February , 2008 Issue
not as safe as you think
Carry-Ons: Passengers are allowed to board airplanes with
cigarette lighters, tools, and scissors that federal investigators say could be
used as weapons.
evening last March, a baggage handler was loading up an Airbus jet when he
noticed that a passenger's bag was burning.
Officials halted the flight, found the passenger, and told him they were taking
all of his baggage off the plane for re-screening before the flight could
continue, the captain said in a report to federal aviation officials.
In the burnt bag, authorities discovered a suspicious bundle of wires and a
video game battery pack. The captain, meanwhile, thought the passenger's
behavior was suspect. He had a one-way ticket, volunteered to be removed from
the flight without being asked, and said he would fly another day.
"Had we left the gate on time, we would have been airborne when this bag
ignited," the report noted.
The captain complained in his filing with the federal Aviation Safety Reporting
System that there was no security follow-up although many questions remained:
"Who was this individual? Were his actions intentional? Why was his
behavior so abnormal?"
Despite an extensive security effort since the 2001 terrorist attacks, those
kinds of questions are still being asked with alarming frequency at U.S.
Many steps have indeed been taken, including creation of the Transportation
Security Administration (TSA), to improve security at the nation's 400
commercial airports and at all airlines.
"The clock is ticking."
David Mackett, pilot
years later, the TSA still falls short in 7 of 24, or almost one-third, of
critical performance benchmarks set for the agency, an August 2007 federal
report says. The shortfalls included securing areas of airports that are
supposed to be restricted and adequate screening of air cargo, according to the
Government Accountability Office (GAO), the federal government's audit agency.
Some of those problems were cited in a March 2007 Consumer Reports
accident waiting to happen?, which found that increased outsourcing
by airlines had created safety and security loopholes. Now, even for some areas
in which the TSA has supposedly met its goals, Consumer Reports has
found major security lapses, including the following:
Screening failures. The TSA has an erratic record at checkpoint
screening, including failures during undercover tests to identify weapons and
explosives. A November 2007 GAO report found that agents smuggled bomb-making
material past checkpoints in several instances.
Questionable rules. The TSA has issued 25 versions of screening
procedures over the years, and there's still confusion about bringing liquids
and gels aboard. It also allows items such as lighters, tools, corkscrews, and
pointed scissors that could be used as weapons, just as box cutters were used
in some of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Insecure cockpits. In easing the rules, the TSA pointed to other
security measures, such as strengthening cockpit doors to deter hijackings. But
Consumer Reports documented dozens of problems with those barriers,
including doors popping open in flight, pilots being locked out, and flight
attendants breaking the doors by slamming them shut.
Thin security forces. The government has tried to plug security holes in
part by authorizing more flight crew members to carry guns. But the effort has
lagged because of cumbersome training arrangements. And deployment of armed air
marshals is hurt by staffing and morale problems, say several current and
former marshals. Air marshals also complain that their reports of suspicious
activity often seem to be ignored.
Although there has not been a successful terrorist attack in the U.S. since
9/11, dozens of security officials and others on the front lines say the
security lapses make it easier for one to take place.
"The clock is ticking," says David Mackett, president of the Airline
Pilots Security Alliance. "There's a term we are using in the airline
industry: We are being ridden," he says of terrorists or their supporters
whom he believes are continually riding planes and testing the system.
"They're not wannabes. In some way, they're assisting Al Qaeda. People ask
me, 'Will there be another 9/11?' I think there will be more 9/11s."
Clark Kent Ervin, inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) from 2003 through 2004, says: "Al Qaeda is back in
business. They're intent and they have this fixation on aviation."
Ervin's office criticized the TSA's oversight of security and its spending. He
says it would be "very, very hard" for terrorists to commit an act
similar to 9/11, but also says: "We Americans tend to fight the last war.
I don't think we're much farther along, to tell you the truth."
Not everyone is so pessimistic. "We are significantly safer now than on
Sept. 10, 2001," says Bob Hesselbein, chair of the National Security
Committee for the Air Line Pilots Association, the nation's largest pilots'
union. "Does that mean we're content? No. But we're in a much better
TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser says, "TSA has made significant strides in
testing and deploying the latest technologies to better detect explosives and
other potential threat items."
If outer defenses falter, federal auditors note, the authorities are counting
on "able-bodied passengers"
Clark Kent Ervin
Former DHS Inspector
General is concerned at how poorly screeners are doing.
9/11, airline security was largely delegated to airlines and airports, which
hired private firms.
