What’s wrong with SPOT? No, not the dog

Recently, the NTSB released the report on Continental Airlines 1404 that went off the runway at Denver International Airport in December of 2008, due to crosswinds. The NTSB stated that the Captain did not hold proper crosswind correction on the rudder.

While this incident may seem not to have anything to do with aviation security it does relate to the issue of training — and training has everything to do with aviation security.

It’s an unfortunate given — when times are tough and budgets are being cut, training is one of the first things to go. Agencies and businesses will cut training that is not mandatory, and look for the cheapest solutions for training that is mandatory. When you cut training, there is usually no immediate impact. Kind of like missing a workout. You miss one workout, no big deal. No one will even notice it. Go ahead and miss two, three, five even 10 and your outward appearance will barely change if at all.

But, what happens when you miss 20 workouts? How about 30? There will definitely be a consequence. You’ll gain weight, not have as much energy and invite disease into your body. The same thing happens when training is cutback to the lowest common denominator. This is what has happened with the TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) and Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) programs.

First, let me state that I know BDO’s and many TSI and TSO personnel and have the utmost respect. By and large they are good people doing difficult jobs.

Okay, I have respect for most — my contempt is reserved for the TSO’s that keep losing my $14 TSA-approved locks off my checked bag in which I haul around my seminar gear, but I digress…

Second, my biggest complaint with SPOT/BDO is that TSA has adopted a flawed program. A copy of a copy of a copy. They, and the traveling public, deserve better.

Prior to 9/11 there was hardly any formal training in aviation security. Airlines had some security training for pilots and flight crew, mostly on how not to resist against hijackers, and airline gate agents were trained as Ground Security Coordinators so they could monitor the screening checkpoints and handle other security issues in and around the plane. Airport operators had very few training programs available to them and there wasn’t an aviation security course or degree program to be found. No textbook was available either (that problem is solved of course).

At many airport’s pre 9/11, the Airport Security Coordinator was a collateral duty for which there was no training.

After 9/11, all commercial service airports are required to have a trained Airport Security Coordinator. I do this training several times a year, but I’m seeing a disturbing trend. As we move farther and farther away from 9/11/01, I’m seeing the attitude of “let’s just get the check in the box,” on training, rather than actually training individuals to perform. I’m really seeing this in the area of behavior detection training, SPOT and BDO.

Unfortunately, just like everything else in aviation security, we’re making the same mistakes, again.

My friend Rafi Ron is one of the key guys credited with bringing the Israeli model of behavior detection to the States after 9/11. Formal programs have been implemented at several airports including Boston/Logan, Miami International and Houston/Bush Intercontinental. The program has been very successful at catching a lot of criminals, at those airports. Since no good deed goes unpunished, the program was sort of “adopted” by TSA and turned into the SPOT and BDO programs, but Rafi did not get the credit, nor did they fully adopt his program.

They instead adopted a copy of a copy of the Israeli model — and like all copies of copies, this one doesn’t look so good. In May 2010, the GAO openly criticized the TSA’s programs for being ineffective, stating that 17 terrorists passed through airports with active BDO programs and they were not identified.

Now, to the defense of the BDO’s, with 80 million passengers moving through nearly 500 commercial service airports, the odds are against the BDO’s even having spotted one of these 17 guys. But, let’s put that aside for a moment and see what’s wrong with the program and what can be done to fix it.

As I said, we’ve made this mistake before. We take a good security procedure, “adopt” them and “adapt” them and somehow manage to water their effectiveness down completely. In 1986, when Anne Marie Murphy was caught at the London/Heathrow airport trying to bring a bomb on board an El Al jet bound for Israel, the U.S. FAA took notice. Murphy was caught through behavioral questioning techniques by Israeli security agents. Questions such as, did you pack your own bag and did anyone unknown to you ask you to carry something on this flight — we’ve heard these before because the U.S. adopted these questions after the Murphy incident. The questions were thrown away as part of “silly” rules that former TSA Administrator James Loy sought to eliminate (come on Jim, you’re a Coastie, you should know better).

The problem with the adaptation of the security questioning process in the U.S. is that in Israel, the questions are asked by highly trained security agents (hmm, trained, there’s that word again), whereas in the U.S. airline gate agents were required to ask the questions, without ANY suspicious awareness training. What’s the goal of a security agent? Control or prevent access. What’s the goal of a ticket agent? Get your happy butt on a flight. Are you seeing the problem yet?

The same thing happened with SPOT/BDO. When Rafi brought it to Logan after 9/11 it was then “adopted” by a local police officer who copied it, then sold it to the TSA as a copy of a copy. At this point, Paul Eckman, a noted behavioral expert, also sold his program to the TSA, which relies on micro-expression training — ever see the TV show “Lie to Me”?  What is lost are the suspicious indicators, the questioning processes and additional training that goes along with behavioral detection. Chameleon Associates, another Israeli firm, along with Rafi’s New Age Security Solutions continue to offer the ‘REAL’ behavioral training, but many airports have not bought in because (a) TSA “provides” this service anyway, and (b) it’s expensive and not required. The programs that are in use are similar to teaching someone football, but only teaching them how to play defense, not offense and certainly not special teams.

Unfortunately, just like missing too many workouts, we won’t notice the results of not doing training and not doing the right training until it’s too late. Also, there may be another consequence – with noted failures of the SPOT/BDO programs, there is always the chance the program will be canceled, and that’s worse than nothing at all. TSA should revisit the true experts in these processes and upload a new effective program. They already have the good people, let’s give them the rest of the game plan.


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