Private vs TSA Screening

Some interesting press out of San Francisco recently regarding airport screening. Seems some private screeners working for Covenant Aviation Security, the largest contractor in the country under TSA’s Screener Partnership Program (SPP) are blowing the whistle about Covenant’s failure to follow established protocols. Covenant has a history of gaming the system and cheating on tests. No surprise there. Private screening isn’t inherently bad though, the performance-based contracts just need to be structured in such a way that incentivizes the correct performance.  Rewarding higher passenger throughputs per assigned staff or hitting your budgetary targets alone will just give you more of what you’re currently getting, gamesmanship. How well these private screening companies do on their TSA administered testing should be ranked right at the top of their performance criteria, ahead of all the other metrics. Plus, to really make this work, TSA should adopt a three strikes policy for cheating on these important tests. Three strikes and you permanently lose the contract. During the subsequent contract rebid process, any additional failures or cheating by the incumbant would result in very large fines.

Of course, all of this is pointless if TSA doesn’t provide effective oversight.

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“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” – Albert Einstein

I expect many of you have been following the Penn State scandal and all the fallout associated with it. It’s been a real tragedy and most of it didn’t need to happen. Had authorities acted promptly and appropriately many of these young people would never have been victimized. Much hand wringing and Monday morning quarterbacking (no pun intended!) has followed the revelation that officials at the highest levels created an organizational culture that placed the interests of the few above the interests of the many and in so doing negatively impacted the interests of everyone.

There are laws, there are rules and then there are ethics and morals. Sometimes these overlap but not always. Violating one but not another brings varying levels of consequence. I’ve always advised staff that when in doubt, just ‘do the right thing’ and you should be ok. I always go on to explain that that’s not ‘do the right thing’ for you, for me, or even the organization alone, but rather the right thing for everybody. I accept that that’s not always an easy thing to discern, that’s why we as a society generally place more senior, hopefully wiser people in positions of responsibility and then (hopefully) hold them accountable for their actions.

You may wonder why I mention Penn State in an aviation blog. The reason is I believe we have similar challenges in our industry that should take some of the difficult lessons being learned at PSU to heart without waiting for something bad to happen first. It’s an axiom in our industry that regulations are written in blood. Cost benefit plays in to this, the world can never be made absolutely safe for everybody at all times, regardless of the cost. That’s just a practical fact of life. We can get as close as humanly possible to absolute safety ‘perfection’ in some areas but would likely bankrupt the system in so doing. This is not an easy case to make, socially or politically. People generally and flyer’s in particular don’t want to hear about any risk in aviation. A primordial dread of falling from great heights no doubt being responsible for this statistically very unlikely fear. While much more likely, folks seem more accepting of road fatalities than death suffered as a result of a commercial airline crash. All of this assumes, of course, that people in positions of authority are doing everything they can to foster an organizational culture of safety that benefits everyone and that risks are being managed and minimized as much as is reasonably possible.

But I digress, back to the reason for this post. I ran into a former colleague a few weeks ago from an airport I last wrote about in 2007. He told me that airport management at this facility was still playing it fast and loose with established security protocols. I can’t say I was shocked. This is an airport that despite their public statements to the contrary, in my experience, has always taken the low road as concerns safety and security. They frequently made decisions, either through incompetence or misplaced priorities that placed their passengers at greater risk. I’ve long suspected that the lack of reported security breaches in the media at this facility in recent years simply reflected a less transparent approach by airport management, rather than a fix of the underlying problem. Of course failing to follow established security protocols requires a willing accomplice in the form of local TSA leadership who have their own reasons for playing along. Refusing to evacuate terminals after an unresolved security breach and re-sterilizing them places everyone at increased risk. Clearly ‘dumping’ the terminals after a breach is very inconvenient and costly but it’s the right thing to do in most cases. Re-sterilizing the terminal concourses is the only way to resolve an otherwise unresolvable breach. If they don’t agree with the protocol, lobby TSA to have it changed if they can make the case, don’t just ignore it. Not informing their passengers that they are receiving a lesser, locally imposed, standard of security is wrong. Not informing other airports that aircraft departing this facility during these lapses may have compromised their own sterile areas is wrong. Creating an organizational culture that punishes, rather than rewards people for expressing concerns about these failures is wrong. A conversation about professional ethics is long overdue for our industry. I don’t believe this problem is pervasive, but I believe it is a cancer that needs to be excised before it infects the larger system. ‘Cheating’ on something as important as airport security for competitive advantage can’t be tolerated. Airport professionals often speak of the ‘Aviation System’ because they understand that it’s a complex system of interrelated parts, each part affecting the others. Aviation and airport security in particular is proof of the old adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You’ll recall that two of the 9/11 hijackers went through screening and entered the ‘system’ through a small hub airport in Portland, Maine, later connecting at Boston Logan, proving that an airport of any size can serve as a portal of entry for terrorists.