Congress created the TSA in November 2001 to secure all modes of
transportation, starting with aviation. The agency hired more than 50,000
people to screen passengers and luggage. But Kimberly Kraynak, a lead TSA
officer in Pittsburgh and women's coordinator for TSA Local 1 of the American
Federation of Government Employees, which represents officers, says employees
do not receive proper training at some airports. "We've been short-staffed
since the beginning," she says.
Larry Tortorich, a TSA training officer and former representative to the Joint
Terrorism Task Force who retired in 2006, also says he saw problems from the
inside. "There was a facade of security. There were numerous security flaws
and vulnerabilities that I identified. The response was, it wasn't apparent to
the public, so there would not be any corrective action."
An internal e-mail obtained by Consumer Reports suggests that the TSA
might be stacking the deck to try to perform better on covert tests. In April
2006 the TSA's Office of Security Operations sent a memo to numerous security
personnel titled "Notice of Possible Security Test." It warned that
airport security was being tested by the Department of Transportation in several
airports and even gave some clues: The testing couple included a woman who had
"an ID with an Oriental woman's picture, even though she is Caucasian. We
are getting the word out."
"I continue to be concerned at how poorly screeners are doing on undercover
testing," says Ervin, the former inspector general. "The results
continue to be dismal."
The TSA has also been the subject of reports of mismanagement. For example, a
federal report in 2005 found that a private firm used to hire screeners for the
TSA had estimated its fee at $104 million but was paid $741 million, including
$1.7 million for the use of a Telluride, Colo., ski resort for recruiting.
Screeners also report that equipment that could help security remains locked up
at some airports. "We've wasted millions on machines we're not
using," says Don Thomas, a TSA officer in Orlando, Fla., and president of
TSA Local 1.
In its annual report card for the TSA last April, the House Committee on
Homeland Security gave the agency a C for aviation security and an F for
employee morale, a factor contributing to high staff turnover.
Responding to the criticism, Kip Hawley, the TSA's administrator, told Congress
in November, "Our workforce is fully engaged." He said that
reforms in the agency's personnel system have been aimed at improving staffing
alleged terrorist plot that aimed to use liquid and gel explosives on
London-to-U.S. flights was disrupted in 2006, the TSA issued conflicting bans
on carrying those items aboard.
In short order, rules changed from a ban on liquids and gels to allowing small
containers in clear plastic quart-sized bags. Then came approval for larger
items bought in shops past checkpoints.
Ervin says airport vendors applied pressure to have the liquids ban modified.
"Are the amounts of liquids dangerous? Either it's true or it's not,"
he says. "Why is it OK to buy them past the checkpoint now?"
Bogdan Dzakovic, a TSA officer and former Federal Aviation Administration
undercover leader, says the emergence of liquid explosives was inevitable
because of the TSA's focus on detecting powdered nitrate-based bombs. He says
the TSA had been public about its trace-detection and checked-baggage machines,
so terror groups "turned to gel-based explosives."
Exploiting loopholes in the liquid/gel rules, undercover investigators smuggled
components for several explosive devices and an incendiary device through TSA
checkpoints and onto airline flights without being challenged, according to the
November 2007 federal audit report. One agent even deliberately provoked a
second screening but was able to smuggle the items through anyway.
In another symptom of confusion, an April 2007 GAO report says the TSA allowed
pointed scissors with blades 4 inches long and tools as long as 7 inches back
on planes in December 2005 without having any justification for doing so.
Cigarette lighters were allowed back onboard in August 2007, with the TSA
saying that they no longer pose a significant threat.
While the TSA said that would free up time for other screening, some aviation
experts consulted by the GAO for the report said, "Permitting scissors
increases the risk of violence against passengers and flight crew."
One of the
most visible elements of the new security effort was the requirement that
reinforced doors be installed. By March 2002, the FAA reported that all major
U.S. airlines had complied. Critics, however, say a stronger door is only half
the solution. "People have this illusion hardened cockpit doors work, and
they don't," Dzakovic says. "If you want to have a secure door, you
need to have a double-hulled door."
Consumer Reports searched NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System and
found 51 incidents since April 2002 in which flight crews reported problems
with the hardened doors.
In many instances, the door unexpectedly opened in flight or the locking
mechanisms failed. In one case, the door spontaneously opened twice on a
Bombardier CRJ200 regional jet, interrupting a takeoff. And a captain said the
doors on two DC9s were broken after flight attendants slammed them.
A 2006 study of aviation security by DFI International, a Washington, D.C.,
security consultancy, found that a drunken passenger kicked a hole in a door
panel and that aircraft cleaners "broke a fortified door off its hinges by
running a heavy snack cart into it on a bet."
