When four hijacked airliners cost thousands of Americans their lives last September, the Bush administration vowed to make sweeping security changes. Yet six months after the attacks, those efforts are being hampered by a cost-conscious airline industry coupled with a federal aviation bureaucracy unwilling or unable to change, according to members of Congress, aviation officials and outside security experts.
The White House assured the public this week that new, stricter airport security measures make 24-hour fighter patrols above New York City unnecessary. That surprised many officials involved in revising aviation security regulations who say that changes since the Sept. 11 attacks have been largely cosmetic.
These officials, including several involved in monitoring the government’s implementation of new regulations, concede that locking cockpit doors, putting air marshals on some flights and increasing random checks of carry-on luggage - all instituted immediately after flights resumed in September - helped to improve security generally.
But they also say that a lack of urgency at the Department of Transportation and a sustained lobbying effort by the financially strapped airline industry have led to a go-slow approach to reforming a system that is itself a threat to the flying public.
“Now that they’ve got their bailout, the airlines have turned their money and attention to minimizing the number of permanent changes to the way they do business,” says one congressional staff member who deals with aviation issues.
Rep. Jay Inslee, a Washington State Democrat, says the airline industry and its lobby, the Air Transport Association, have contributed to a “history of failure” to follow through on safety improvements. “The industry has never looked at safety as a profit center, for sure,” says Inslee, whose district includes the slumping aircraft manufacturer Boeing. “We’ve passed a spate of bills, so to some extent the game is over in Congress. The ball is now in the regulators’ court, and there certainly will be some stalling actions, I think, from the industry.”
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York has been particularly critical of what he sees as the propensity of aviation regulators to put the financial interests of the airline industry ahead of safety. In January, Schumer complained that under current practices, baggage screeners were not even going to be required to have a high school diploma.
“Didn’t we learn anything? The whole point of the airline security bill was to prevent terrorists from getting through security checkpoints and onto our airplanes,” the Democrat wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. “That means hiring highly qualified screeners, and one of those qualifications has to be possessing a high school diploma.”
Calls for comment by MSNBC.com to the ATA’s headquarters in Washington were not returned. At the Department of Transportation, Chet Lunner, director of communications, noted that the government was going to waive the need for a high school diploma “only in cases where we feel the applicant has the proper experience to do the job.”
On Monday, MSNBC.com reported that the federal government still has not set up a system to match passenger’s checked luggage with an airline’s passenger list on connecting flights - perhaps the largest loophole in security procedures identified since the Sept. 11 attacks. In several past instances where airliners exploded in the sky, bombs were smuggled aboard in checked luggage and the bomber slipped away without ever boarding the plane. The Bush administration vowed to pay special attention to closing this loophole. But on Monday, after questioning from MSNBC.com, the new agency handling airline security - the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA - confirmed the system isn’t in place.
Another deadline also appears to be in jeopardy. According to congressional sources, not a single advanced “explosives detection system,” has been installed in the United States since Congress appropriated money for them last November. Federal officials are obliged to install bomb detection devices at all 429 airports in the country by December. The best available technology, according to security experts, is the large EDS or “explosives detection system” machines. The TSA only placed its first order for about 100 of them two weeks ago. Prospects for having the remaining 850 machines in place by December are considered remote, according to congressional sources, because the two certified vendors lack the manufacturing capacity to build them that quickly.
Why so slow?
The Department of Transportation agreed that all of the large EDS machines would not be installed nationwide by December, but insisted it would use other available technology to ensure the requirements of Congress are met. “We will make the deadline with a mix of technology,” said DOT’s spokesman Lunner. “There are other technologies, including hand-held devices.”
Lunner and the TSA’s spokesperson, Rebecca Trexler, say their agencies are moving as quickly as possible given the enormity of their task. Besides the initial responses involving air marshals and cockpit doors, they note that the Transportation Security Administration was created to manage the 28,000 federally employed baggage screeners Congress has demanded be on the job by November.
At the same time, the agency is trying to implement a system to match passengers to their bags, get the EDS machines and other systems installed and assess future security technologies.
Some in Congress aren’t satisfied.
“Frankly, I don’t see any possible excuse for how long it has taken to just order the [EDS] machines,” says Rep. Inslee. “To me, that is unbelievably lethargic.”
“The military understands mobilization; the transportation infrastructure does not,” Inslee says. “We have to think with a wartime mentality. We can’t sit around forming committees and getting input from all corners of the nation.”
As an example, Inslee cites the CIA’s decision to strap Hellfire missiles onto unmanned Predator reconnaissance drones during the Afghan military campaign, essentially inventing a weapon by improvising.
“They saw a need and they made a decision,” he says. “But somehow, we’re not doing that on airline security. These EDS machines have been around since the early 1990s. What’s taking so long?”
Same old story?
Stories like this still make Bogdan Dzakovik’s blood boil. For over a decade, Dzakovik has worked on the FAA’s “Red Team,” a small unit of undercover investigators who test and retest airport security systems around the country. Risking his job, Dzakovik recently went public with allegations that, since the team began work in 1995, FAA superiors ignored an almost constant stream of reports about flaws and holes in security systems nationwide. He says the carnage of Sept. 11, and a dreadful feeling that it might have been prevented, finally convinced him he had to speak out.
