Combating Terrorism against Commercial Aviation

Article excerpt

General concern about terrorism and sabotage in the United States has grown in the aftermath of the sabotage of Amtrak in Arizona, the bombing of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, the bomb threat at the New York regional air traffic control center, and the bombing of the World Trade Center. A concomitant concern has developed with regard to the adequacy of security at domestic airports and in commercial aviation. Twice in a three month period in 1995 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) increased airport security. In August 1995, the FAA ordered heightened airport security procedures due to concern within the Clinton Administration about the threat of more frequent and more deadly terrorist attacks in the United States. (1) Then, in October 1995, the FAA once again increased airport security due to concern about the visit of Pope John Paul II, progress in the Palestinian and Israeli peace process, and the conviction of ten Muslim terrorists.

Concern with the security of commercial aviation reached an all-time high after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in December 1988. This deadly act of terrorism prompted passage of the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990 (1990 Act) which set a number of goals for the enhancement of commercial aviation security. In the early 1990s concern seemed to ebb as acts of terrorism against U.S. targets decreased only to be heightened by the events in Oklahoma City and the explosion aboard TWA Flight 800 in July 1996. (2) There was a realization that terrorists are finding targets in the United States more attractive and attacks on the traveling public were likely to increase.

Heightened commercial aviation security, while good for the safety of the traveling public, is not without its costs. Besides the direct costs associated with employing additional security personnel and equipment are the indirect costs--the opportunity costs--associated with the inevitable delays that accompany more careful screening of passengers and their luggage. Tighter security requires the traveler to allot more time to make flights because curbside check-in is not available, metal detectors are more sensitive leading to more false alarms, more luggage is searched, and gate agents are asking passengers more questions. (3) The obvious question is whether the benefits gained from enhanced aviation security justify the costs.

During the first part of the 1990s strides have been made in the improvement of commercial aviation security in the United States. Despite these advancements, there is a lot yet to be done. This paper provides an overview of developments in commercial aviation security in the United States during the first part of the 1990s, discussing the accomplishments and setbacks encountered, and outlines the challenges that remain.

BACKGROUND

The FAA has responsibility for the safety and security of commercial aviation in the United States. The FAA's approach to ensuring security in commercial aviation has evolved over the years in response to changes in the complexion and frequency of terrorism. The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 heightened concern about the security of commercial aviation to such an extent that Congress passed the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990.

The 1990 Act underscored concern about aviation security shared by Congress and the general public. It contained many mandates and directives for the FAA including:

* "FAA and the FBI were required to jointly assess the threats to and vulnerabilities of the nation's airports

* FAA was required to review the security programs of foreign air carriers and approve those that provide a level of protection similar to that provided by U.S. carriers serving the same airport

* FAA was required to study the need for additional measures to safeguard the transportation of cargo and mail by passenger aircraft

* FAA was directed to support the acceleration of research to develop explosive detection equipment" (4)

It was hoped these measures would greatly improve commercial aviation security in the U. …