Passengers, fasten your seat belts. An ambitious plan to strengthen
security for the nation’s aviation transportation system is
encountering some turbulence.
A new agency has been created to do the job, and it has been given
tight deadlines and billions of dollars to spend. Major defense
companies are positioning themselves to grab a share of the funding.
After the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,
the Bush administration quickly moved to toughen security in the
airways. The Federal Aviation Administration began expanding the
three-decade-old Federal Air marshals program, which places armed,
undercover law-enforcement officers on board U.S. airliners. It
provided $500 million in funding to modify aircraft to make it more
difficult to break into cockpits.
More than 7,000 armed National Guard troops were deployed to augment
existing security at the nation’s 429 commercial airports.
At press time, they were scheduled to be withdrawn by May 31.
After security lapses continued in the air and at terminals, Congress
in November passed an Aviation and Security Act, establishing a
major new agency—the Transportation Security Administration—and
ordering it to protect all modes of transportation, air, land and
sea, from assault by terrorists.
The legislation gave first priority to the commercial airlines
system, which the terrorists had used in their assaults. It took
the job of protecting that system away from private industry, which
was criticized for lax hiring standards, low pay and poor training
for its security personnel, and gave it to the TSA.
“For the first time, airport security will become a direct
federal responsibility, overseen by a new undersecretary of transportation
for security,” said President Bush in November, as he signed
the measure into law. “The new security force will be well-trained,
made up of U.S. citizens. If any of its members do not perform,
the new undersecretary will have full authority to discipline or
To fulfill the assignment, TSA officials said that the agency plans
to hire a staff of perhaps 65,000 before the end of the year. That
will make it “larger than the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration
and Border patrol combined,” said Transportation Secretary
Norman Y. Mineta, whose department includes the new organization.
TSA officials, citing security concerns, declined to reveal how
many air marshals they plan to hire. But a spokesman said the agency
is “recruiting actively” and has received “thousands
of applications from around the country.”
Still, with 26,000 flights a day, officials noted, the TSA won’t
be able to place an air marshal on every airliner. As an alternative,
pressure is increasing for the agency to allow aircrews to protect
themselves. United Airlines has begun training its pilots to use
stun guns to defend their cockpits. Transportation Department approval
is required before the weapons can be deployed.
Stun guns, however, have limited range and power, critics warned.
Two members of Congress—Alaska’s Don Young, chairman
of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Florida’s
John Mica, head of the Aviation Subcommittee—in April introduced
legislation to allow commercial airline pilots to carry firearms
in the cockpit and requiring the TSA to train them to use the weapons
“Our pilots have requested the ability to defend themselves,”
said Mica. “They are our last line of defense and should have
at least a fighting chance.”
The law creating the TSA established a series of deadlines, which
the agency has met so far. In December, it announced qualifications
for federal baggage screeners, who must:
Be U.S. citizens.
Have a high school education or equivalent work experience.
Be able to read, write and speak English.
Pass tough, new security checkups, including criminal history investigations.
Many current airport employees are unable to meet even such basic
standards. In April, more than 450 workers at 15 airports around
the country were arrested on federal fraud and immigration charges.
U.S. Justice Department officials said the employees—construction
workers, janitors, food servers and baggage screeners—covered
up previous criminal convictions, used false Social Security numbers
or were in the country illegally. They were discovered when federal
and state agencies conducted background checks on an estimated 750,000
In January, the TSA began screening all checked passenger bags,
using several methods:
- Passing luggage through large, automated explosive-detection
systems (EDS) that use computed tomography (CT) technology, similar
to that used in medicine.
- Inspecting bags with portable, hand-held explosive-trace detection
(ETD) devices, which are designed to recognize residues of bomb-making
Conducting manual searches.
- Use of bomb-sniffing dogs.
- Matching luggage with passengers to ensure that no bag goes aboard
an aircraft unless the person who checked it is also on board.
- Use of a computer-profiling system, known as the Computer-Assisted
Passenger Prescreening System.
All of these methods have come in for criticism. Manual searches
are said to be too slow. There are limited numbers of bomb-sniffing
dogs, and it takes a long time to train new ones. Bag matching is
said to be unlikely to stop suicide bombers, such as those involved
in the September 11 attacks.
The airlines have conducted computer profiling for years to help
determine which passengers’ baggage should receive more vigorous
inspections. But such systems are controversial.
Katie Corrigan, legislative counsel on privacy for the American
Civil Liberties Union, told a congressional hearing that profiling
systems are ineffective security measures and “likely to be
discriminatory.” They focus too much on whole classes of largely
innocent people, such as those with a Middle Eastern appearance,
But Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University,
in Washington, D.C., pointed out that more than 40 million Americans
travel by air every month. “It is practically impossible to
closely scrutinize every passenger,” he said at the hearing.
