Air Travel Safer Than Pre 9/11, Security Still Off Track

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - Counter-terrorism and aviation security experts say air travel is more secure now than it was prior to the September 11th terrorist attacks, but protective measures are still not on the right track to best protect American air travelers.

That assessment comes as the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced its selection of federal security directors (FSDs) for airports in Newark, N.J.; Ontario, Calif.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Indianapolis, Ind.; Cleveland, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Los Angeles, Calif.; and Honolulu, Hawaii.

"These FSDs will be our personal representatives, responsible for ensuring the safety of our skies and fulfilling the Transportation Department's role in the war on terrorism," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said.

"These experienced professionals will be on the front lines in the war on terrorism and are integral in implementing the TSA philosophy of first class security and first class customer service," he said.

Mineta's announcement came on the same day that results of secret airport security trials were leaked to the media. According to published reports, screeners at 32 airports failed to detect mock weapons in 24 percent of those tests and simulated explosives in another 30 percent."

"Can you imagine what it was like before 9/11?" counter-terrorism expert J. Kelly McCann, president and CEO of Crucible Security Specialists, asked .

A former director of security for the Federal Aviation Administration agrees with McCann that the relatively high percentage of contraband missed by screeners is "not very reassuring."

"Long term, I think the TSA is genuinely interested in putting in a system that really addresses the security concerns," said Billie Vincent, who is now president & CEO of Aerospace Services International (ASI), a firm that designs security systems for airports and airlines.

"Right now through the end of the year though, they're really just concerned about meeting deadlines," he added. Congress has given the TSA until November to have federally-employed screeners in place at all U.S. airports. "The meaningful security system is probably going to come afterwards."

Vincent says many of the attempts to tighten security after Sept. 11 were sincere but ill-advised.

"Taking away tweezers and fingernail clippers?" he cited as examples. "Hey, let's get real. Those aren't likely to be [a hijacker's] weapon of choice."

McCann says those and similar actions point out the most important change that has not been made with regard to aviation security.

"To say that there's been no difference would be ridiculous ... there are better physical measures now," he explained. "But the thought process of how we get there from here seems to be the same."

Rather than assessing whether or not a passenger's tweezers could be used as a weapon, McCann says security personnel should be using sophisticated methods to determine the intent of a passenger.

"We have to focus on behavior," he said. "We still don't ask behavior-related questions. We still don't ask questions that are designed to provoke a response. Those responses are still not analyzed, or judged, or observed by qualified people who could then say, 'This is too strange.'"

McCann previously described the Israeli air passenger screening system, which is partially comprised of layers of prospective passenger interviews.

If a ticket-holder does not answer the first round of questions properly, or seems to be unusually nervous or hostile about the questions being asked, they are sent to a second, better trained interviewer for further questioning.

The interviews are designed to make individuals with less-than-legal intentions feel extremely uncomfortable. The interviewers are trained to identify inappropriate reactions and respond accordingly.

McCann calls the process "behavioral profiling," but says U.S. officials seem reluctant to adopt the process, despite its effectiveness, because of the negative connotations of the word "profiling."

"What's to be afraid of?" he asked. "No one has suggested racial profiling ... but could race be an additional profiling point, if behavior is also noticed? Maybe."

Vincent agrees, but prefers to look at it as profiling that considers "nationality" rather than "race" as a factor.

"From a nationality standpoint, if you have 19 hijackers, all from the Middle East, on 9/11, 15 of them from Saudi Arabia alone, do you think I'm going to look for New Zealanders?" he asked. "We've got to get off of this bit of being politically correct. Because, in doing so, we're being factually incorrect."

ASI has numerous clients in the Middle East, Vincent says, and he has shared his "New Zealander" analogy with many of their leaders.

"I have never said that to a person of Arab, Palestinian, Lebanese, or any other Middle Eastern nationality," he added, "that I didn't get agreement from; the logic is irrefutable."

Both McCann and Vincent agree that aviation security has to take a multi-layered approach that begins long before a passenger or piece of luggage ever gets near an airplane.

"There has to be redundancy," McCann urged. "There have to be checks and balances. However, duplication for the sake of duplication should not be allowed."

Vincent says the one layer that has not yet, but must be added is the layer that has been most vehemently resisted by Mineta and TSA head John Magaw.

"The ultimate layer in the aviation security system is the arming of the pilots," he said, noting that it would require 120,000 Federal Air Marshals to adequately staff the 30,000 commercial flights that take off in the U.S. every day. "It's a no-brainer. You don't have any choice. You've got to arm the pilots."

The current cadre of Federal Air Marshals, Vincent suggests, should be given a two-fold mission: one, protecting special-risk flights and, two, training what he calls "Pilot/Air Marshals."

"You don't just hand [pilots] guns," he explained. "You set up training programs around the country, near to their domicile, at police training centers with training to be developed and supervised by the Federal Air Marshals."

That training, combined with legislation to eliminate liability for both the pilots and their employing airlines if they lawfully discharge their weapon in defense of the cockpit, solidifies the safety of such a program in Vincent's mind.

Despite the fact that their suggestions have not yet been enacted by the TSA, both men still agree that it is relatively "safe" to fly.

"The odds of an unlawful event are enormously low. It's just not likely to happen," Vincent said.

McCann refuses to be deterred by any terrorist action. In addition to the heightened passenger and baggage screening requirements, he points to an additional "layer" in the post-9/11 security regimen over which the TSA has no influence or control.

"We have a generally combative passenger group now," he explained. "Truthfully, if a guy was to get crazy now, it would be a matter of seconds before somebody took him to task."

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