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Lawyers, Guns and Money: what will fix aviation security?

Aviation security issues have been getting a lot of attention in the media these past couple of weeks. The three big issues are:

  • Tweeted bomb threats causing flight delays and other disruptions
  • Weapons smuggling by airline employees
  • Highest record of confiscated guns at screening checkpoints since 9/11

So what’s going on?

handgun-231696_1280First, let’s tackle the easy one – gun seizures.

It seems to be a pretty easy correlation. The States where more people carry concealed weapons are the States where there are more gun seizures at the checkpoints. The most common reason people cite about why they have a gun in the carry-on bag or on their person is that they simply forgot, however there is another reason that I’m hearing: there are more and more people saying that since they have a concealed carry permit, they thought it was okay to carry on a plane.

It’s a little bit understandable that people think they can carry on a plane because most people that carry concealed seem to know that in order to carry to another state, they have to check with that state’s laws first. Many states with concealed carry recognize permits from other states. However, what needs to be included in all concealed carry training and application materials is that concealed carry is a state law, not a federal law and you can’t take one on an airplane, unless it is is declared to the airline, unloaded, in a hard-sided case, locked and inspected by TSA.

Thinking it’s okay to carry on a plane is one thing, but do that many people really forget that they have a gun on them? Frankly, if you don’t carry then it may be hard to fathom this. But for those who do carry (as do I), when you first start, you’re very aware of the gun on your hip or in your laptop bag. It’s sort of a big deal – unless you grew up around guns all the time. After awhile you notice it less and less. If you carry all the time, your gun becomes just as much a part of you as your wallet and cell phone. You have to always remind yourself that you are carrying, or else you can accidentally walk into a place that has a no guns allowed sign.

To clarify – your concealed permit does not give you the right to carry on an airplane, and you need to be aware that you have a gun on you before you try to fly. Just leave it in the car.

Second topic, employees smuggling guns and the insider threat.

It should be no huge surprise that guns and drugs have been smuggled in commercial aircraft. In fact, this practice has been going on for decades. Often times it is facilitated by airport or airline employees who have the ability to bypass screening checkpoints and access aircraft and in some cases TSA personnel and air marshals have been caught. This might seem like a gaping hole in the security system and Congress will soon be holding hearings on the subject, again (yes, this issue has come up before). DHS has also ordered a review of airport security with an eye towards employee security. While most people smuggling guns and drugs aren’t interested in bombing planes or providing material support to hijackers, it does put them in a better position for blackmail. Plus, whose to say that someone who thought they were smuggling drugs, was really provided a bomb – there’s some suspicion that this is how Pablo Escobar was able to get a bomb on a flight in 1989.

It is a fact that many acts of air terrorism were either facilitated by or assisted by an insider. But does that mean that we should screen all employees the way we screen passengers? Passenger screening checkpoints are designed to handle a passenger throughput at that airport on an annual and hourly basis and some level of employee traffic; there are certain employees that do not have access to the airfield and are still required to go through passenger screening checkpoints. So, if we run all employees through the checkpoint, checkpoints are going to have to get bigger, more of them may have to be created and we’ll need to hire a lot more screening personnel. Plus, employees move from the public to airfield and public to sterile side areas throughout the course of the day, so screening just slows down their movement and their ability to keep the planes moving and the airport operational.\

For many aviation employees, their badge provides them access to the airfield without going through the screening checkpoint. This does not mean however that they are not “screened.” We’re finally at a better point in aviation security with the background check (called the Criminal History Record Check, plus a Security Threat Assessment) than we’ve ever been, but no system is perfect. I’d suggest including suspicious activity awareness training added to all aviation employee security training. But it’s also time to revisit this issue overall.

In order to keep costs down and the operational flow of the airport, there has long been a policy to conduct a background check on employees and allow them access to the airfield. Some airports, such as Orlando and Miami have implemented their own employee screening programs using private contractor personnel. I’m sure these airports will be studied to determine how that level of screening compares to the level of screening at the passenger screening checkpoint and the costs associated with that operation.

TSA has implemented various other security procedures, including random employee screening, that seems to have a beneficial impact. Employee security has long been a sore spot with me, but being a former airport director I also understand that money does not grow on trees and that security, like safety, are risks that must be managed. If you want to be 100% secure or 100% safe, quit flying.

Third topic, tweeted bomb threats.

This is the issue that has caused the most disruption to the system recently. Every bomb threat that comes in, regardless of how the threat comes in, by phone, by email or by Tweet or even by a note left at the airport or on the airplane, must be treated as a potential threat. That does not mean the plane automatically lands and everybody is searched. There is a vetting process that the air carriers and TSA conduct to try to determine if there should be a response, and to what level.

The anonymity the Internet can sometimes provide, if a person has been diligent in hiding their identity, is making it possible to send bomb threats as emails and tweets. The FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies should be putting forth great effort to try to track down the individuals or groups  that are responsible for these threats. Every threat can disrupt the national airspace system, cause passengers a lot of stress, disrupts vacations, and in the case of business travelers may cost people deals or even in some cases, yes, their livelihood. The airlines will lose tens of thousands of dollars every time the flight is delayed, and other flights will experience delays as a result, and the entire airport operation is disrupted as the aircraft lands, then must be evacuated,, passengers interviewed, re-screened, searched and put back into service.

The bomb threat is really not new, but the method of delivery is. Bomb threats have been going on for a long time but most of the time they came in by phone and that’s where we developed our protocols on how to respond. There’s also been very few cases in history, in fact really none that I can point to offhand, where a bomb threat resulted in an actual bomb. Most of the time the bad guys didn’t tell anybody when they put a bomb on board.  In the bombing of Pan Am 103 in 1988, there was some speculation that a bomb threat that it been called in the Pan Am days earlier might have been a warning to Pan Am, but the resulting investigation did not make a direct correlation. I won’t debate that here, but it’s out there for you to consider.

The real issue is this: if a bomb threat is called in and nobody does anything about it, and it turns out to be a real device then everyone will be held accountable for not doing anything about it. So it really puts the airlines and law enforcement into a bad situation.

However, as I said before these are not new just the method of delivery. When bomb threats used to come in by phone, the industry developed methods and procedures to vet each threat so that every threat did not result in flight delays and needless searches. I’m sure the industry is doing that now because we can’t go on delaying flights and turning them back every time someone sends another tweet – otherwise we’ll soon be grounding every commercial flight over the U.S.

With congressional hearings on insider security on the horizon, employees getting arrested for smuggling guns and drugs for money, and bomb threats coming in via Twitter what we are seeing is not new, it’s just dressed in new clothes. As a passenger, or a citizen, the best thing you can do is as always report any suspicious activity which could even be somebody sitting in a coffee shop talking about or tweeting about some sort of bomb threat on a plane. And if you are on a plane that is experiencing the threat, be as patient as possible. Having the cooperation of everyone on board will ensure that the incident is resolved as quickly as possible. Oh, and remember, your concealed carry permit does not allow you to fly on a plane – if you try it, you will need a lawyer because of your gun, and it will cost you money.  (nod to Warren Zevon)

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One Response to Lawyers, Guns and Money: what will fix aviation security?

  1. Good day Mr. Price, How do you differentiate between AVIATION SAFETY and AVIATION SECURITY? A clear line of understanding between these two subject matters is important. People often misunderstood these two terms and definition. Hence it has creating or moulding vague perceptions among passenger especially after the 9/11 incident on how the airport operators around the world handling their security matters. Thanking you.

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