9/11

It was never my life’s mission to become an aviation security “expert.” In fact, I had only recently gotten out of a commercial airport security position and fully into general aviation airport management, when 9/11 happened. My intent at that time was to continue working at the airport and maybe pursue a career change into education or motivational speaking at some future point.

I guess sometimes your mission chooses you.

After 9/11, I never realized how many aviation security experts there were in our industry. I say this sarcastically, because the fact of the matter is that most of the people the media were offering up as experts had little to no idea what aviation security was all about. They were aviation safety and airline experts and some military and terrorism experts, who, by virtue of their somewhat related expertise in other areas, were overnight enlisted to the ranks of aviation security. It was then that I realized just how little anyone thought about aviation security. It was not taught in collegiate aviation management programs, except for one chapter in an airport management and another chapter in an airline management book. It was not addressed in criminal justice programs and the term homeland security had yet to be defined. Nobody went to school to become an aviation security manager.

Frankly, I wasn’t interested in jumping back into the security industry after 9/11. In fact, I didn’t even want to fly after that. Odd – I hold a commercial pilot certificate and had spent my life up until that point in aviation and I was afraid to even get back on a plane. When I did, I eyed everyone suspiciously and couldn’t wait for the flight to be over. I also experienced an overwhelming sense of guilt. I had been in airport security for many years and I’d seen all the holes, the gaps, the issues and problems, and never felt I’d done enough, or made enough noise, or that anyone would even listen if I did try to make a significant difference.

In 2003, I was asked to develop a course in aviation security for the 4-year baccalaureate program in aviation at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. I graduated from Metro State and had been an adjunct instructor there for about 7 years. It was then that I realized there was not an appropriate textbook on the market for aviation security. Many of us with similar charge around that time, took to the regulations and whatever we could find out there about aviation security, and converted them to a “text.” Most of what was available focused on Pan Am 103 and solving a threat that was nearly 15 years old at the time. But, this was a chance to maybe make a difference in the way our industry approached aviation security.

Also in 2003, I was asked by the American Association of Airport Executives to take over as their Airport Security Coordinator trainer, which I did. Both requests, Metro and AAAE, set me on a path to where I am today. The ASC training led to the development of the Airport Certified Employee-Security program, a 3-day sort of ASC experts course, that I have now revised twice since 2004 and have certified over 200 individuals. I’ve also now trained over 1,000 ASC’s.

The ACE-Security program led to the textbook, Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats. I was able to literally travel the globe, studying El Al security measures and at Ben Gurion International Airport, London’s Heathrow Airport, airports in Canada, Japan, Ireland and nearly every large commercial service airport in the United States. I studied with airline security coordinators, TSA personnel, old-school FAA security personnel, industry experts such as Rafi Ron and Phillip Baum, and airline, law enforcement and airport professionals throughout the world.

We are moving towards the second edition of the book – it’s scheduled to come out in 2013. Contracts are signed and I’d best stop procrastinating on it and get to writing. I’m looking forward to the second edition even more than the first. The first book opened so many doors to a world of security professionals and practices and I expect you’ll see some major changes, with some new focus on operational security, an expanded role for intelligence and law enforcement entities and a completely revised air cargo section.

Unfortunately, even today there are few collegiate aviation programs that teach aviation security. While some students now desire to get into the aviation security industry, the discipline is still very young and I expect it will take another decade to really build momentum. The challenge is that the farther we are between attacks on aviation, the more people forget – which is what happened on 9/11/01. We forgot to secure our nation’s airways because it hadn’t happened in awhile. Kind of like a city failing to be prepared for a major hurricane because it hadn’t happened in awhile.

I feel good that emergency management and aviation and homeland security programs continue to be developed and grow. While attacks on aviation, and major natural disasters are few and far between, they also can result in the loss of life and immense property and economic damage that need not occur through some simple training, mitigation and preparedness steps.

I’m sometimes asked (accused would probably be more accurate) of capitalizing on the tragedy of 9/11. Some have inquired, usually at slightly beyond arm’s length, that, ‘gee, so if 9/11 had never happened, you probably wouldn’t have a job, would you?’

The answer is no, I wouldn’t have THIS job. I’d probably be a motivational speaker by now. I didn’t seek this role. It sought me. Like a police officer, who without crime, would have to find new employment, my mission is to promote effective aviation security practices so that another 9/11 doesn’t happen. My mission is to work myself out of this job to a point where people aren’t afraid to fly because they are scared of a hijack, or bomb or surface to air missile. The mission of the Israeli self-defense practice of Krav Maga is ‘so one may walk in peace,’ I guess my mission is ‘so one may fly in peace.’

The screams of anguish I’ve heard from family members who have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks, whether that’s Lockerbie, or 9/11 or any act of air terror, tear at my heart and fuel my motivation to prevent others from having to experience that same grief. I love this industry and I love flying. Since 9/11, I not only routinely fly commercially, I got back in the cockpit myself and am once again an general aviation active pilot. I will continue to be an advocate for best aviation security practices through my teaching, training and writing.

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2 Responses to 9/11

  1. Fascinating article. I know you aren’t the only aviation security expert but by far you are amongst the most qualified. I remember seeing a report on the news that Senator Boxer, (D California) was advocating the installation of an anti-missile system on all commercial airliners. This system would destroy incoming missiles and only cost $1,000,000 per unit. Have you heard about this, and what are your thoughts about the feasibility and effectiveness of these units?

    • The debate of whether surface-to-air missiles (aka Manned-Portable Air Defense System – MANPAD) pose a credible threat to commercial aviation is an interesting one. It was the scenario that author Tom Clancy recently played out in his recent novel, Against All Enemies, however there have been few actual MANPAD attacks on commercial airliners. Is there a valid threat? Yes. It’s a possibility. Whether it can be successfully carried out and whether it’s in the current bag of bad-guy tricks is the debate. The DHL Flight over Baghdad was able to land, as was a regional El Al flight, that had 2 MANPAD’s fired at it in 2002. A shot doesn’t always equal a hit and a hit doesn’t always equal destruction.

      The question is, does the risk analysis warrant a $1mil per aircraft (about 6,000 in the civil air fleet) cost? Obviously, if there is a MANPAD attack we will certainly be spending billions outfitting airliners with the systems (Northrup and Raytheon both have laser based systems – Northup is based on the plane, whereas Raytheon is ground-based around an airport or city). But should the systems be deployed before there’s an attack? What if bad-guy has ruled this is just too risky to obtain the systems, get them to the U.S. and deploy them – then hope he’s not discovered and that the missile doesn’t decide to chase a glint of sunlight instead.

      More likely is that a U.S. aircraft will be attacked by a MANPAD while operating internationally. In which case, you’ll see the laser systems deploy rapidly. This one really depends on the intelligence community giving us credible information that such an attack is likely. In the past several years at aviation security conference after conference, TSA has been pretty consistent that this isn’t much of an issue right now.

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