Patterico's Pontifications

6/12/2007

Another Air Marshal with Suggestions About Improving Air Security

Filed under: General,Terrorism — Patterico @ 12:10 am

I asked another one of the air marshals I quoted the other day for ideas about how to improve air security. Here’s what he said, with my occasional annotations in brackets:

Everything I mention is open-source stuff, nothing SSI [sensitive security information].

1. Screening for vendors and workers that have access to the airplane and tarmac but that aren’t going to actually fly anywhere. A lot of these workers receive little or no screening because they never enter the sterile area of the airport.

2. Better explosives screening at the checkpoint. We have almost none now. The magnetometer can’t screen for explosives, nor can the x-ray machine. We need one-stop shopping. My phone can make and edit movies, play mp3s, check email and make phone calls and probably a thousand other things I don’t know it can do. We can’t devise one machine that’s a combo metal detector and explosives detector?

3. Faster, more efficient processing of lines into airports. This is a tough one. We need to give screeners the time to do their jobs but we also need those lines moving. If I were a suicide bomber that would make a tempting target, all those people packed together and unable to flee.

4. Stop wasting time with nonsense like cigarette lighters. Focus.

5. Shoes. End this time waster. If you have the ability to detect explosives then you don’t need people taking off their shoes and slowing down the process.

6. No LEOs [law enforcement officers] should be forced to pre-board. It defeats the purpose of having them on board. This is an airline rule and can be changed immediately. Unfortunately the FAMS doesn’t want to press this issue too much because the airlines are resisting it and they have a lot of political clout. If a LEO’s identity has been established by the ticket agent and/or the gate agent as well as the TSA and/or local airport LEOs, how much is enough? Redundancy gets to the point of diminishing returns after a point.

7. Find some way around screening for LEOs. If they have to call the local LEOs, who then verify their credentials, and circumvent security through some other egress/entrance, then so be it. Or TSA. Or whatever authorizing agency they wish. But LEOs should not be paraded in front of the very people they will be flying with who now know they have a gun. This is beyond silly.

8. Ease the process to become a FFDO [Federal Flight Deck Officer, or “armed pilot”]. While many of the FFDOs are worrying about such mundane matters — like whether or not they need a badge, or whether they should be allowed to carry their gun to their kid’s soccer match — the basic idea of an armed last line is a good one. They need little training because all their scenarios are lethal force. If you’re breaking down the door, then lethal force is justified. There are a number of hurdles, though, for the FFDO program. Scrap the psych test (if they can fly the plane I’m on, I trust them with a gun — likewise, if they’re too crazy to have a gun, why am I on his/her plane?), have all initial and especially recurrent training at FAM offices (which is more convenient for the pilot and would save money for the government in the long run). The FFDOs are chasing the boondoggle of 24/7 carry and badges and LEO status and carrying their guns on overseas flights. Maybe some of this is important and maybe not, but we need to focus on the mission first, and that is protecting the flight deck. We need more of them and we need to make the adjustments that will accommodate this, be it Mr. McLean’s idea of the shotgun (or pistol) in every flight deck (which would eliminate all the need for badges/creds/etc.) or some streamlining of the current procedures.

9. More intel to the guys and gals out there on the front lines. Most of us get our intel from CNN or Fox News. The grapevine gets some stuff around, but not as much as occurs. The debrief and lessons learned is an integral part of the process. Don’t make the next team to encounter a situation have to reinvent the wheel.

10. If ID is so important, why do contract employees (many English-challenged) check IDs to boarding passes, and keep the TSA out of this loop? If we want TSA to do behavior profiling and the like, why are we taking this step out of their hands? If ID checking is not important, why are we doing it? It makes little sense to me to divide this labor. This is a valuable opportunity to gather intelligence and look for people who just don’t fit, and we’re giving it to different groups who don’t communicate with one another.

