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Dear Admiral Neffenger, Part IV

IMG_5230Part 4 in a series of 5, on fixing aviation security.

Dear Admiral Neffenger,

We need to get the word out to the police and airport security community on the real threats, so we can focus our limited time, resources and money on the actual threats. I heard a Sheriff the other day at a conference talk about how astonished he was that he was able to get on a small Cessna 172 airplane and there wasn’t any of the security that he sees at a commercial service airport. He thought this was a gaping security hole that had just gone ignored, and didn’t realize that it’s comparing apples to oranges – it’s a completely different system. How unfortunate that someone without an understanding of the real threats, could now be spending money and personnel on something that represents a lower-level threat.

I also heard a statistic from a research study the other day saying that there’s a 1 in 25 million chance of another hijacking. But, the assumptions were that (a) air marshals are only there for transition when the pilot has to use the lavatory, (b) secondary flight barriers were more effective (which they may be – that’s worth revisiting), (c) that the next hijacking would look like the 9/11 hijacking and finally (d) that cockpit doors are some impenetrable force field. Interesting research but these are dangerous assumptions if one is going to evaluate the real threat. Hijackers have been gaining access to locked cockpit doors for decades, and whose to say the next group of hijackers won’t have automatic weapons that have been smuggled on board by airline or airport insiders, and the hijacker won’t have knowledge of the cockpit door mechanisms and how to exploit or override them, or won’t persuade the pilots to open the door? I’m not giving away secret knowledge here, I’m talking about the TWA 847 hijacking — in 1985. There’s a value to knowing our history.

On September 9, 2009, a single hijacker hijacked an Aeromexico flight into Mexico City, by himself, unarmed, with only a fabricated story and a cardboard box. There was no “let’s roll,” there was no one stepping up to stop him. In fact, some of the passengers didn’t even know the plane had been hijacked. To often we fail to remember our history. Although this is self-serving, but consider adding a textbook, like Practical Aviation Security: predicting and preventing future threats, into the training curriculums for TSOs, TSIs and your SES levels. I was recently amazed to see an educational program for TSOs that didn’t include ANY aviation security text, but did include a transportation security text (without an aviation security chapter). That’s like teaching football using a book on baseball.

I’m a believer in the air marshal layer of security – just the thought that they could be on board is a deterrent factor. Please ignore the pithy-comment-crowd that says: but the air marshals (or TSA) hasn’t caught a terrorist yet. First, that’s not really TSA’s job. The FBI is supposed to find and arrest terrorists. TSA’s job is to prevent and deter terrorists. If a bad guy has made it all the way to the screening checkpoint, then a lot of other layers in the US national security system have already failed. Second, it’s hard to measure a negative. How many times has someone not robbed a house because of a deterrent measure? Hard to say – the bad guys don’t call us later and tell us. Actually, if we took all the security away completely, we’d have a baseline – and we did that — it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s and there were dozens of hijackings, nearly monthly, and many bombings. I know the air marshal program is costly, but considering moving forward on initiatives to allow qualified state and local law enforcement officers to carry concealed on commercial flights.

TSA needs to push for real, beneficial change in our industry, not just motion without progress. Lasting change that makes a difference. Biometrics – I’m not talking about at the screening checkpoint, because frankly it’s not a big deal when a bad guy slips through the document check as long as he’s screened and doesn’t do anything. Biometrics needs to roll out first in the airport access control areas, where we don’t have as many layers of physical screening.

And speaking of screening, let’s talk about employee screening. While Atlanta, Orlando and Miami have embraced “TSA-style” screening for their employees, these are airports with huge revenue streams and can afford to do this. Many smaller airports cannot, and there may be more cost effective ways to conduct employee inspections and get the same result. Just like what we used to say in OCS, Semper Gumby – always flexible (but mission focused). For a quick education on what happens when the industry tries to apply one standard to all airports, check out a movement that occurred a few years ago when some individuals attempted to get airports to meet NFPA standards for fire response. Good idea, yes, but would have cost so much money that hundreds of US airports would be forced to close, for what the research determined would not be a net gain.

Tomorrow, we finish the series with the ultimate weapon against aviation terrorism.

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