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Obama gets down to business

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Wow. What a rush. The election fury definitely caught up with me and I'm exhausted from election overstimulation. And even though the results are in, I can't keep myself from reading news report after news report about everything from what type of puppy the Obama's should get to speculation about his administrative appointments. But, luckily, I haven't completely squandered precious work hours for nothing. I came across this article that referenced Obama's plan for the future of TSA workers. Here's an excerpt:
In another letter, Obama said getting TSA screeners collective-bargaining rights “will be a priority for my administration” and a means to better workplace conditions and cut down on TSA’s high attrition. “It is unacceptable for [transportation security officers] to work under unfair rules and without workplace protections,” he wrote.

Obama also wrote that he may dismantle TSA’s pay-for-performance system, the Performance Accountability and Standards System, if he finds it is unfair and not transparent, and put TSA employees back on the General Schedule.

Unionizing TSA workers and paying them better wages seems like it would draw more qualified people and thus boost their credibility as security officials (and not just hope their spiffy new uniforms demand authority). It seems like more qualified and committed employees would lead to an overall improvement of security in the aviation industry, but from a business standpoint, unions equal less money to the bottom line and it's not like airlines are exactly rolling in it. However, despite the controversy, I think it's a good sign that Obama's addressing these kind of security issues before he's even sworn in as Commander-in-Chief.

Bye-bye travel size

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I've noticed several news reports lately (like here, here and here) about the TSA's expected easement of liquid restrictions by 2009. I spoke with my TSA source, Ann Davis, who said the removal of the liquid ban was possible but not definite.

"We've commented in the past that new technology may be available to potentially allieviate the liquid ban, but it's not really in the plans. It's not imminent or in the works to do so at this time," Davis said.

The reports all started from comments made by Kip Hawley, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. Hawley wrote a lengthy blog entry on the TSA's Web site about the technology being deployed in airports around the country. In it, he outlined a time line about liquid ban changes, including removing size restrictions on liquids (hurray for no more 3.4oz shampoo bottles!). Here's a little of what he wrote:

We are deploying the best technology and training as fast as we can get it. The goal is to remove all the restrictions on liquids when we have automated systems that can accurately separate threat from non-threat liquids. Here’s the plan:

Now: We are pretty close to having a network of AT-X-Ray deployed so that nearly 70% of daily passengers will be using major airports with AT. TSA is getting the hardware installed so that when the software is ready in the next year or so, all we have to do is a software upgrade. We will be testing software versions in the coming months.

Fall-2009: Size restriction removed, but all liquids will have to be placed in a separate bin. AT X-Ray software will be advanced enough to tell the difference between threat and non-threat but not yet proven to tell the difference when it is hidden in a bag.

End of 2010: No restrictions. AT X-Ray will have upgraded software that is proven to detect threat liquids in any configuration and is deployed in enough places so that TSA can change the rules to meet one uniform standard for the country.

Well, we can hope at least.


In defense of TSA screeners

Thursday, May 1, 2008
Contributed by Duane Jones, manager - security, Kinder Morgan.

As most of us have experienced the opportunity to experience air travel since the attacks on 9-11, and those of us who experience air travel frequently invariably have heard conversations concerning the effectiveness of the screenings at the airports. Recent news reports even indicate that the effectiveness of bomb screenings leave much to be desired as fake bombs have been successfully passed through the screeners. While the equipment certainly is not to be blamed for the failure to detect them, the obvious fault is placed on the screeners. While my purpose is not to propose that the screeners are perfect, or even that they are as effective as they should be, we must all realize that screeners are but one aspect of a layered security process at the airports that is an effective deterrent against another event like 9-11.

Screenings at the airports present several obstacles which an adversary must consider. First, let me offer the “testing” of screeners by using fake bombs only demonstrate that devices can be passed by persons who demonstrate no threat to the airline industry or air passengers. Just as these types of “tests” show there are weaknesses, they cannot accurately capture the levels of heightened sensitivities of an adversary intent on passing a real explosive device. The true assessment of the effectiveness of the screenings can only be measured in the number of real devices passed through the screenings processes and in the actual number of attacks that have occurred since 9-11.

To prove the effectiveness of screenings, we must look at the processes and countermeasures implemented at the airports from the perspective of the adversary. During any surveillance activities at virtually every airport in the United States, an adversary will see increased stand-off distances from key points, such as towers, aircraft ramps and fuel points. Drop-off and pick-up points for passengers may present an opportunity for an attack, yet even there the potential for police or security personnel have increased. In many airports, vehicles are warned against stopping for much more than seconds. While a car bombing at those locations is one potential scenario, the operational pay-off for a terrorist organization would be minimal, mainly serving as news coverage only with little other impact.

