Challenges abound in aviation security

Challenges abound in aviation security
by Catherine Lutz, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Airliners will always be desirable targets for terrorists; airport security will become more burdensome to travelers before it gets better; and body scanners, which are not mandatory, could be the answer to a number of security issues. This was the less-than-encouraging picture of aviation security presented by a panel of experts in the field during the Aspen Security Forum on Tuesday.

Aviation “remains an incredibly lucrative target” for terrorists, said Erroll Southers, a transportation security and counterterrorism expert who was nominated by President Obama to head the Transportation Security Administration but ultimately withdrew.

That’s because it’s a vulnerable form of transportation, and a successful terrorist attack can result in many casualties, significant economic losses, and can undermine public confidence, Southers said.

“There’s a certain mystique in air travel and the psychological impact is huge if [an attack] is successful,” added panelist Christopher Bidwell, vice president of security for Airport Council International.

Given that threat and the large number of attempted terrorist attacks on airports and aircraft, is there a certain irony in the multi-billion dollar investments being made into airport security, asked Thomas Frank, the moderator of the panel and a journalist with USA Today.

“What’s the alternative?” answered panelist James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America. “We have to make the investment to protect the flying public with the reality of terrorists using aircraft as a weapon. It may not end up being perfect, but we have to assure the flying public we’re doing everything we know how to do.”

Terrorists are continually looking for ways to get explosive devises through airport screening and onto aircraft, panelists said, and the challenge for the aviation security industry is to stay one step ahead of that with technology. They also face the challenge of stopping potential terrorists that may have started their flight in a foreign airport with lower security standards.

But certain technologies, particularly body scanners, may provide an answer, said panelists. Body scanners, which make an X-ray type image of the person being screened, are a “quantum leap forward” in technology, they said, as they’re able to detect many more materials than the traditional metal detectors. The TSA has installed about 1,000 body scanners in airports across the country, and by next year they will be in every major airport.

“Five years ago we would have thought this is the holy grail,” said May. “The key is this is a much better system than we’ve ever had.”

But body scanners are not mandatory, and because of privacy and other issues any passenger may elect to not go through the body scanner and get an alternative form of screening. Frank pointed out that a smart terrorist could easily use this option to his advantage.

Another tool the aviation security industry has is the no-fly list, which has about 6,000 people on it, and a broader alert list of about 25,000 people. But as the case of Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, demonstrated, even those on the no-fly list as he was are able to get on airplanes.

Southers admitted that “we do have to do a better job of catching people who might have a bomb.”

Behavior detection is another method of screening that’s starting to be used in airports. With this approach, specially trained personnel watch people for unusual or suspect behavior.

A recent report on how behavior detection was working yielded dismal results.

But the panel of aviation experts argued that behavior detection, a two-year-old program, is still in relative infancy and needs to be refined to become more effective. They all agreed it was worthwhile to continue to work on it.

“This is just one layer in a much broader approach to aviation security,” said May.

All of these enhanced methods of screening, coupled with more and more people flying, won’t make airport security lines any shorter anytime soon. Body scanners actually take more time to go through than the old metal detectors, and passengers are taking more luggage and cramming suitcases with more stuff because of airline baggage charges.

Bidwell called it “the perfect storm” to create additional delays at security checkpoints.

There is a program in place for passengers to pay extra to move to the front of the security line, but no “trusted traveler” program that would eliminate screening hassles based on some kind of background check. Such a program does exist in Israel, which aviation experts are studying, but is far off from being implemented, panelists said.

“There was never a background check developed that gave us a confidence level to allow passengers to go through without screening,” said Bidwell.

Asked what can be done about this and other airport security issues, May responded that all that can be done is to “continue to work on improved technology.”

Unfortunately, in the airport security world, there’s no such thing as a silver bullet, Southers said.

“There is no zero-based risk for terrorism,” he said.

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