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Safety in the Skies

1 March 2006




Security measures at airports must be updated in the face of a continuing terrorist threat. Kip Hawley of the US Transportation Security Administration explains the important changes the organisation is making.


The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been working to ensure that its priorities reflect the principles that Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, introduced in the Department of Homeland Security Second Stage Review.

The TSA has recently concluded a strategic assessment of its activities and is in the process of making changes in the way it operates that align with Chertoff's risk-based strategy for the Department of Homeland Security. To this end, the TSA's strategy goals will be to:

"The TSA will refocus its resources on the serious threat posed by explosive devices."
  • Ensure that the TSA's work and decisions are driven by risk
  • Promote the freedom, privacy, prosperity and mobility of US citizens
  • Strive to be effective stewards of public resources
  • Build partnerships across every level of government, with the private sector, with international counterparts and with the US travelling public

The TSA has evaluated its risk environment throughout the transportation sector. Based on a broad analysis of threats, vulnerabilities and consequences, the TSA is now devoting more attention to higher-level threats, such as attacks using explosives.

NEW SECURITY MEASURES

So what will this mean for air travellers and their carry-on items? What will be happening at the checkpoint? The TSA has made three important changes that will enhance aviation security for the travelling public:

  • Improvements in explosives detection training and technology
  • Modifications to the prohibited items list
  • Changes to TSA security screening protocols

The changes reflect not only a new and evolving threat environment, but also the TSA's determination to make good decisions based on data and metrics.

Many improvements in explosives detection capabilities at airports are already in place. The rest of the changes should be in place by the time you read this article. We expect the net effect of these changes to be improved security, as the TSA directs resources towards higher-risk areas and makes its security protocols less transparent to potential terrorists.

Since 9/11, the TSA has implemented multiple layers of security to reduce the risk that terrorists could hijack an aircraft. These measures include hardened cockpit doors and a greatly expanded Federal Air Marshall Program.

The Federal Flight Deck Officer Program, which permits trained pilots to carry firearms, provided additional security training to flight attendants and increased the screening of passengers and baggage. The public has added its own significant layer of security by its vigilance and apparent willingness to take action itself.

THE EVOLVING THREAT

As terrorists adapt to the measures that have been taken to frustrate them, the TSA is also adapting. It has increased its focus on the threat posed by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). To more effectively counter this threat, the TSA has implemented several changes related to explosives detection and screening.

"The TSA is modifying its approach to air transport security."

First, the TSA has significantly increased the number of canine explosives detection teams. Today, approximately 420 dog teams work at over 80 airports nationwide, a 70% increase since 2003. The TSA will continue to expand this programme. It is highly effective, very flexible and economical.

Second, the TSA has recently completed enhanced explosives detection training for more than 18,000 transportation security officers.

This training includes both classroom and hands-on learning, and focuses particularly on identifying x-ray images of IED component parts, not just an assembled bomb.

Within days of completing training, TSA security officers in St Louis found a hidden explosive detonation device in a carry-on bag. The TSA's performance in this area will continue to improve.

Third, to ensure that this training 'sticks', the TSA has updated its database of threat images to include many more new IED images of all types. These images are randomly projected onto x-ray screens at checkpoints to help TSA security officers hone their detection skills and to identify remedial training needs.

New standard operating procedures will encourage TSA security officers to work together to find items that may pose a security threat.

Finally, the TSA is investing in technology to help reduce the risk that explosives will be taken onboard a plane. Already, 43 explosive trace portal machines have been installed at 22 airports, and the installation of an additional 16 machines at six airports will be complete by early 2006.

This new technology uses puffs of air to help detect traces of explosives on people. By the end of 2006, more than 340 trace portal machines will be in operation throughout the USA.

"By the end of 2006, more than 340 trace portal machines will be in operation throughout the USA."

THE PROHIBITED LIST

As part of its continuing effort to review TSA practices in the light of changing threats, the TSA has re-assessed the list of items that passengers are prohibited from taking with them onboard a plane.

Currently, an image of every carry-on bag is evaluated by a TSA security officer, who is responsible for identifying items on the existing prohibited items list. If the presence of a prohibited item is suspected, the bag must be searched by hand.

Between March and September 2005, TSA security officers found more than 9.5 million prohibited items in carry-on bags.

Now, there are people who maintain that it would make more sense to redirect the effort that has been invested in finding these less dangerous items towards preventing more serious threats. As a result, the TSA has now looked closely at how it uses its valuable screening resources. It found that a disproportionate amount of its resources are used on line-slowing bag searches directed at objects that do not pose a real threat.

The TSA decided that it made sense to investigate whether reducing the number of less dangerous items on the prohibited list would allow it to focus more of the time and attention of its security officers on more serious security risks, such as explosives.

By carefully tracking the types of items that trigger secondary bag searches, the TSA determined that small scissors and tools account for approximately 25% of the prohibited items found in passenger carry-on bags.

It is these items – scissors with blades less than 4in long and tools such as screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers that are less than 7in long – that will now be removed from the prohibited items list.

"The TSA's list of prohibited items will be reduced to free up resources."

Tools with cutting edges, bludgeons, crowbars, hammers and saws will continue to be prohibited, along with any tool that is more than 7in in length. Contrary to recent rumours, the TSA is not removing items such as ice picks, box cutters or knives of any kind from the prohibited list.

Based on TSA research and analysis, I am convinced that the time now spent searching bags for small scissors and tools can be better used focusing on the far more dangerous threat of explosives.

SCREENING PROTOCOLS

The final set of changes involves the protocols that the TSA uses at screening checkpoints and in other areas of airports. The goal is to establish flexible protocols based on risk, so that terrorists cannot use the predictability of our security measures to their advantage when planning an attack.

In the past, security measures at every airport were pretty much the same. Whether you were a frequent flyer or a potential terrorist, you knew what to expect. With the changes the TSA has now started implementing, that predictability will vanish.

Of course, the basics will not change. Every passenger will still walk through a metal detector, and their carry-on bags and every checked bag will still be screened for explosives. But the TSA will be testing and implementing additional, unpredictable screening techniques and procedures that will be easy for passengers to navigate, but difficult for terrorists to manipulate.

As I mentioned earlier, passengers may see more canine explosives detection teams circulating through the ticket counter and screening checkpoint areas. With the new protocols, some passengers may be randomly selected at the checkpoint, rather than the ticket counter, to undergo additional screening or have their shoes or carry-on bags tested for explosives.

"The new procedures will be easy for passengers to navigate, but difficult for terrorists to manipulate."

In addition to these random screening techniques, those passengers who are subject to additional screening may notice a change in the body search or pat-down procedure.

In the past, TSA procedures called for a pat-down of the entire back and front of the torso around the abdomen. To improve its ability to detect non-metal weapons and explosive devices that may be carried on the body, the TSA will be extending its pat-down search to include the arms and legs.

The TSA will be piloting other activities as it moves forward. Some will be visible, such as having a security officer with special document verification training or equipment assist in checking passenger credentials. Some will not be visible, such as federal air marshals continuing to work undercover.

These changes in the TSA's explosives detection capability, its prohibited items list and its screening protocols are important in maintaining the effectiveness of the airport security process.

At the same time, the TSA must be able to adapt quickly to changes in terrorist tactics, deploy resources effectively based on risk and use unpredictability as a means to disrupt terrorist plots.