US aviation security: Do something, no matter what


You could almost see the ineffectual knee jerking coming out of Washington in the wake of the latest terrorist bombing attempt. The answer was clear to the US Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration: So something, no matter what. Limit carry-on baggage to one item. Confine passengers to their seats with nothing on their laps for the last hour of flight. No access to carry ons on the last hour.

Media outlets were bristling with the news of the latest terrorist attempt on Christmas along with copious coverage of new security procedures. While some wonder why we should care about the media verbal diarrhea, it is important to analyze media content because it shapes how passengers think of traveling by air.

Media reports also indicated airlines, which have spent millions to offer in-flight WiFi, as well as expanded in-flight entertainment, were shutting them down or limiting such shut downs, if possible, to the popular route-tracking maps. Aviation listservs and blogs were at once amused by the stupidity of news reports and critical of TSA's ineffectiveness.

There was little combined wisdom to be had over the weekend, especially from TSA which imposed the new security procedures without so much as a second thought.

Never mind taking time to study the latest event on Delta Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. Never mind thinking about how to make things more secure without making them more ridiculous. Never mind actually investigating the 500,000 names of the terrorist watch list and the other names on the no-fly list to determine whether or not any are a real threat. After all, we've seen enough stories about infants being barred from their flights because they shared the name of someone on the no-fly list. Never mind making the no-fly list effective. Never mind investigating a threat when it comes in such as the notification by the terrorist's father. Never mind connecting the dots.

Time for the TSA to address some fundamental issues

While Washington was shouting that the system worked and a plot was foiled, the rest of us knew what was really going on. Because TSA has refused to do an effective job in the eight years it has had since 9/11, we are now relying on passengers to thwart such plots. A decidedly good thing, but it begs the question of what the TSA is doing for us besides spending billions per year. This is to say nothing of the giant security breach of the TSA's own making when a screeners' instruction book was posted on the web with color shots of identification including TSA employees and members of Congress.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) collects a September 11th fee of USD2.50 per boarding for a maximum of USD10 per trip. DHS uses it and the aviation security infrastructure fee, the subject of an airline industry lawsuit, that raises hundreds of millions of dollars from airlines to fund the TSA.

The "what ifs" in this case are legion. What if Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab succeeded in his mission at the beginning of the flight? Would we then be chained to our seats for the entire flight instead of just the last hour? Medical professionals advocate getting up and walking around to avoid a thrombosis similar to the one that killed NBC Nightly News reporter David Bloom. Media reports indicated those needing to use the bathroom would have to be escorted.

If Abdulmutallab had succeeded in bringing down the A330 over water, we'd likely be wondering if the event had more to do with AF 447's crash than a terrorist attack.

And what is the point of keeping us confined to our seats except to make flying that much more a pain? And, the one bag limit is exquisitely mystifying. Never mind overhauling the security procedures that have been issued and retracted more times than can be counted.

Since the upgraded security procedures were imposed in the wake of 9/11, they have been little more than window dressing and not very effective at that. However, much the US and TSA may posture, the terrorists have won, given the constant knee-jerk reactions and the billions that have been siphoned out of the economy in the name of window dressing.

While TSA and DHS counter that there have been no more 9/11s, that means next to nothing. The absence of something does not equate to procedures being effective. While terrorist wannabes may continue to try, al Qaeda made its point on 9/11 and the likelihood of another 9/11-like event has diminished even as the threat remains. TSA, meanwhile, not only released its instruction manual for all the world to see but failed to prevent two bombers from boarding US-bound aircraft - which anyone would agree is a system failure.

A system success would be foiling the liquid bombing plot out of the UK where solid intelligence was used to unravel that web. By comparison system successes can be seen in the piles of junk collected by TSA at security checkpoints. That is, the guns and knives that were found among the flotsam and jetsam of grandmothers' knitting needles, children's play things along with countless bottles of water, shampoo and other liquids.

The problem with aviation security is it is largely based on being reactive rather than pro-active. Congress announced it is holding hearings on the AMS-DTW plot but the main output will be political theater that erroneously suggests Congress is actually doing something.

