Image: Emirates jet
eisenbahner / CC BY 2.0
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updated 5/7/2010 12:47:00 PM ET 2010-05-07T16:47:00
on the fly

A day after TSA tightened rules on how often airlines need to cross check their passenger databases against no-fly lists, the question remains: How did the would-be Times Square bomber manage to get on a plane at all?

Actually, according to security officials I've spoken to in the last few days, what we should be marveling at is that Faisal Shahzad, an Pakistani-born American citizen, was at least apprehended before the Dubai-bound Emirates flight took off.

In fact, the more common scenario we hear about is the mid-flight diversion. Several weeks ago a Delta flight from Nigeria to New York made an unscheduled landing in Puerto Rico to offload a passenger whose name had raised a red flag half way through the flight. Earlier this year a Continental flight to Bogota landed in Florida instead to check out a suspicious person, in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. And every few months, it seems, we read of yet another transatlantic flight landing at some small airfield in Maine (they're getting used to it — they even have a jail at Bangor Airport, mainly for drunken air-ragers.)  And of course on Christmas the underwear bomber got on a flight and nearly made it to his final destination, though he was not on a no-fly list — but he should have been.

So back to the question of why aren't these people stopped at the boarding gate or before — while it seems a fairly simply matter to check passenger lists against terror lists prior to take off the reality is that it's anything but, I'm told. The sheer volume of passengers who fly on a daily basis around the world — six million, at least — must be added to the many multiples of that number who've made reservations for future flights. And in the past eight years there's been little progress on how to refine the process to make it smarter.

"It just goes to show that in some ways we're actually worse off than we were before 9/11" in pre-screening passengers, says Doug Laird, a former airline security expert who now runs Laird & Associates, a Nevada based consultancy.

Even TSA's new rule that airlines must check names added to the terrorist no fly list every 2 hours — instead of every 24 hours — won't necessarily eliminate the possibility that another wanted person could board a flight. "It's not going to work; it’s just too cumbersome, expensive and relies on the same flawed procedures" Laird said. One other obvious flaw is that someone trying to evade detection could use a false name or even slightly different moniker.  Most people, of course, buy their tickets in advance and pay with a credit card, and that's when their names are "scrubbed" by cross checking against various watch lists. Adding someone's name virtually at the last minute and then expecting all airlines to find that name isn't easy — that's why we need more layers of security as a back-up.

"The problem is, we're looking for names instead of looking for behavior" that could flag people needing extra screening, says Laird. And names alone won't get you that far unless you know roughly where the person is going and when, he added.

Laird's argument that we've taken a step back since 9/11 is worth examining.

Because under the old system, a last minute purchase of an airline ticket, with cash, would have instantly set off alarm bells and should have this time.
Incredibly, it didn't, or at least, it didn't among those who could have stopped Shahzad — although reportedly Emirates agents did note the odd behavior.

While running security at Northwest Airlines, Laird helped to design the original passenger pres-screening program, called CAPPS (computer assisted passenger prescreening). It used data in the airlines' own reservations systems, giving each a score based on past travel history, payment methods and the like. What's less well-known is that it also used frequent flier program details on how often a person changed addresses, for example. Bottom line: the more the airline knew about you, the less of a threat you were. "It was a pretty straightforward way, not to identify terrorists, but people we didn't know."   

On 9/11 CAPPS singled out ten of the 19 hijackings for extra screening.
"What failed that day was not the screening but the policies and procedures in place that day for what to do with it." Under CAPPS, Shahzad would have gotten "a really bad score", said Laird.

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But TSA took over and CAPPS has been in limbo as the agency works on a successor. Now called Secure Flight, it's been repeatedly delayed, but it will include more details on passengers including their date of birth, gender and full legal names. What we're still missing is an effective way to separate the known travelers from the unknowns — freeing up resources to better home in on the latter. 

A private sector program to give expedited screening to frequent travelers who voluntarily submit to background checks could have helped in this regard, but it went bust last year —  although this week there are reports that a new company plans to revive the program — called Clear — this fall.