11. Better training for the TSA in rapport-building. First, going through security is a pain and a little demeaning. Making it as pleasant as possible can only help. Second, and most importantly, it gives them an opportunity for said behavioral profiling. “Morning sir. You excited about flying today?” “Not really, I’m heading to Newark for a damn day full of ridiculous meetings and then catch a flight back tonight. My company won’t even spring for a room for the night!” “Ouch. I don’t envy you sir! Well, good luck and hope it all works out ok!”

That’s just a B.S. example, but do you think every bad guy has the acting chops to pull something like that off? If the screeners were personable they could learn a lot about who’s flying. Look for the terrorist, not the weapon. Lots of things can be made into weapons. But they all need a bad guy to wield them. Be looking for him.

That’s pretty much it for now. I’m sure someone will mention something else that will make me smack my head but for the moment that’s all I can come up with.

Mostly we need to Keep It Simple Stupid, and try to make everything as streamlined as possible. Don’t do twelve things where three would do. One-stop shopping is more efficient. Stop deliberately outing the people with the guns. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Talk to your people and get them engaged in the process. They have a lot of good ideas because they’re out there actually doing the job. Listen to them on occasion. Focus on the threat, not the sideshow.

Good ideas. What do you think?

19 Responses to “Another Air Marshal with Suggestions About Improving Air Security”

  1. The suggestion for TSA people to be more personable is appropriate. I got stuck in the security line behind a mentally retarded woman who didn’t want to take her shoes off and a guy with a back brace. Instead of taking these people aside and letting everybody else continue, they shut down the entire checkpoint. Then someone told us all that the airlines knew about the bottleneck. Guess what ? Southwest left and I missed my flight. The gate agent told me they paged me in the security area but I couldn’t hear it. It was a mess. A little common sense might have helped. I fly several times a month, mostly short flights. It is not fun.

    In my postmortem of the fiasco about the checkpoint, the TSA people were more friendly than the Southwest people. I went around and asked how the process worked since I had plenty of time and had missed my lecture I was supposed to give. Fortunately, I had planned to be there early and they were able to move it to an hour later and shorten it. The suggestion about explosives screening seems to be the most urgent and logical.

    Mike K (86bddb)

  2. How about letting police officers take the Air Marshals course and then being allowed to carry their weapons on board. If the air marshal writing this article thinks it is a good idea to arm flight officers, how much more a police officer who already has legal and firearms training as well as the ongoing experience that comes from working dangerous scenarios everyday. On any given day, there are probably more off duty police officers on board airplanes then air marshals.

    Paul (7719b1)

  3. I disagree airport ID checkers are comparatively unprofessional. Their oversight may be uneven from city to city, but so is TSA screening and attentiveness. Many are not English-first types, but I find them conscientious.

    steve (b01e7b)

  4. Faster, more efficient processing of lines into airports. This is a tough one. We need to give screeners the time to do their jobs but we also need those lines moving. If I were a suicide bomber that would make a tempting target, all those people packed together

    That’s exactly what I was thinking five years ago when I was in a packed line waiting to pass through the security screening outside one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC.

    aunursa (64e9b9)

  5. The Israelis use attractive women as first-line screeners, because studies show people (even other women) open up to them more. Not only would this give better intelligence, it would make waiting in line a less annoying experience. (Incidentally, I once passed Israeli inspection declaring a Swiss Army knife—trying to foil hijackers does not depend upon increasingly silly rules about shoes and toothpaste.)

    Andrew J. Lazarus (dd73e0)

  6. Regarding #11, my understanding is that this is one of the primary security methods for Israel’s airline. Engage somebody in just a minute or two of light-hearted banter disguising a few probing questions, and odds are a trained person will spot most dissemblers very quickly.

    Paul… I’d be worried about having random local police officers, with no training in the use of firearms in a pressurized environment, being allowed to bring guns on board. Background checks in some localities are not that extensive, and there is no national database of local police officers, so it would be easy to forge a local badge and ID.