Escalating the hassle factor - a USD9 billion loss

The new security rules might be just another of many small annoyances in the travel experience were it not for the fact that it raises the hassle factor. During the 2007/2008 period, at the peak of the business cycle, the Travel Industry Association quantified for the first time how the hassle factor affects the industry. Some 41 million trips were avoided at a total cost to the airline industry of USD9 billion in revenues. There was a total economic impact of USD26.5 billion which includes the USD6 billion lost to hotels and USD3 billion lost to restaurants as well as the loss of more than USD4 billion in federal, state and local government taxes. Compounding this USD26 billion is the USD12 billion+ lost to delays.

"Security agents may pat the soles of your feet, work up your legs to your waist and run a wand across your whole body," reported USA Today of the evolving security measures. "Bags may be searched even after they pass the scanner. Bathroom breaks may be eliminated for the last hour of international flights. Blankets on your lap on those flights are verboten, too. Forget about that extra carry-on bag."

"I would feel a lot better about it if I felt that what they are doing was meaningful," aviation security consultant Douglas Laird, former security director at Northwest Airlines" told the publication. "For the life of me, I don't understand what they're achieving."

The newspaper suggested that the controversial full-body scanners that have raised the hackles of Congress will be accelerated thanks to the latest terrorist attempt.

"'Some of these restrictions seem pretty silly to me," Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told the newspaper. 'I really hate to check a bag.' Nevertheless, he advises travelers to 'suck it up and accept it.' TSA and Homeland Security spent more than $795 million from fiscal years 2002 through 2008 on checkpoint screening technologies, according to an October report by the Government Accountability Office."

TSA's blunt instruments hurt financial recovery

At a time when the industry is trying to crawl out of the recession, an increase in the hassle factor is no small thing. As usual the impact with be felt most by passengers on short-haul and/or regional-airline flights. Adding an hour to a trip to factor in new security procedures has a greater impact on short-haul than on long-haul and international trips. The fear is that business travelers, only now returning to the skies, may drop out again if security procedures force waits of four hours that was reported over the weekend. This is not to mention any depressive factor extensive coverage of terrorism is expected to bring to the airlines' recovery struggle.

All these factors are expected not only to raise airline costs with such new expenses as legal defenses and payouts from discrimination filings by those profiled by either airlines or fellow passengers for no other reason than acting strange or looking Middle Eastern. A well-reported incident just recently, in which a "passenger" was said to have reported in detail about how strange behavior forced several Arab-looking men off an aircraft, was actually a hoax. But it did serve to height fears and suspicions. Just this past weekend, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) noted two "Middle Eastern" people were forced off a US Airways flight in Phoenix when a passenger became suspicious because they were speaking in a foreign language. The men were questioned by FBI and released. And, in an eerie event on the same flight from Amsterdam on Saturday, air marshals detained an ill passenger because he would not come out of the bathroom.

These new costs come at the worst time for airlines already struggling to regain their top-tier passengers which abandoned them to business aviation. Indeed, TSA statistics indicated. while many chose to greet the hassle factor by just not traveling, it created a boon for business aviation, which has much faster security procedures.

Then there is the confusion surrounding the single carry-on bag. Airlines are charging small fortunes, compared to the price of a ticket, for checked baggage. USA Today report some airlines are waiving the fees for the first checked bag in the wake of the Christmas attack, but such new rules only serve to increase the hassle factor and confusion further.

Is there any hope for common sense and intelligence?

What is needed is a scientifically based approach to security measures that include a lot of common sense rather than knee jerks. What about applying some intelligence to this issue by analyzing incidents and determining how best to approach new threats? What about making the terrorist watch and no fly lists real tools rather than just lists of names? And, what about actually investigating the threats that actually do come our way so that when a tip comes in it can be investigated? Now, that would not only be pro-active, it would also be far more effective use of the hundreds of millions of dollars currently being wasted on simply creating more hassle.

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