The FAA has refused to comment on the allegations, though the inspector general at its parent agency, the Department of Transportation, has been ordered to investigate the charges under federal whistleblower statutes.
“We got all sorts of things through - pistols, grenades, even a rifle once,” Dzakovik says. “In each case, we would report the failure to our FAA bosses. And never once that I can remember in all those years was there any real follow-up.”
In fact, Dzakovik says, when Red Team reports began to show that security employees were failing to pick up weapons in baggage at a rate of 85 percent or more, “we were ordered to tip off the local security chief that we were there.” Invariably, that resulted in nearly perfect detection rates - a situation that seemed to please his bosses.
Again and again, Dzakovik argues, the results were rigged, or innovations proposed by the team to make the tests more realistic were rejected. Once, he said, the team wanted to try to smuggle liquid explosives past a checkpoint after al-Qaida terrorist Ramzi Yousef admitted to a plot involving such a compound in 1995. But the request was denied.
“We weren’t allowed to test for knives at all,” Dzakovik said. “We never tried realistic explosives. I mean, look at what these terrorists have done. We may not like them, but we can’t pretend they aren’t clever.”
Why would the FAA want to rig results? Dzakovik believes the answer is in the cozy relationship the agency developed with the airline industry over the years. “Security costs money, and that’s money that doesn’t go under the profit line,” he says. [Airlines] gave Congress something like $80,000 in the last election. They don’t do that just to be nice.”
[A week after this story appeared, the DOT confirmed that field tests conducted by its investigators after the attacks show major lapses at U.S. airports. Undercover inspectors tried to sneak guns, knives and other weapons through check pints. The results were jarring: guns got through screeners in over 30 percent of the tests; knives went undetected in 70 percent, and simulated explosives in over 60 percent of tests.]
Charges that the FAA has been soft on the industry it regulates are hardly new. Until 1996, in fact, the agency’s charge was to promote the growth of the industry as well as to regulate it, a legacy of the days when the airlines were aviation pioneers inaugurating historic trans-continental, trans-Atlantic and finally trans-Pacific services.
Those days are gone, but many believe the relationship hasn’t changed with the times.
Transcripts of congressional hearings on aviation - which in recent years have been dominated by “on-time departures and arrivals” and “air traffic capacity” and almost never by security issues - are evidence of that. Any suggestion that security procedures should be taken out of the airlines’ hands was branded a threat to their competitiveness.
There were exceptions. In the wake of every major airline terrorist incident of the past 15 years, there have been spikes in activity. But in almost every case, a triangle of mutual interest in not rocking the boat prevailed - a triangle with the airline lobby on one point, the campaign money hungry Congress on another and the regulators of the FAA on the other:
In 1990, two years after Pan Am 103 was brought down by a bomb over Scotland, a presidential commission recommended criminal background checks for anyone with access to tarmac areas. Airline objections led the FAA to dilute the recommendations so much that few checks actually were done. A few in Congress complained but the issue was never revived.
In 1995, after Ramzi Yousef’s plan to bomb airliners over the Pacific was foiled, criminal background checks for baggage screeners also were proposed. Again, the airlines objected and the FAA relented. The checks were never made mandatory.
In 1996, after the TWA 800 crash and other issues regarding the performance of older airliners, in particular, Congress amended the law that gave the FAA the dual role of regulating and promoting the interests of the airline industry. This change was eventually enacted.
The other point
But placing all the blame on the airline industry or the FAA would miss the third player: Congress itself. In the past two election cycles, the Air Transport Association, the lobbying group that represents the main American airlines, has expertly targeted key members of the House and Senate transportation committees with campaign donations and “gifts” to keep their agenda foremost in the lawmakers’ minds.
For instance, for this post-Sept. 11 election cycle, the airline lobby has given more than $24,000 to the campaign of Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee.
In the House, Rep. Don Young, the Alaska Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee, leads all beneficiaries with $16,000 in donations from the industry.
The usual lobbying tactics are employed, too. High-profile former chief executives or politicians work their former colleagues, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s wife, Linda, a former deputy FAA administrator.
Some in Congress bristle at what they view as the interference of the airline lobby in lawmaking. Two weeks after Sept. 11, when the airline lobby’s senior vice president, John Meenan, told Congress that the industry now fully backed federalization of security, Rep. Peter DeFazio, the same Oregon Democrat who demanded that the FAA drop its “promotional” role several years earlier, called Meenan’s bluff.
“Part of the problem has been that the FAA proposes rules that the industry perceived - the ATA and member airlines and others - as they were going to cost money,” DeFazio said in the Sept. 25 hearing. “So they would immediately begin to file objections, concerns and comments and drag out the process as long as they could.”
Yet it was Congress, not the industry, that watered down the law that federalized airline security personnel, opening the way for a return to the private-sector contracting system that the airlines were so happy with before Sept. 11.
By January, however, tempers had calmed a bit. Eight members present at the hearing that day in September - DeFazio among them - accepted a trip to Hawaii paid for by the Air Transport Association.
DeFazio’s office defended the trip. His press secretary told reporters at the time that he went “for a frank dialogue with airport managers and airline executives.”