Washington Report: 'That blank screen'

 - July 15, 2008, 9:13 AM

Calling September 11 the dividing line between our nation’s approach to aviation security on a “relatively peacetime” footing and the new “wartime environment,” FAA Administrator Jane Garvey is urging continued support for both the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the FAA, which will continue to be responsible for air traffic security, the safety and integrity of aircraft and the oversight of flight-crew training.

After the initial wave of support for increased security, she said, Congress and the Bush Administration now must be prepared to maintain political will against an enemy “that observes no borders and knows no rules.” Garvey also called for the “patience and understanding” of the American people.

Garvey emphasized that the TSA must have top intelligence information to identify threats and quickly address them, along with “unprecedented” coordination with intelligence communities and greater use of technology. And, she added, the TSA already faces an ambitious schedule with tight deadlines and major logistical challenges.

“This summer TSA may well be managing some phase of the startup at more than 100 airports to complete all 429 [air carrier airports] by year’s end,” Garvey said in a speech given at the Washington Aero Club.

Aviation has long been a target for criminals, the mentally deranged and terrorists, she noted, going back 47 years ago when John Graham rigged 25 sticks of dynamite to a timer, put it in a suitcase and blew up a United Airlines DC-6 over Colorado.

Aviation was the target in the 1960s when hijackers took over commercial flights and diverted one after another to Cuba. Although countermeasures were developed to “stop the bad guys” before they got on the airplane, two extremely violent hijackings in 1972 led to universal screening of passengers and carry-on items in 1973.

“From the beginning, air carriers had the primary responsibility for screening passengers and baggage,” Garvey said. “Airports were responsible for keeping a secure ground environment and for providing law- enforcement support. Government’s role– the FAA’s role–was regulatory.”

Over the next decade, she said, more improvements were made. When a U.S. serviceman was killed in the hijacking of TWA 847 in 1985, the FAA added staff overseas to work with American carriers and foreign airports, emphasized crew training and added federal air marshals to international flights.

The Aero Club audience was told that the bombing of Pan Am 103 in December 1988 stimulated the most significant changes in aviation security since the early 1970s, and the Aviation Security Act of 1990 gave the FAA additional responsibility for research, directed the use of explosive-detection systems, heightened emphasis on intelligence and threat assessment and elevated the stature of aviation security within the FAA. More emphasis followed in 1996 with the crash of TWA 800 and the Gore Commission recommendations.

While the U.S. approach to aviation security had its successes, Garvey acknowledged that “a frustration in aviation security, as in safety, is measuring success–since success is the absence of failure. There is no way to know how many incidents or accidents your efforts prevent.”

And as the countermeasures were implemented, she said “the bad guys” became more sophisticated. Alluding to a magazine article that postulated that airport security measures have “simply chased out the amateurs and left the clever and audacious,” Garvey argued that words like “clever or audacious” are not dark enough for the events of September 11.

“Just as Pearl Harbor was the dividing line for an isolationist nation, September 11 was a dividing line for a free and open society that may have valued convenience more than security,” she said.

“We will all always remember where we were and what we were doing,” Garvey recalled, her voice quivering with emotion. “For the FAA management team, what we’ll remember is in the midst of the unfolding crisis, pausing in the FAA operations center to watch the electronic map of all airborne aircraft. Thousands of airplanes. Then fewer. And fewer. And then the map of the world’s largest and safest aviation system was blank.

“Nothing spoke more eloquently or powerfully to me than aviation’s silence the afternoon of September 11. That blank screen. No civil aircraft aloft. It was as if the heart of the nation had ceased to beat.”

Garvey maintained that Congress provided the right leadership in creating the TSA because transportation security is so critical that it belongs in its own single-focus agency. The law dictates direct federal control and management–broad and bold regulatory powers with emphasis on law enforcement.

Although the TSA, with more than 40,000 employees, will be almost as large as the FAA itself, Garvey said her agency’s role in aviation security will continue. She noted that in January the FAA issued a rule to permanently protect cockpits to a common standard.

“We are now working closely with colleagues in international organizations on door
standards for new aircraft,” she said. “We just met another deadline in the TSA legislation when we released detailed guidance for training crewmembers to deal with a potential threat.”

Although the Aviation and Transportation Security Act moves the responsibility for airport security checkpoints from the airlines to the federal government, and gives the TSA sweeping security and enforcement powers, the FAA will continue to oversee the security of the ATC system, aircraft and flight crews.

very one of us–employees throughout the agency–we are absolutely and totally committed to doing our part to keep that screen full and active–to keep our citizens safe and secure,” Garvey concluded. “After what our countrymen suffered on September 11, we can do no less.”