In October 2007, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., introduced a bill that would
require the FAA to order the installation of secondary barriers on commercial airliners,
at a cost he estimates at $5,000 to $10,000 per aircraft. "Without
secondary cockpit barriers, the door is literally wide open to
terrorists," he stated in proposing the measure.
Hesselbein, of the Air Line Pilots Association, agrees, saying "We believe
it's the No. 1 thing that can be done for security."
14.6% Turnover rate for TSA
is almost four times the
As part of
the response to the terror threat, the federal air marshal service expanded
from 33 to thousands of marshals and was transferred from the FAA to the TSA.
But the transition did not go smoothly, according to a 2005 GAO report. Over
the next two years the marshal service was transferred two more times, then was
sent back again to the TSA.
The service also tried unsuccessfully to develop a "surge" capability
with customs and immigration agents trained to work as air marshals when
needed. The auditors warn that without changes in career development and
advancement, the force could face "a decline in employee morale and an
increase in attrition rates."
That has happened, experts say. While the exact number of marshals is
classified, a report on the Airline Pilots Security Alliance Web site
says,"The current air marshal force, 2,200 officers working in teams,
protects only 5 to 10 percent of daily flights, if that." The alliance
says that's down from a peak of 4,000.
"Everyone thinks there are enough air marshals on the planes, and there
are not," says P. Jeffrey Black, an air marshal and whistle-blower who
testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 2004.
An incident onboard a Northwest Airlines flight in June 2004 in which 13 Middle
Eastern men in a musical group acted suspiciously prompted an inspector general's
probe. The full report, not made public, provides these details:"During
the flight, the men again acted suspiciously. Several of the men changed seats,
congregated in the aisles, and arose when the fasten seat belt sign was turned
on; one passenger moved quickly up the aisle toward the cockpit and, at the
last moment, entered the first class lavatory. The passenger remained in the
lavatory for about 20 minutes." Another man carried a large McDonald's
restaurant bag into a lavatory and made a thumbs-up signal to another man upon
returning to his seat.
An FBI check indicated that the musical group's promoter had been involved in a
similar incident in January 2004. "No other derogatory information was
received, and all 13 of the men were released," the report says, although
visas for 12 of the passengers expired weeks before the flight. Twelve of the
men had left the country by mid-July; the FBI started its investigation later
that month, after another passenger wrote an article about her experience on the
flight and appeared on television.
The federal report cited marshals' problems in communicating with the cockpit
and confusion over which federal agency had authority.
To complement the air marshals, the government allows crew members to become
Federal Flight Deck Officers and to carry guns in the cockpit. But an inspector
general's report in 2006 stated "more needs to be accomplished to maximize
the use of FFDOs on international and domestic flights." The ranks are
thin: Only an estimated 8 to 10 percent of domestic flights have an armed crew
member in the cockpit.
Mackett, of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, sees arming pilots as an
unobtrusive system that uses current resources. But he says that the TSA is
"grudgingly tolerating" the program. He says airlines aren't required
to pay for the voluntary training, and some won't provide time off.
Kayser, the TSA spokesman, says "procedures must be followed to maintain
the high standards of any law enforcement professional."
While the U.S. has made significant efforts in aviation security since 2001,
many experts cite El Al Israel Airlines as the benchmark for aviation security,
with double cockpit doors and more extensive passenger and baggage screening.
Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, believes
the government should close the gaps in security by instituting more effective
screening measures, creating a second cockpit barrier, and improving training
of TSA officers, and providing more help for federal air marshals and flight
"It is clear that the TSA continues to struggle with the implementation of
fundamental security measures," says Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., of
the House Homeland Security Committee. "Congress will need to keep shining
a spotlight on TSA operations and provide the resources and training needed for
TSA employees to perform their difficult jobs."
stretch from the perimeters to the cockpit, experts say.
cards for the fast lane
recently heard ads touting ways to get through airport security more quickly,
you might wonder how it works. The Transportation Security Administration has
set up a Registered Traveler program, under which private firms run a thorough
background check and use biometrics such as fingerprints and iris scans. There
are six approved programs, with one being Verified Identity Pass, offering the
Clear card for $100 a year. But the fast lanes are only at 13 airports,
sometimes only at certain checkpoints and for certain airlines. The overall
Registered Traveler program has drawn criticism for privacy and security
reasons. The American Civil Liberties Union says it is "based on intrusive
but ultimately ineffective probes into travelers' lives." Some say it
could aid terrorists, who could get recruits with clean records so that they
can speed through security checkpoints more easily.