“Profiling may be an inevitable response to the dangers evident
Certainly, Mica said, some alternative is needed to the current,
random system of choosing passengers for additional screening at
the gate. Most people chosen for such attention are no threat at
all, he said.
Recently, Mica noted, an 86-year-old Medal of Honor winner was
selected. In another case, a congressman, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich.,
was taken to a back room and required to strip to his underwear
to prove that he wasn’t carrying a weapon after his metal
hip kept setting off the metal detector.
Detecting Concealed Weapons
To help reduce such incidents, the FAA in November paid $445,300
for several advanced weapons-detection systems from Quantum Magnetics
Inc., a subsidiary of InVision Technologies Inc., of Newark, Calif.
As a passenger walks through an archway, the system, called I-Portal
100, pinpoints the location of any concealed weapons that the person
may be carrying, and displays their whereabouts on a computer screen.
This process decreases the time required for secondary screenings
by up to 50 percent, according to Quantum Magnetics President Lowell
The TSA also is considering a “trusted-traveler” program,
according to the agency’s head, John Magaw, undersecretary
of transportation for security. Under this proposal, travelers who
agree to undergo advance background investigations would receive
identification cards speeding them through airport checkpoints.
To scan checked baggage, the TSA is required to have some form
of electronic explosive detection—either EDS or ETD—installed
at all U.S. airports by the end of the year. Using the EDS version,
luggage is placed on a conveyer belt, which feeds it through a CT
scanner. An operator views the scanned bags through computer monitors,
looking for suspicious items.
The EDS machines, however, have their drawbacks. They are up to
15 feet in length, a tight fit in already crowded terminals. They
cost about $1 million apiece. And they are in short supply. Only
two companies—InVision and L3 Communications, of New York
City—have been certified to make them. At least two other
firms, Heimann Systems Corporation, of Pine Brook, N.J., and PerkinElmer
Analytical Instruments, of Shelton, Conn., said they planned to
submit machines for certification in the near future.
In order to meet the needs of every airline in every terminal in
the country, however, the TSA needs thousands of machines by December
31. To install that many EDS-style machines that quickly “is
simply not realistic,” said Heimann Executive Vice President
Frank Vehlen. A better alternative, he said, is to deploy a mix
The Transportation Department apparently agrees. In April, Mineta
announced that the TSA will buy approximately 1,100 EDS machines
and 4,700 ETD systems. The ETD machines, much smaller and less expensive,
require more personnel than the EDS versions, since an operator
must personally handle every bag. But EDT systems may be preferable
in some situations, such as at small airports, he said.
“Some airports will utilize all EDS, some all trace and many
a mix of both,” Mineta said. “Under our ‘system
of systems’ approach, we will insist on the same high standard
for all airports, large and small.”
By November 19, a year after Congress created the TSA, the agency
is required to have its employees conduct all airport passenger
screening. On April 30, the first 200 of those—dressed in
distinctive, new, blue and white uniforms—took their posts
at Baltimore Washington International Airport, where TSA is testing
They were the first graduates of a TSA curriculum that includes
more than 40 hours of formal classes and 60 hours of on-the-job
training. The Lockheed Martin Corporation, of Bethesda, Md., has
won a contract worth up to $105 million to provide the training.
Magaw predicted that the new screeners would make a major difference.
“If you hire good people and give them proper training, you’re
going to be a success,” he said.
Three companies—Lockheed Martin, Hensel Phelps Construction
Company, of Greeley, Colo., and Fluor Enterprises Inc., of Aliso
Viejo, Calif.—are competing to help TSA coordinate the takeover.
The three have been awarded contracts totaling $8.9 million calling
for each to draw up a master plan and schedule for the project.
TSA will evaluate the competing plans and select one or more of
the companies to implement the change.
Paying for all of this is proving more expensive than first envisioned,
said the Transportation Department’s inspector general, Kenneth
M. Mead. “Key drivers are the sheer numbers of federal screeners,
federal law enforcement officers, federal security managers and
federal air marshals, as well as the pace and types of EDS installation,”
The TSA’s 2002 budget—$2.4 billion—was drawn
up from accounts that existed before the terrorist attacks revealed
unanticipated needs, Mead explained. To cover those needs, the administration
is seeking a $4.4 billion supplement appropriation.
For 2003, the administration has requested $4.8 billion for the
TSA. But that figure was just “an estimate of the required
resources, based upon the best information available at the time,”
“Sometimes, things cost more than you expect,” said
Magaw. “Right now, we’re encountering sticker shock.”