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. …