It's a Make or Break Year For TSA's New Attitude

In the aviation security arena, this year is likely to be best remembered for the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) shaky, but successful, foray into risk-based assessment.

One of the first -- as well as highly controversial -- real-world applications of that particular methodology has already arrived in the form of some policy changes to the agency's airport-screening procedures, which took effect on Dec. 22. By way of a very short synopsis, the changes involve the highly publicized relaxation of the "prohibited items" list and the continuance of random, secondary passenger screenings. Less well known is the agency's intent to divert more of its resources to preventing explosives from getting aboard airplanes.

It's a classic application of risk analysis, so far as competing security risks have been thoroughly assessed, as TSA claims, and resources are now being diverted from one area to another.

It's also a strategy that could help the agency spend the limited resources Congress provides more efficiently and accountably. In the coming year, there won't be any decreased expectations for TSA's acquisitions of the latest and greatest technologies. And even though agency officials insist that the biggest threats to the U.S. transportation system are still in aviation, the aftermath of the summer's London transit bombings is likely to force TSA into eventually spending more on bus and rail security.

Some in Congress also are putting pressure on TSA to take back the baby steps it has already started taking on risk assessment, says Dick Marchi, vice president, technical affairs for Airports Council International-North America. One example is the House Democrats' "Leave All Blades Behind Act," H.R. 4452, to restore the prohibited items list to its former glory. Several cargo-security measures currently before Congress would require 100 percent screening of all cargo that's put into the belly of passenger aircraft. There too, Hawley is looking toward a more risk-based approach, and expects that an industry advisory group this year will finish working out the kinks on a new system that identifies "elevated risk" cargo.

In the meantime, strong opposition to TSA's policy changes, particularly on prohibited items, has come from pilots and flight attendants, who believe that their personal safety is being compromised.

Some air safety observers believe that the next big incident aboard an aircraft will involve sharp-edged implements, and will force TSA to backpedal.

Terrorists could still carry out an attack in an aircraft cabin, including the threatening or harming of passengers and flight attendants, wholly designed to bring the pilots out of the cockpit, says aviation security consultant David Forbes.

Others disagree. Aviation attorney Charles Slepian, who is an avid supporter of TSA's conversion to risk analysis, believes that because of newly hardened cockpit doors and other changes made over the last four years, the next terrorist incident is not going to be in the same style as 9/11. A lot of the appeals against TSA's prohibited items policy changes are emotional; these are not security experts making these arguments, Slepian tells Air Safety Week.

What flight attendants really need is the training in emergency management that they have been promised for several years, he adds. In this, the flying public likely will be highly supportive of flight crews.

Along these lines, there also may be an enlarged role on airlines for the Federal Air Marshal Service or other law enforcement agencies, Slepian says. In a sense, air travelers are still seen as a special self-selected segment of the general public that is naturally well-behaved in an aircraft cabin several thousand feet in the air. But these days, with passenger traffic substantially increased, the typical commercial aircraft significantly larger, and other new stresses in flying, the people who board a plane may increasingly resemble a mob or a crowd, and should be policed as such.

But before an incident occurs that tests TSA's resolve on its scaled-back prohibited items, it's more likely that the agency will feel the pressure to back down on its revamped schedule of secondary passenger screenings, says Todd Curtis, founder and publisher of AirSafe.com. That's because pat-downs are more personal and highly visual, and thus, very media friendly.

Slepian and some others agree with TSA that the biggest security risk in the future involves explosives brought aboard aircraft. Thus, the agency is rapidly deploying two new types of explosive-screening machines that could really make a difference by the end of 2006, says aviation security consultant Billie Vincent. One is the puffer machines made by Smiths Detection of Smiths Group [SMGKF.PK], General Electric [GE] and some others, that will plug the gap in screening for explosives hidden on travelers' persons. The other is Reveal Imaging Inc.'s space-saving version of the computed tomography baggage screener.

>>Contact: Dick Marchi, ACI-NA, (202) 293-8500, rmarchi@aci-na.org; Charles Slepian, (866) 579-7636, Charles.Slepian@frac.com; Billie Vincent, (703) 322-1900, bhv@asiwebsite.com

[Copyright 2006 Access Intelligence, LLC. All rights reserved.]

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