Aviation security deadlocks Congress

 - October 2, 2007, 10:42 AM

Aviation security collided with politics last month on Capitol Hill, when a Senate bill that would have created–among other provisions–a new force of federal employees to screen airline passengers and their baggage encountered stubborn resistance in the House.

The rift came after the Senate voted 100-0 for a plan that would hire 28,000 federally employed screeners and armed security guards at key checkpoints, financed by a $2.50 “enplanement” fee levied every time a passenger boards an airplane. The proposed program would be run by the Justice Department.

But House Republicans balked at federalizing the security force, and on October 17 Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced legislation that would establish stronger federal standards, while giving Bush the option of hiring federal employees or private contractors to do the screening. Under that proposal, oversight would be under the Transportation Department. Meanwhile, a group of Republicans introduced legislation identical to the Senate-passed version.

In a prepared statement, the White House endorsed Young’s bill, saying it would give “the Administration the ability to federalize security where it makes sense, while preserving the freedom to use high-quality, private screeners where it is safer and more effective.” But later the same day the House shut down for the remainder of the week because of the anthrax scare, and it was uncertain when the bills would be acted upon.

Although the Senate bill contains many of the proposals made by the White House, Bush has said he is opposed to a federal security workforce. But he also signaled he is open to compromise if that is necessary to get a bill passed.

The Administration wanted to keep the screeners privately employed, reportedly in part to prevent the size of the federal government from growing and also making it easier to remove poorly performing workers.

With the exception of the federal takeover of screening, the unanimously approved Senate bill generally follows recommendations of the Bush Administration. It would rapidly expand the use of sky marshals on almost every commercial flight; would permit pilots to carry firearms in flight if mutually agreed by them and their employers; and would order the strengthening of cockpit doors on airliners.

House Republicans attacked the Senate plan, with Young vowing not to take up the Senate legislation in his committee. “There’s nothing good in the Senate bill,” he claimed.

Although they are adamantly opposed to federalization, House Republicans do not want to have to vote against an aviation security bill. So they are urging Bush to act by executive order.

Across the aisle, meanwhile, House Democrats introduced another bill of their own. It would federalize security baggage screening within one year and create a Transportation Security Administration under the Department of Transportation.
While Congress fiddled, the nation’s commercial airports continued to burn, giving more impetus to nationalizing security screeners. The DOT inspector general and the FAA conducted spot checks of 14 airports in the middle of last month and found that seven out of 20 screeners at Dulles International Airport failed a written skills test. They were employed by Argenbright Security, a private contractor whose annual employee turnover at the airport exceeds 400 percent.

It is generally agreed, however, that the aircraft itself should be the last line of a defense that begins even before boarding. For commercial operations, that protection would include ground-based solutions beginning with off-airport intercept, and proceeding to airport check-in and airport security. As was demonstrated on September 11, once perpetrators board the aircraft, the probability of successful intervention decreases and the severity of the outcome increases.

In the days following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, DOT Secretary Norman Mineta created two rapid response teams to make detailed recommendations by October 1 for improving security within the National Airspace System. Although aimed primarily at commercial operations, security measures are certain to affect many general aviation operations.

Honeywell Throws In Its Hat
Honeywell announced last month that it was drawing on three of its four core companies in a company-wide initiative to improve aviation security, crafted around recommendations and challenges that emanated from Mineta’s groups, as well as the DOT and FAA. Heading the company’s cross-business global task force will be Frank Daly, president of Honeywell’s air transport services division.

“We are looking at the problems somewhat holistically,” said Daly at a press briefing in Washington. “We are in the very early stages.” The key to most airborne safety systems will be the ability to retrofit the more than 4,000 transport aircraft flying worldwide. Some examples would be modifying mode-S transponders so they cannot be disabled and hardening cockpit doors, perhaps using Spectra, a material made of woven polyethylene that is said to be lighter and stronger than Kevlar.

Honeywell said its four goals are to enhance airport security; prevent unauthorized entry onto an aircraft; alert authorities if there is an attempted takeover; and prevent unauthorized entry into the flight deck.

Honeywell chairman and CEO Lawrence Bossidy said company representatives met early last month with the FAA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA and other government officials to discuss their needs and challenges, and to review the aviation safety and security technology and security technology capabilities that Honeywell can offer the industry. The company is expecting to map out action plans with the airlines and OEMs in the next few weeks.

Ingersoll-Rand Co. (IRC) also endorsed the recommendations released by the rapid response teams on airport and aviation security. In addition, it called for stronger measures that address the security issues related to controlling the movement of airport personnel and their access to secure areas.

According to IRC, it provides comprehensive, integrated security and safety solutions, featuring advanced access control technologies, including electronic and biometric solutions (such as hand-geometry readers and facial-recognition systems).

