Special Report: Aftermath
Are government and industry doing enough to make the sky secure?
- By Lester A. Reingold
- Air & Space magazine, January 2002
(Page 3 of 3)
In the aftermath of September 11, private security companies and the airlines that hire them have come under fire. Poorly trained, underpaid screeners often miss the test weapons used to gauge their performance. Suddenly there has been agreement on the need to federalize or otherwise upgrade the screener workforce. (As this issue went to press, the U.S. Congress had not reached agreement on an aviation security bill dealing with, among other items, airport security personnel.) But new regulations and technology can also enable existing screeners to do a better job. Reducing the number of carry-on bags allowed per passenger will enable each bag to receive closer scrutiny by screeners.
Twenty years ago, the FAA was supporting research into the use of gerbils as sniffers to detect explosives. Bag-screening technology has come a long way since then. Computed tomography—CT scanning— takes multiple X-rays of a bag to produce a three-dimensional image of its contents. Quantum Magnetics has produced a scanner that uses magnetic resonance imaging to search for hard-to-find explosives, such as plastic explosive rolled into a sheet and sewn into the side of a briefcase. The problem with these machines is their cost. The biggest scanner by InVision Technologies can handle up to 800 bags per hour, but each unit costs $1.5 million. According to Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, the latest explosive detection systems are in service at only 46 airports across the country.
Perhaps the most problematic of security challenges is the screening of passengers. The FAA and Northwest Airlines developed the Computer-Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System, which profiles passengers based on information in an airline’s reservation system, such as if the ticket was puchased with cash or if the ticket is one-way. So far, though, CAPPS has been applied only to passengers who stop at an airline ticket counter, usually to check baggage, before proceeding through security.
There is also a need to ensure that the people who board airplanes are the same ones who bought the tickets and went through airport security checkpoints. One proposed security system would photograph all passengers with their checked luggage. Each photograph would be encrypted on the passenger’s ticket in the form of a bar code. When the ticket is scanned by an airline agent at the boarding gate, the agent’s computer monitor would display the photograph of the ticket-holder. If the two faces don’t match, the traveler would be denied boarding. The same technology could also be used to match passengers with their bags, so that any unmatched bags could be removed from an aircraft prior to takeoff. The technology exists, but implementation will depend on approval by the FAA.
Airline travelers are now required to present a government-issued photo identification at the airport. A new company, Synaptek, is offering a system to make better use of that ID check. With a hand-held reader or desktop terminal, airline or security personnel would scan or enter data from passenger identifications. By encrypted communication, the device would then check to see if an individual is on any of a number of law enforcement or watch list databases. If such a system had been in place on September 11, some of the hijackings might have been thwarted, as some of the hijackers were on watch lists.
Passengers now face long lines at airports, but the NATA is sponsoring a system that could speed things up. Individuals would be pre-screened thoroughly for inclusion in a database of secure, trustworthy travelers. Then, like motorists who can pay tolls electronically and drive through without stopping, these travelers could quickly pass through special airport checkpoints. They would show they’re in the database through a biometric check, such as iris recognition. James Coyne, NATA president, says, “Security screening is finding a needle in a haystack. This system lets you eliminate most of the hay, so you can look closely in the smaller pile that still has the needle.”
Until recently, aviation security planning was largely reactive. A spate of hijackers who wanted to go to Cuba led to metal detectors and X-ray machines. Pan Am 103 prompted research, mostly still unimplemented, into bomb-hardened containers and cargo holds.
This time there seems to be an effort to anticipate threats. Honeywell, for example, is working on tamper-detection monitors for aircraft wiring. “We need to plug all the holes,” says Honeywell spokesman Ron Crotty. “Shut one door and they’ll look for another one that’s open.”