Security Up in the Air
Slepian, Charles G., Security Management
AIRPORTS IN THE UNITED STATES remain vulnerable to attack despite billions of dollars spent on countermeasures since the late 1980s, when the Pan Am disaster galvanized public awareness of airport security issues. News reports--such as the January arrests of a ring of American Airlines airport workers allegedly using the airplanes to traffic in drugs and weapons--as well as numerous unfavorable Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reports showing the ease with which security has been breached illustrate the problem. The causes of security's breakdown, well documented by the FAA, are many. They include poor hiring and training practices, inadequate supervision, and ill-conceived procedures. A more overarching cause of the failed efforts may be the lack of national standards.
The following analysis, based on the author's 30 years of experience in airline safety and security and consulting for major airlines, looks at existing system shortcomings and recommends possible solutions with regard to four critical aspects of airport security: facilities, employee/vendor supervision, equipment, and procedures.
Airport facilities. A major problem at airports is that security responsibilities are fragmented. The airport authority, the airlines, and the FAA have not been willing to accept overall authority.
Domestic airports, although owned and operated by a variety of municipalities and governmental authorities, remain subject to federal regulation. All aviation activities are licensed, certified, or supervised by the FAA, and any activity that affects passenger safety and security is clearly within the FAA's purview. However, airport security duties have been handed off to local police and private-sector companies. More often than not, sworn airport police officers patrol roadways, parking facilities, and common areas of the terminals while private security personnel secure entry to the concourses where the gates are situated. The airlines themselves are responsible for securing their ticket counters and gate areas.
While the airport police clearly have a duty to secure the airport's perimeter, the responsibility for many areas--such as those where air cargo activities take place, where food service facilities are found, and where vendors ply their wares and conduct their services-all remain a security responsibility question mark. Security responsibility for the ramp, the restricted area where passenger baggage is stored prior to loading, is undefined as well. The ramp is open to the vast force of airline workers responsible for the cleaning, provisioning, and maintenance of the airplanes.
Similarly, responsibilities are fragmented by airport authorities. For example, to meet the challenge of controlling access to terminals, parking lots, hangars, and other areas at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), which stretches over 300 acres of land, the New York Port Authority has delegated responsibility to its tenants, primarily the major air carriers. JFK's access control problems are shared by other great domestic airports including O'Hare in Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Miami International, Hartsfield in Atlanta, and Los Angeles International, each of which hands Security responsibility to its tenants together with providing a proprietary police force for common areas.
The lack of standards at airports adds to the confusion. Because domestic airports are not federal facilities--despite the overriding federal authority governing their operations--they lack any kind of federal security standards for access to their restricted areas. Access to aircraft, baggage, cargo, passengers, and hangars is granted by carriers to their employees by virtue of employment. And although workers are usually issued identification by airport police, IDs are also issued at the command of the airline. Rules governing fingerprinting and police background checks are generally covered by state law. These laws, unless overridden by federal authority, typically prohibit such checks as a violation of constitutional rights. And except when a specific federal statute is violated, enforcement is often left to the discretion of the employer or a local authority, both of which are often willing to allow violations, such as trespassing, to go unpunished.
Recommendations. The overall security responsibility for domestic airports should rest with the federal government. All standards for screening passengers, passenger baggage, cargo, and provisions carried on board commercial airplanes should be established by, and fall under, the auspices of the FAA.
To carry out its security responsibility, the FAA should be allowed to deputize existing security personnel, including airport police, who would be empowered to act pursuant to federal law and FAA regulations. A transfer of security responsibility directly to the federal government would create uniform airport security standards throughout the country.
Access to domestic airports should conform to federal regulations established by the FAA. Access to terminals and gates by passengers and visitors should be in accordance with uniform regulations for all air carriers in all airports. Access by airline employees, vendors, and other airport workers should be specific, limiting access to those areas for which the individual has been cleared. While controls regarding access by workers and vendors could remain with carriers, it should be done in strict conformity with FAA regulations.
Every domestic commercial airport should be designated a federal facility for security purposes. Violations of any regulations affecting security, including violations of criminal law, should be considered matters of federal law and prosecuted accordingly.
The current FAA requirement that airline personnel undergo a five-year employment background check fails to adequately provide assurances that personnel with access to restricted areas qualify for that access. The current background check is supposed to identify any breaks in employment during the preceding five-year period, which could indicate some criminal history during that time. In fact, the checks conducted by most airlines are nothing more than a telephone verification of previous employment, usually conducted by a firm contracted for that purpose. Furthermore, a large number of airline employees working the ramp side of the airport are seasonal personnel who may not have gone through any background checks whatsoever. During some seasons, as many as half of all employees would fall into this category. For a valid check of a criminal background, a fingerprint check through the FBI's criminal database is needed; yet the authority to fingerprint ramp service personnel has not been granted to their emplo yers and, in some states, is specifically prohibited, as noted earlier.
The current system should be replaced by a requirement that all airline, airport, and contract vendor employees submit to fingerprinting, a criminal background check, and a five-year prior-employment check to be obtained by the prospective employer in writing. These employees should then be given an ID/access card granting only the levels of access required to perform their duties.
Supervision. Airport personnel are not well supervised. The poor control of ramp employees in particular creates an enormous breach in security. While it is required that passengers and flight crews walk through metal detectors before accessing gates and other restricted areas of the airport, the same cannot be said of other airline employees.
At some airports, employees working the ramp side of the facility access their time clocks and locker areas through back gates or entrances under the terminal, and if there is a security station at these entrances, the employee's identification card is all that is needed for entry. In some instances, doors are locked and entry is granted by punching in a code number provided to employees. Such a system allows multiple exits and entries throughout the day and also allows employees to bring in uninspected parcels.