Jim Scott, president of IRC Security and Safety Solutions, said his company’s expertise includes physical security of doors and openings, controlled access for authorized personnel and passengers and “pioneering work” with scheduling systems that automatically restrict access for personnel who are not on duty.

He said that IRC is able to deliver technology for a proposed program of voluntary passenger pre-screening, and can extend the concept– which focuses on passenger baggage–to provide automated ticketing and speed check-in and boarding, as well as border clearance for international arrivals.

“In addition, IRC is poised to provide critical technical expertise in the area of electronic locking systems as aircraft manufacturers evaluate more stringent security measures for airplane cockpits,” said Scott.

The GA Side
Keeping in mind that general aviation–and particularly business
aviation and on-demand air charter– differ greatly from airline operations, security improvements would likely come on the ground in the form of airport and aircraft security. At recent congressional hearings, representatives of the GA community continually stressed that “one size does not fit all” when it comes to aviation security.

“We believe the security systems and procedures that are appropriate for the Part 121 and Part 135 communities [the unknown passenger issue] are not appropriate for the Part 91 community [known passengers],” NBAA president Jack Olcott told Congress. “The former group, we believe, lends itself to ground security systems, such as security devices [X-ray and so on], while the latter group lends itself to ATC and airspace approaches, such as the use of flight plans, transponder codes, corridors and prohibited airspace.”

The broad-based General Aviation Coalition (GAC), which includes such diverse GA groups as NBAA, the National Air Transportation Association, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the Helicopter Association International, AOPA and the Experimental Aircraft Association, has been working on new security measures for its own community.

Although the various GAC organizations have remained publicly in lockstep, less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks NATA formed a business aviation security task force, which put together a list of recommendations and urged aviation businesses, their customers and tenants to adopt them immediately.

The group of about 60 senior executives from all sectors of general aviation developed “best practice” guidelines for FBOs, air charter companies, aviation maintenance providers and flight-training schools. Short-term goals included recommendations that all aviation service businesses conduct FAA-compliant background checks and security training; develop and display a security mission statement to assure customers, employees, the government and the nonflying public that safety measures are in place to prevent terrorism through the illegal use of private, corporate, charter and fractional business aircraft; inspect photo IDs from incoming and outgoing flight crews; require the PIC to know all passengers; use security tape on aircraft doors; and request written notification of changes in the passenger manifest.

The group is also working on near-term (30 to 60 days) and long-term (several months to a year or more) recommendations.

Within days of the attacks, FBOs took unilateral steps to increase security. Some followed the dictates of the respective airport operating entities, but most included such precautions as not allowing vehicles to drive directly to the aircraft, requiring passengers to meet the flight crew in the FBO lobby before proceeding to the aircraft, and often, some sort of baggage checks.

A Special GA Study
On yet another front, a group of experts convened at the behest of the Oregon Department of Aviation and the Oregon State University Transportation Research Institute to make a range of recommendations to the FAA to improve airport and airplane security in general aviation. The participants concluded that GA needs to implement tighter security measures that effectively deter terrorists while allowing the industry to continue its operation in a commercially viable manner. It said that its proposals could form the basis for voluntary improvements, new FAA regulations or even legislation.

Asserting that this was the first statewide effort of its type in the nation, Ann Crook, director of the state’s aviation department, said, “A lot of people around the country are watching to see what we develop that can help this industry progress into the future.”

Although the group is still working on its recommendations, some of the plans outlined at the work session in Corvallis, Ore., included:
• A formal, statewide “airport watch” program using many pilots, maintenance people and staff at airports.

• Installation of perimeter fencing, improved security lighting and surveillance technology at a wide range of airports that are not currently served by regular airlines but handle significant amounts of GA traffic, with funding sought from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program.

• Develop airport emergency response plans and signage that alerts users and customers to various security measures that have been installed.

• Seek funding for ground-based radar installations in areas of the state where there are gaps in radar coverage, which would allow the FAA to track aircraft better and improve safety and security.

• Cross reference applications for pilot certificates and aircraft registrations against lists of suspected terrorists maintained by the FBI.

• Conduct employment background checks for all airport employees or anyone else, such as outside contractors with access to aircraft; and have photo identification badges for people working at airports.

“To safeguard the future of general aviation, we now have to assume there are people with skills, tools and the capacity to use our aircraft for terrorist acts,” said Bill Wilkins, dean emeritus at Oregon State and chairman of the Oregon State Aviation Board. “We must do what we can to control access, to know the people who work around our aircraft and to take what proactive steps we can to prevent any problems or incidents.”

Added FAA representative Dave Kuper, “We know terrorists may be here and have the will and logistics to attack, and we have to defend against this.”