Surveillance activities within the airport will also show a large number of uniformed TSA and police officers who sole purpose is to identify and respond to suspicious activities. Just the presence of the uniform sends a powerful message which is again heightened by the fact that the individual is engaging in an operational activity that is continually being observed by someone. The adversary conducting surveillance will try to blend in to the environment but he or she will always assume there is counter-surveillance. These beliefs that they are being watched by the U.S. law enforcement apparatus only adds to the effectiveness of the other layers of the security program.

Upon reaching the screeners, the lines, identification check and X-ray machines again add to the belief that apprehension is potentially only seconds away. While pre-operational activities and dry runs by a terrorist group may be successful in passing a “test” item through the process, there will always be a concern that the real operation may be unsuccessful. After passing through the screening, there is a continued presence of TSA personnel as well as domes which an adversary must assume are being watched continually.

The steps taken to just get to board the airplane present several psychological obstacles for an adversary. The testing of these systems and screeners can never fully replicate the feelings and sensitivities of a real attack because it is our own security apparatus that is conducting the tests with no chance of being incarcerated, or worse yet, not being able to accomplish their mission. Imagine being the lone driver in the high-occupancy vehicle lane with nothing by police vehicles behind you. The event may be tested, but the feelings cannot be tested with the same degree of certainty.

The layering of the screening process is not perfect by any means. However, I offer that casual conversations from fellow air travelers, who believe they could bypass the screenings because the screeners don’t pay enough attention, look unprofessional or any other layman observation should cause reason for reconsideration because it is easy to assume you would not be caught when it is only a “test”.

The effects of media releases on the success rates of screenings only serve to be counterproductive as well. The general population has formed their opinion of the effectiveness of the screenings at the airports but the releasing the results of internal evaluations by TSA can only offer our adversary an glimmer of hope. I only hope that the terrorist evaluating an airport that I am flying through recognizes that there is a process, the screeners are trained, and there are many eyes watching from all over.

No, I'm an expert!

Monday, April 28, 2008

I've been meaning to blog about this for some time — the "Black Diamond" screening program that is. I'm sure you've all heard about it by now. Essentially, travelers will assess their level of "travel expertise" and then choose the lane that fits them.

At first glance, I love this idea. Although I don't ski, I can decipher the system pretty well.

Seems easy enough, right? Unfortunately, I think what will screw this up is the people themselves. The signs won't be read and a family will get into the wrong line. A guy who think he is an expert traveler because he traveled 10 times during the 1980s will bottleneck the system because he is angry he has to take his coat AND shoes off. I mean I try to be hopeful, but half of the people in the security line don't even know the liquid and gel rule yet, and that has been in effect for a year and a half now.

In my humble opinion

Thursday, April 10, 2008
I know, I know. I left the SPS pitch up on the blog for more than two days! Sorry! I was only going to leave it for one, but then I got tied up with travel mishaps: Flight cancellation, rerouting, special security screening, e-mail issues, etc. I'm in Ohio now and will fill you in on this trip in my editorial in the May issue but today I have to fill you in on the big news: The TSA's announcement that it plans to screen all cargo loaded on passenger planes.

It's about time if you ask me. It scares me that little 'ole frequent traveler me is heavily screened as are my bags — but the 322 million pounds of cargo Delta carries on average annually is not. That unscreened packages (some are screened, some not and for this argument I will assume most are not.) are sitting right below me, freaks me out to be honest. I try not to think about it because what other option do I have?

According to an article in USA Today, the effort begins this summer in major cities. Of course, it could mean longer delivery times for cargo freight, which does slow down business, but if I have to get to the airport two hours early, I think the cargo should pay a similar price for the security of the airlines, its employees and its passengers.

Here's the hitch though: Packing companies — roughly 12,000 USA Today reported — will have to volunteer to screen the cargo they deliver to airports. These companies will have to buy and run screening machines in the warehouses were shipments are packed. I don't know — if the TSA doesn't help pay for screeners and the equipment, which they are not expected to — I tend to doubt there will be a high number of volunteers. And what happens if you don't volunteer?

TSA said the goal is to move screening away from airport cargo facilities — funny, I thought it was to increase security.

Have you signed up?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Data from the Transportation Security Administration shows that the Registered Traveler program is proving to be less popular than expected in its first year, USA Today reported this weekend.

With 13 airports running the program, 65,000 individuals are enrolled — roughly half of the 126,000 initially projected by Verified Identity Pass, the firm hired by 11 airports to run the program.

But those figures don't seem to have derailed other airport's interest — Denver, Dulles and Washington Reagan will be rolling out Registered Traveler this year, while Atlanta is currently reviewing bids from management companies.

I know I've said this before, but I will say it again. Bring the program to the Portland International Jetport (we have 12 gates and the security line gets REALLY long. Check out the nifty graph below of PWM's security line wait times over the past few months.) and I'll be the first to sign up.