Unanimous praise is being lavished on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for its announcement last Friday of enhanced passenger screening protocols for all passengers traveling to the U.S. from abroad. These new measures replace the emergency stop-gap screening that was implemented after the failed 2009 Christmas Day terrorist attempt.

So, instead of targeting passengers from the 14 “countries of concern,” TSA is using intelligence based characteristics – travel patterns, name matches, etc. – to determine which passengers require secondary security screening. This is precisely the risk-based threat mitigation approach TSA and those in the industry have advocated for on a daily basis.

While I would also agree that this appears to be a step in the right direction, this provides an excellent opportunity to step back and take a look at the real threat TSA faces – the threat from inbound international flights.

One could argue that the most credible (and sensationalized) threats in aviation post 9/11 have originated from outside the U.S. (Richard Reid, December 2001; Liquid Explosives Plot, December 2006; Failed Christmas Day Attempt, December 2009).  With that in mind, it’s telling to examine what TSA is doing and spending on its international efforts.

According to recent testimony from Acting Administrator Gale Rossides, TSA is requesting $40 million in FY 2011 for the following:

  • To field and support personnel to manage international programs at 15 existing offices and deploy additional personnel to the Middle East and Africa.
  • To add 34 international Transportation Security Specialists, 10 International Industry Representatives and a 10-person Rapid Response Team.
  • To represent TSA in a variety of international and domestic settings, including major transnational aviation-related organizations, regional bodies dealing with transportation security, bilateral cooperative efforts, as well as interagency transportation security efforts.

Additional funding from TSA’s budget is also allocated to:

  • 300 airport assessments and inspections at foreign airports annually using International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards and inspections of foreign and U.S. air carriers that fly to the United States using TSA standards.
  • Inspection of all U.S. and foreign air carriers that fly to the United States from each airport that is a last point of departure to ensure compliance with TSA standards and directives.

TSA readily admits that they don’t provide the screening overseas and must work with each independent country to develop procedures that are aligned with U.S. protocols. As a former executive at TSA, I can attest to the difficulty of this task and the slow nature of any progress.

As a result, however, TSA requires air carriers flying into the U.S. to assume these screening procedures. This shift away from TSA – both in terms of costs and responsibility – and to the airlines is worth a closer examination by those who fund TSA – the U.S. Congress. Having the airlines provide security (with no cost reimbursement) is a similar place that we found ourselves prior to 9/11.  While the airlines have come a long way in their security protocols since that time, the U.S. government is requiring them to bear the burden and be responsible for the cost of security measures on in-bound flights. Should the agency created after 9/11 have a more hands-on, direct role in guarding against the most immediate threat in aviation?  Should airlines be compensated for providing security that is the responsibility of the U.S. government?

These are just a few questions and issues that come as we continue to examine and analyze the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day attempt.

  • tjacampbell

    Any move to return to the status quo ante 9/11 should be firmly resisted. Transport security is too important to be placed in the hands of commercially motivated organizations. That is not to say that fiscal prudence and good security don't go together however; good oversight of the security budget is often missing in practice and there is always the temptation to buy the latest toy without adequate research to discover whether or not it is fit to the task and fit to the operation. By the same token, in staff selection, training, employment conditions and financial rewards, there is often a large gap between the ideal and the reality. This gap tends to widen as contract competition intensifies.
    Tom Campbell.