    PatHMV (7f2300)

  7. COME ON WHERES A GOOD TRICORDER THEY NEED A GOD TRICORDER TO SEARCH WITHOUT STIPIING OR LONG SEARCHES

    krazy kagu (d982eb)

  8. Better training for TSA personnel, especially in courtesy. Plus a valid method of registering complaints.

    Alan Kellogg (5afde7)

  9. Excellent ideas. I like how the posts have moved from discussing terrorist dry runs or probes to positive suggestions on how to make the system work better.

    I’m also a uneasy about the level of skill in the rank-and-file airport TSA personnel and contract employees. They seem best at doing rote tasks, and I have to wonder about the intelligence level of some of them.

    Bradley J. Fikes (1c6fc4)

  10. This all makes sense to me. I have often wondered how it happens that reasonable, intelligent people who become managers in government agencies seem to have their brains sucked out. Maybe it’s because they have to deal with politicians.

    The advice to the President: “Listen to the generals,” is equally valid to the TSA/HSA biggies: “Listen to those who are doing the job.”

    ExRat (5ab90f)

  11. Pat,

    The pressurized environment is greatly overstated. Mythbusters tried to get an explosive decompression with guns up to shotguns on an airliner, and could not do it. If the hull gets a hole shot in it, the air whistles out it. No one get’s sucked out, even if you blow out a window.

    Also remember, 15 or 20 years ago a 15 or 20 foot long section of roof of a (Aloha or Hawaiian?) airliner blew off in flight. The plane landed safely. A flight attendent was lost, but all seated passengers remained in the plane.

    Loren (af2946)

  12. I think that to completely secure the cabin of an aircraft the TSA should extend the FFDO program to include the Flight Attendants and Web Designers as a dual role deterrent to would be Probers, Dry-Runners, of Run of the mill Terrorists.

    Bob (98ad8c)

  13. I have a couple very broad questions about the air marshall program. I understand that the original idea was for them to blend in with the passengers and that that has been made very difficult with the procedures to get them on board first, etc. Can’t have them on every flight, but keep people guessing about which flight has them.

    But is that the best idea? Or should they be in uniform making their presence known? If I understand correctly, there were air marshalls about both the “Annie Jacobson” flight and the “flying imams” flights. Would all those goings on have occured if security were more obvious?

    I don’t know. It just seems to weird the way it is now, with them trying to blend in, but definitely not succeeding. I know many people just want to to go ahead the way it was supposed to be, but I’m just being difficult…

    MamaAJ (788539)

  14. I practice in D.C. and watch some of these issues for my clients, and have a few thoughts on them.

    #1 – Screening for vendors and workers that have access to the airplane and tarmac but that aren’t going to actually fly anywhere – there is a rulemaking pending which covers this. The vendors are going to get stuck with paying a couple hundred bucks to cover the background check and the price of a secure ID card with biometric features of some type. Trade groups, unions and a couple civil liberties groups are raising holy hell about this measure, which will apply to port and railway operations as well – not sure which industry sector is supposed to get it first. They do have a good point – if you’re a stevedore and your pot bust in ’76 gets you tossed out of your job unloading ships today on security grounds, it will feel pretty abusive. That’s what happens when you start ‘securing’ these types of areas, however.

    #2 – Better explosives screening at the checkpoint…. The magnetometer can’t screen for explosives, nor can the x-ray machine. We need one-stop shopping. Yeah, sure. DHS and DOD have hundreds of millions of grant dollars out there to develop such a thing. Unfortunately, sniffer technology isn’t very good yet, no matter how much money they throw at it. The most advanced device the government is capable of fielding at this point is Beagle 1.0, and the related algorithm, Bloodhound 2.1 Were there a better way, the contractors would be stumbling over each other to sell it to the government, and the government would be stumbling over itself to buy it. Sadly, wishing don’t make it so, but hundreds of millions in R&D just might, given enough time.

