Aviation Security, Texas Style

It might be premature to proclaim a "Texas miracle" in aviation security. Problems with aviation security (AVSEC, in the professional argot) that persist around the nation also persist specifically in Texas, and recent incidents revealing chinks in the state's aviation security armor run the gamut from comic to tragic.

In September, homesick stowaway son Charles McKinley succeeded in shipping himself home, by plane, to Dallas. McKinley's escapade, promptly dubbed "Cargo Class," was a three-airport trip. The packing crate in which he stowed away in New York City's Kennedy International was transferred from one plane to another at Fort Wayne, Ind., and a ground shipping company picked it up at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to deliver to his parents' house. At no stage was 25-five-year-old McKinley spotted until he started ripping himself out of the box on his parents' lawn in DeSoto, Texas. Even then he would not have been detected, had he waited until after the delivery truck had left.

Also in September, a vigilant college student named Nathaniel Heatwole emailed federal authorities, telling them he had placed contraband items aboard two Southwest Airlines planes to expose the weaknesses in the nation's aviation-security system. The items were not found until five weeks later, even though Heatwole's emails disclosed which specific flights he had left them on board. One factor in the delay, according to official statements, was that the Transportation Security Administration, a new agency within the also-new Department of Homeland Security, did not forward the emails to the FBI. The items, including box cutters, were found in plastic bags in the planes' lavatories in New Orleans and Houston during routine maintenance checks.

Minor incidents abound. In August, hundreds of passengers were evacuated from Austin Bergstrom International Airport after a passenger who had been buttonholed for a secondary search eluded security and walked away instead.

In July, according to a police source, passenger "Jim Cole checked through Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport's terminal ... security checkpoint with carryon luggage. After clearing [security], Mr. Cole proceeded to terminal ... for his flight ... [where he] stopped off at [a bar] and opened his carry-on luggage." Cole then "discovered he had forgotten to remove his .38 caliber revolver, which was fully loaded." He immediately notified the airline of his mistake. "TSA and HPD were then notified and took custody of Mr. Cole and the listed gun. Mr. Cole and the revolver were checked for any wants for prior histories and found to be clear. HPD contacted the Harris County DA for any possible charges, which were refused. Mr. Cole's revolver was turned over to a relative at the airport and Mr. Cole released to continue his travels."

Details aside, little of this surprises insiders with lengthy experience in commercial aviation. Aviation security specialists formerly in government have pointed out for two years that federal security-tightening measures focused on ordinary commercial passengers leave a gaping "back door" that includes ground crews, cargo handling, airport perimeters, private charter planes, and unauthorized personnel.

Authorized personnel have their problems, too. Staffing the newly-created Transportation Security Administration in the also-new Department of Homeland Security was a difficult challenge from the beginning, with no organizational blueprint adequate to the challenge. Problems include high turnover, lack of training, poor morale, and gaping loopholes in a gigantic "security" edifice that generates sizeable contracts but little confidence among those who know it best.

In regard to McKinley, one obvious concern would seem to be cargo shipping. The TSA currently plans to spend $20 million for a study on ways to improve cargo security. Raising more questions about whether a new agency can handle cargo security better than a tightened and improved FAA could have done, proposals so far include ID cards for cargo personnel. But according to one field agent in aviation security who does not wish to be named, relying on ID is basically using "something else to forge."

As he points out, "Several European countries already screen all cargo with a gigantic x-ray machine that trucks drive through. That is the only thing on the horizon that works. Why TSA is reinventing the wheel I don't know. But those x-ray machines took years and lots of bucks to get up and running." Improvements that should have begun sooner need no further delay: "They should go to Europe and see what they have and just gear up and stop posing about 'studying' the problem."

The inherent difficulties of the situation have been exacerbated by management problems, on which FAA alumni like Kieran T. (Kerry) Spaulding are something of an authority. Spaulding, a former special agent and civil aviation security specialist, had a two-year stint at Houston's Civil Aviation Security Field Office. He now works in security and counterintelligence at NASA. Despite a nationwide need for qualified personnel in aviation security and what amounted to a hiring frenzy when the new Transportation Security Administration was formed, "I got a job offer from NASA as a special agent in the counterintelligence/counterterrorism unit that just seemed too inviting to pass up." He adds that he "took a down-grade to a GS-12 [a lower governmental pay rate], but it was worth it not to have to put up with the over-abundance of jerks that seem to populate the FAA/TSA management."

"This agency (TSA)," according to Spaulding among others, was formed largely from a group of people with "little or no knowledge of operational security requirements." Over and above the problems connected with trying to visualize every security flaw in every sector of aviation, Spaulding and other former FAA personnel cite a "lack of successful leadership models" and a lack of practical experience "in applying OPSEC [operational security] in a dynamic environment such as commercial aviation operations."

In less technical language, those appointed atop the TSA's security regions sometimes lack the specialized expertise to evaluate candidates for security positions in their domains. The problems were compounded by having to staff new agencies partly from scratch and partly from the most intensely entrenched ranks of former personnel.

Indeed, some of the choosing is not done from the top. As Spaulding describes it, the swift effort to staff the TSA was in part a "typical Human Resources staffing setup," where you "had GS-5 [lowest-level] Human Resources people judging security applicants," who "have no idea what they're supposed to be looking for."

Spaulding, also a former Army Reserve Criminal Investigation Division (CID) special agent and a flight instructor, held a pilot's certificate for 20 years. He had intended to stay at Hobby Airport when the new TSA was created.

Spaulding's move is not unusual. A number of former FAA personnel and newer Transportation Security Administration personnel have already voted with their feet. The position of Federal Security Director, created only a year ago, has already lost several of its office holders, including the FSD at Houston Intercontinental Airport, John E. Gartland. Gartland is now "transitioning out" of Houston's Bush airport, according to Richard Vacer, director of airport operations for Houston, to the Charlotte, N.C., airport position recently vacated when its last FSD resigned after eight fractious months on the job.

Congressman Nick Lampson (D-Texas) is among those expressing concern at the turnover and morale problems in the new agencies. Lampson, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, says "I don't think we're doing everything we could be doing to get all the bang for the buck [regarding aviation security]." Doing a homemade security check, "I myself brought something not appropriate onto an airplane, something on the list of forbidden articles; it was a little fingernail file and money clip. It was finally found in a little rural airport on my, I think it was, 11th flight."

"This shouldn't be a process of looking for something metal," Lampson says pleasantly; "It should be a process of looking for [threatening] people, looking them in eye, finding out the reality of one-way tickets or no bags, whatever the threat [indicator] is.

"We've been way too slow implementing [screening processes] anyway," Lampson argues. "Sixty percent of people who fly on planes are frequent flyers, they could be cleared fast and free up personnel for other functions."

Regarding the turnover problems for FSDs and airport personnel, Lampson points out, "Some of those things have been happening in other areas as well, not just in airports. I don't think that Congress has taken up [turnover] yet, but it's certainly a concern. Again, training personnel costs a great deal of money; it costs a great deal to retrain, to implement [security] policies, it's very expensive, and we need to be thinking as wisely as possible about how to use the money."

With over 150 new Federal Security Director (FSD) positions to be filled within six to eight months, however, a background in commercial aviation security was never designated as a requirement for the post.

Margie Burns is a Texas native who now writes from Washington, D.C. Email

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