Finally what caught Shahzad as he was close to taking off at JFK was that last minute check of passengers who've actually boarded the plane — usually conducted by Customs and Border Patrol as little as a half hour before departure.

It doesn't always get completed on time, however, and often the judgment call is made in favor of pushing back the plane on time — which is why we have those occasional mid-journey revelations that someone on the no-fly list is, in fact, flying.

© 2013 Condé Nast Traveler

Video: Tightening TSA rules

  1. Closed captioning of: Tightening TSA rules

    >>> we get them.

    >>> in the wake of the failed times square bomb attempt, lawmakers are considering upgrades to security. senator joe lieberman is a key sponsor of new legislation and told me that it would work this way.

    >> what we're doing is taking a 70-year-old statute and applying it to the fight, the war that we're in. we say that if the state department finds that an individual american citizen is working with a foreign terrorist organization , it can make the case that by that action, that person has renounced their citizenship . this law that we're simply amending was upheld united states supreme court in 1980 so it is constitutional.

    >> california senator dianne feinstein chairs the intelligence committee . senator, welcome. thanks very much. your initial reaction to, at first blush, what joe lieberman has proposed today?

    >> well, the law was upheld as constitutional. we don't know whether the additions senator lieberman is making would be upheld as constitutional because it involves anybody that contributes to an organization that they may not actually know contributes to some relief organization which is supported by some terrorist organization , which happens to happen. hamas, for example, is designated as a terrorist organization . so i think we have seen no bill language yet, andrea , and so i have to look at the bill language. i have no problem with this if the constitutional guarantees are maintained and that's what we have to look at.

    >> there are attempts today to tighten this relationship between the no fly list, the airlines , and our own customs and border patrol . we saw shahzad got past tsa, got on the plane , and finally the emirates airline notified that he was on the manifest and that of course was how he got taken off. but again today a false alarm apparently at jfk . an emirates flight to dubai , they say they have fixed this and that the airlines have to notify in two hours. is that good enough? why can't we be faster in this era of computer technology ?

    >> that's a new change as of today. it will go from 24 hours to two hours. the question is whether the airlines are going to be fully responsible and really handle this well. you've had some evidence of negligence already in a serious case. having said that, the tsa handles this issue domestically, and the plan is within a year to transition this no fly list into the tsa. in other words, it would be government controlled. i actually think that ought to be sped up. we ought to get it done as soon as possible. the no fly list is difficult because already they have had a missed match today of someone.

    >> right.

    >> so people are very sensitive about it. on the other hand , it is the fail safe . and my own view is to have a complete list you may have some mismatches but that's a small price to pay for missing somebody that has just set off a major bomb and killed maybe hundreds if not thousands of people.

    >> in pakistan we are told there are some links . clearly, this man went for training. and that this may be a new kind of terrorist , someone who was being absorbed into american society . he had come here, he had his mba , had family . then he goes back. the house is foreclosed. whether he had economic problems or not. he comes from a prominent family with a father and uncle, major military figures there. yet this man turns into a terror suspect and came very close to doing something that could have injured or killed american citizens . what are we seeing now with pakistan ?

    >> yes. i think that's very accurate. i think this is a new prototype of the exact type of person that they're looking for. somebody that can get in and out of the united states without too much scrutiny. a citizen, a college graduate , a graduate degree , a homeowner, a family man, two children . in fact, this man had been going back and forth to pakistan for some ten years now about once a year. he actually was screened once he came back. they found nothing. we need to now know with abdul mutallab the christmas day bomber and this individual that this is the prototype so we have to be very, very careful. and it's hard. you have 180,000 people going just to pakistan a year from this country , 160,000 coming back. so the key is to develop some screening mechanisms that can screen out people and have some knowledge of what they're doing when they go to another country that is a hot bed for terrorist training. and that means pakistan . it means yemen . it means somalia. now, you know, these terrorists are very smart . they listen to what we do. they adjust and they adopt. so we have to move quickly and do things quickly to protect ourselves.

    >> senator dianne feinstein the chairman of the senate intelligence committee , thank you very much .

    >> thank you.

    >>> that does it for this

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