    #3. Faster, more efficient processing of lines into airports. According to a TSA press release from last year, during the worst crush weekend of the year (Thanksgiving), the average wait time was between 8 and 15 minutes at the busiest 40 airports, with the wait hovering at around 11 minutes most days during that weekend – similar to the worst wait times during peak hours in normal weeks. The average wait time nationally – this includes peak and non-peak travel hours – is around 4 minutes. How much money and how many people do you want to throw at that problem to reduce the average downward? You know that the security force is subsidized by ticket taxes, right? 4 minute national average. Think about that. Think about how much money for staff and machines it would take to triple capacity at peak times, in order to reduce the wait to 4 minutes.

    #4 Stop wasting time with nonsense like cigarette lighters.

    Yep. And liquids like shampoos and so forth. Well, until you see plots that involve making bombs out of liquid carried in shampoo bottles and other nondescript containers (like the British plotters arrested last summer) hoping to use lighters as triggering devices. Yes, a lot of the prohibitions are silly but I understand the risk-averse actions that bureaucrats and airlines take, given the threat of litigation and the fact that any shortcoming, no matter how minimal, becomes grist for a political witchhunt. A lot of executive branch overreactions aren’t stupid at all, they are based in the principle that it’s better to stay out of trouble than to get in trouble, and viewed from that standpoint it makes perfect sense that TSA and airlines would be overly cautious. Your correspondent just chooses to privilege a different set of priorities. Read James Q. Wilson’s “Bureaucracy” to get a sense of how this works.

    #5. Shoes. End this time waster. If you have the ability to detect explosives then you don’t need people taking off their shoes and slowing down the process.

    Good argument, but if you x-ray the shoes wires and detonators may be visible. Or secreted box cutters or similar items. See, e.g. Richard Reid.

    I generally agree with the rest of your FAM’s comments. I think a lot of the gripes he has result not from stupidity by managers but interest-balancing that he would probably disagree with, with the bureaucrats coming down definitively on the risk-averse side of the equation, even at the expense of convenience to the traveler. Ex-Rat is pretty close to the truth I think – the political exposure resulting from any screwup in this arena would probably be sufficient enough to gum up the entire mission. Talking to politicians doesn’t make you dumb, it just makes you act that way.

    Al Maviva (89d0b6)

  15. Screening for vendors and workers that have access to the airplane and tarmac but that arent going to actually fly anywhere

    I’ve recently spent some time travelling in Europe. While waiting at the departure area of two airports (Barcelona and Rome) we heard overhead announcements specifically warning passengers not to accept/purchase items from anyone in the secured area. In Barcelona this was reinforced with a security interview at the boarding gate that specifically asked if we possessed any such a items. Presumably this indicates an awareness/concern for what those vendors/workers could be bringing into the sterile area.

    ThomasD (21cdd1)

  16. I say go back to the way it was. We are losing three lives worth of time every day to the extra delay at airports, not to mention the cost of all the people and equipment.

    Fred (4d468e)

  17. Point #11: Rapport building.
    You could enlist these screeners from people who have worked as bartenders. This is a group of people who are used to developing rapport with “cold” walk-ups, and are unusually good at forming quick opinions of their customers. Of course, they would probably have to increase the compensation rate (there always is a sticking point, isn’t there?).

    Another Drew (33c3dc)

  18. I have avoided flying to avoid the PC irritation factor with TSA, but I recently came back from a ski trip with a newly broken arm (fun trip) and the TSA people were a thousand times better than my last flight a couple of years ago. The wand lady said right away, “Oh that must be still tender,” sort of apologetically, and then she gently wanded my cast. All were professional but that was a nice touch. Of course they were also conducting the mandatory Elderly American Couple advanced search nearby, but we can’t have everything.

    Patricia (824fa1)

  19. PatHMV,

    Apparently you missed where Paul said “take the Air Marshals course”–that’s the same training, isn’t it?

    Plus the pressurize environment is a complete red herring–one or two handgun-caliber-sized holes in the fuselage wouldn’t make a noticable addition to the normal cabin ventilation–but of course hitting bystanders or an important wire or hydraulic cable would be an issuue, hence the afore-mentioned training (and, doubtless, frangible ammo.

    Kirk Parker (11c8c8)


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