'Gaping Holes' Remain in Airline Security, Pilots Charge
By Kathleen Rhodes
-- The association representing America's unionized airline pilots Thursday issued a scathing "Aviation Security Report Card," blaming the government, airports and airlines for producing an air travel system that is only a bit safer than it was before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist hijackings.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was quick to label the report card a publicity stunt and inaccurate.
Airline security received failing grades in some areas, and an overall average grade of "D," according to the Aviation Security Report Card, issued by the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association (CAPA). Failing grades were given for the way passengers and employees are screened, cargo is scanned, credentials are distributed, flight crews are trained and planes are protected from the possibility of shoulder fired missiles.
There are "gaping holes" in aviation security that "require major changes in the way airlines and airports do business and in the way the government manages airline security," stated Capt. Jon Safley, the president of CAPA. He added that "airline travel remains vulnerable to terrorist attack nearly four years after 9/11."
Capt. Paul Onorato, the vice president of CAPA, told reporters at the National Press Club news conference that "air travel is safer than it was" prior to September 11th, but said a number of reforms still need to be put in place.
"Some [of the reforms needed] are very simple, like screening the employees," Onorato said. "That's really not an expensive proposition." Biometric identification, he said, is needed, in the form of fingerprints or retinal scans, to verify the identities of airline employees. Such measures are "commonsensical," Onorato declared.
CAPA also claimed in printed materials handed out at the news conference that "identification badges ... are far from being truly effective."
The pilots association also complained about perimeter security at airports, which it claimed in the report card, was "inconsistent from airport to airport" and reflected a lack of oversight on the part of the Transportation Security Administration.
Safley claimed in his statement that there were problems with both the screening of cargo and the screening of employees who handle the cargo. "If we're screening passengers, we certainly need to screen employees who have access to aircraft and baggage. And not screening cargo on all-cargo carriers invites disaster," Safley stated.
The CAPA-distributed materials also asserted that "cargo shipped on passenger carriers in the U.S. is rarely inspected."
"The technology exists, or could be updated, to address many of these security problems," Safley said. "But neither the airlines, the airports nor government officials (sic) have given these the priority they deserve."
Deirdre O'Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration, had a different perspective, telling Cybercast News Service that airline travel is "absolutely" safer since 9-11. She also insisted that Americans are mostly "confident or very confident in TSA's ability to keep air travel secure."
A statement by TSA communications director Mark Hatfield described CAPA's report card as "little more than a cheap union publicity stunt. "The only thing it demonstrates is that CAPA leaders have been cutting class and missed most of the security lessons of last year," Hatfield stated.
In contrast to CAPA's claims of poor cargo screening, O'Sullivan insisted that "TSA screens 100 percent of all checked luggage for explosives." By way of comparison, "On 9-11, five percent of checked luggage was screened for explosives," she said.
As for implementing biometric identification technology as CAPA suggested, "that's the direction TSA is currently going in," O'Sullivan said. "TSA is looking at a biometric card for all aviation employees including airline employees, [which is] actually currently in the prototype phase."
O'Sullivan denied CAPA's assertion that reinforced doors are not mandatory on foreign carriers. "Nonsense. Yes they are!" she responded. And she explained that TSA is looking "very closely at two different technologies" that would screen passengers for explosives.
"One is called a trace portal, which looks kind of like a metal detector and puffs of air come out of little jets ... and then the air is screened for explosives. It's currently in nine airports. We hope to have it in 14 airports by the end of the spring," O'Sullivan said.
"The other technology is what's called a document scanner," she continued. "If you come in contact with explosives and then pick up your boarding pass, the traces of the explosive will be left on the boarding pass. And then we screen that for explosives. And that's currently in four airports."
O'Sullivan also defended TSA oversight, arguing that the agency "does provide oversight for all the airports and they all have to have a security plan ... approved by TSA."
Perimeter security is different from airport to airport, she conceded. "The perimeters or the terrain in which all these airports have been built are incredibly different. So the way in which we approach the matter does vary from airport to airport," O'Sullivan said.
"We haven't taken kind of a cookie cutter approach," she said. "We have worked with the local airports to come up with a security plan that is both secure and takes into account ... basically the different terrain."
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