At some airports, it is common practice for ramp personnel to visit restricted areas on the ramp and in terminals when not actually on duty. And in some instances, these employees are visiting from other parts of the airport and are not subjected to any supervision during the visit.
The procedures for controlling vendors and outside maintenance personnel are similarly flawed. Vendors can gain access to the ramp side of airports without undergoing personal background checks, obtaining IDs, or having vehicles searched. Frequently, once access is gained to the ramp area, both personnel and vehicles are free to roam at will, allowing unsupervised access to aircraft, baggage, and cargo.
Recommendations. All ramp service, vendor, maintenance, and other personnel authorized to work in restricted areas of the airport should be subject to appropriate supervision to ensure that all security procedures are strictly followed. Levels of supervision for security should be established by the FAA.
Every person entering a restricted area of an airport should be subjected to security screening, including the search of any container being carried onto the property. The restricted areas should include any portion of the airport dosed to the general public or requiring prior security screening. This practice should apply to all personnel except for police officers in uniform and on duty, because it is illegal to interfere with the movements of an on duty police officer, and should include all employee entrances.
Companies under contract to air carriers or airports, and those regularly doing business at airports, should be subjected to background checks similar to those of airline employees and should be required to carry photo IDs each time they enter the facility. For random visits by vendors, temporary identification should be required and such visitors should be supervised at all times.
The current system of aircraft cleaning and baggage and cargo loading also needs to be revised. Currently, it allows for supervision of those workers by foremen who are the same rank as the loading personnel, under the direction of a management supervisor. Because of the critical security issues surrounding contact with aircraft, baggage, and cargo, management supervisors need to maintain closer contact with line personnel and foremen to ensure that they remain only in the areas of their work assignments, that they are not in possession of unnecessary bags or containers, and that proper security procedures are followed.
Equipment Currently, domestic airports employ electronic and mechanical security equipment to monitor access to restricted areas, search passenger baggage and cargo for weapons and explosive devices, and secure doors and gates. The ability to detect explosives in checked baggage and cargo, however, is severely limited by the lack of equipment able to detect small quantities of explosives such as Semtex, which was responsible for the downing of Pan Am 103 in 1988. Only on international flights is checked baggage subject to x-ray examination; on domestic flights only carry-on items are screened.
Recommendations. Checked baggage on all flights should be x-rayed. All airports should provide state-of-the-art technology for detecting explosive materials in suspicious checked baggage and cargo. They should also use the FBI's passenger profiling methods.
Procedures. Currently, airport security personnel consistently fail the FAA's spot checks designed to test their performance at x-ray stations and metal detectors. The contract security personnel staffing these security positions are frequently undertrained and inadequately supervised. Passengers are subjected to inconsistent treatment; sometimes they are required to empty their carry-on bags to identify items that have been passed through detectors dozens of times before in the same airport.
The metal detectors are set at varying levels, often depending on the dictates of the airport, checkpoint, or air carrier. Under this system, what is detected depends on the sensitivity of the setting, which is often more a function of the staffs desire to speed up the waiting line than their desire to identify prohibited items.
As bombs require some form of electronics for detonation, the ability to detect hand-carried portable radios, pagers, and cellular telephones-all of which require batteries-is essential, and examining them at security stations is key to effective screening of passengers for explosives. Yet these items are regularly passed through security without detection and go unchecked, undermining the rationale behind the screening of carry-on items.
Recommendations. A uniform training standard for all airport security personnel should be created by the appropriate federal law enforcement agency, to be administered under the supervision of the FAA. No airport security officer should be employed unless certified by the FAA.
Also needed are uniform procedures for operating airport surveillance equipment, supervising security screening stations, controlling locked gates to restricted areas, and approving vehicle access to ramps. Frequently, persons who got through security at screening points are discovered by a review of videotapes. They were not detected at the time of the violation because of inadequate procedures. For example, combination numbers to locked doors often go unchanged for long periods of time, allowing unauthorized persons to enter restricted areas. Similarly, vehicles entering ramps are not always identified immediately. These failings create the potential for serious sabotage of aircraft.
The FAA needs to establish uniform procedures for access to restricted areas and for the use of all electronic and mechanical locking systems to ensure that each security device is efficiently used, properly maintained, and regularly updated.
Are these recommendations feasible given the realities of limited public and private funds and the flying public's limited patience? Yes. When discussion of these measures comes up, some in the industry assert that it costs too much to secure our airports and that there is a limit to the patience of air travelers already spending too much time going through security. The former is being offered by those preparing the public to accept paying hundreds of millions of dollars to scan their baggage, and the latter by those who refuse to look at the problems created by a wide-open back door to the airports. Both are wrong.
The solutions recommended above are extensions of existing programs and should not bust budgets or schedules. Existing fingerprinting and training programs should be expanded to include more personnel. And, for example, with regard to bomb detection, the need to sniff every checked bag for Semtex or some other chemical explosive isn't imperative because the explosive doesn't detonate itself, and the electronics required for the job can be seen on x-ray. Passengers need not spend any more time at security stations than is now spent if security personnel are trained adequately and passengers are advised about limitations as to what they can carry in their hand baggage.
With a combination of technology, training, enforced security procedures, and centralized responsibility, most of the existing holes in airport security can be closed. If the federal government, through the FAA and the FBI, accepts responsibility for all aspects of airport security, most of what needs to airport security be done can be accomplished with existing resources.
Charles G. Slepian is an attorney with Slepian and Associates in New York City. He also serves as a consultant and conducts research on risk analysis.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Security Up in the Air. Contributors: Slepian, Charles G. - Author. Magazine title: Security Management. Volume: 44. Issue: 11 Publication date: November 2000. Page number: 54. © 1999 American Society for Industrial Security. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.