cards to the airport for use during check-in, security check points, passenger-bag matches, and for boarding the plane. Likewise, airport personnel could use smart cards to access secure areas. A smart card can even be a unified card that can be used on all modes of mass transit, or perhaps even beyond transportation. The card can be linked up to other agencies such as the state department of motor vehicles or the IRS— the possibilities are endless. Use of smart cards will allow control over access to secure areas, may assist in preventing identity theft, and can help to identify suspicious suspects. Therefore, utilization of smart cards can both secure and expedite individuals’ experiences at the airport and elsewhere. Despite the numerous benefits, some challenges do exist. The main barrier is that many people may feel that the smart cards represent an invasion of privacy and may feel hesitant to disclose personal information. It may also be a challenge to get the system in place. How will the data for the smart cards be gathered, and where will it be stored? How will the system be implemented? Are the costs feasible? If the challenges are overcome, it will be an invaluable asset to the enhancement of airport security.

On March 4, 2005, the TSA requested help and guidance from representatives from the aviation industry, the biometric identifier industry, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology for using biometric technology in American airports. TSA is planning for comprehensive technical and operational system requirements and performance standards and procedures for implementing biometric systems that prevent the use of assumed identities and resolve false matches and false nonmatches. According to Section 4011(a)(5)of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, electronic privacy issues must be safeguarded by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). EPIC encourages TSA not to test its use of biometric technology until it conducts a comprehensive privacy impact assessment. The purpose of this assessment would be to ensure protection of privacy rights of program members to meet legal requirements, legislative oversight, and government standards for privacy protection of federal data banks and personal information systems. TSA has agreed to follow the Privacy Act when they begin to test biometric technology with flight crew members. TSA also said they would provide a ”privacy impact statement” so that they could ensure all data collected would not be misused.


As this topic was going to press, both the TSA and The New York Times reported on several noteworthy advances in aviation and airport security taking place beginning on December 22, 2005, right before the holiday travel rush: random explosive screening of shoes, hand-wanding of passengers, enhanced pat-down searches, and more than four hundred TSA explosive detection canine teams deployed to more than eighty U.S. airports. An additional thirty canine teams were to be deployed to ten mass transit rail systems in early 2006. Finally, an article appeared on January 4, 2006, in New Jersey’s Star-Ledger newspaper reporting on TSA’s plan to implement voluntary biometric iris, facial, and fingerprint imagery at about fifty airports nationwide by the summer of 2006. The combination of iris scans with fingerprints has been more than 99% successful in identifying low security risk frequent flyer passengers who have enrolled in the program. With the cost of each iris-scanning camera being only $3,700, the program seems to be cost effective as well.

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