This airport has suffered serious reductions in service and is highly motivated to convince air carriers that it offers a less intrusive, more cost effective, more ‘reasonable’ and ‘flexible’ approach to security. That’s simply code for non compliance. The airlines love it but don’t expect them to take the fall if something happens. By doing this, this airport is taking the short-term view rather than looking out for the long term interests of this important municipal asset. I can assure you that should this gamble with other people’s lives backfire, there will be no shortage of blame to be apportioned. There will be no lack of ‘Monday Morning Quarterbacking’ by everybody and their brother. People could be killed, lawsuits would proliferate and both this city’s reputation and its long-term business interests would suffer. As I mentioned in a previous post, another major concern would be the risk exposure being accepted by this airports leadership. Their terrorism insurance underwriter assumes the insured has provided accurate details concerning the risk to the underwriter and that the insured is fully complying with all extant laws, regulations and protocols. If an insured fails to inform an insurer that they are not fully complying with established requirements and in so doing not allowing the insurer to fully gauge the risk, the insurer may claim that any subsequent loss is not covered under the policy. Imagine the massive financial impact that could have on a municipality and its airport! Lest you think this is all nonsense and not a realistic scenario, let’s go back to the Penn State example. PSU’s insurer has just filed a motion with the state claiming it would be a violation of the law to pay out on the Universities liability policy for damages as a result of any civil suits made on behalf of the victims of Jerry Sandusky. The insurers rational is that Penn State unilaterally assumed risks that it did not inform the insurer about and thus the insurer could not properly assess that risk (and fix premiums accordingly and/or deny coverage). Of course, this airport will never admit it’s taking security shortcuts and will instead continue to place both passengers and its own municipal interests at greater risk. Like Penn State officials, this airports management failed, ‘“…to create an environment of accountability and transparency” or to exercise needed leadership…’

This is a situation that cries out for a Congressional investigation. I might have said TSA investigation but at this airport TSA appears to be a part of the problem. The inherent conflict of interest in TSA acting as both operator and regulator, in effect regulating its own work, is a topic for another time.

Your Government Failed You

Airport Security before 9/11

Calculating the Value of Human Life Just One Month before 9/11

Regulatory Compliance and Airport Competition

The Airline Industry and Self-regulation: Pre-9/11 Rules Barred Box Cutters

Airport Liability: Lawyers for 9-11 victims want to use Logan security report

Airlines and Airport Security Agree to Pay $1.2 Billion for 9/11 Property Damage

Logan hasn’t learned post-9/11 lessons: Airport sweep uncovers lax security, nets 14 aliens (2005)

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The Blog is Back!

Welcome to the new home of The Errant Aviator. After a lengthy hiatus working for ICAO in Afghanistan, We’re back and looking forward to waxing poetic on all matters relating to aviation.

This blog has always been based on the premise that you can’t fix what you can’t face and aviation, like any human endeavor, is an imperfect business. We always try to keep in mind that ultimately, it is the travelling public that we work for. So here, in these pages, lets talk straightforwardly about what’s wrong and what’s right with our industry.

Watch these pages for future posts and if you’re interested in articulating your own thoughts here, please drop me a line.

You’ll notice that this Blog now permits moderated comments (after you sign in) and comments are held until released for publication by the site admin.

Look for polls in the right hand column. Your answers are completely anonymous but do place a “cookie” on your computer in order to limit visitors to just one vote per poll.

You can also subscribe to this blog using RSS feeds, email or post to social media (Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) sites.

Kind regards,


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New Kabul International Terminal

From left, Mr. Sonada, Kabul International Airport new international terminal project manager, Stephen Irwin, Bruce Edwards (both with ICAO), Mr. Rashedi (Kabul Airport Technical President) & an unidentified Japanese engineer.
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Air Transport System Course, Dubai, UAE January 20 to 24, 2008

My classmates from the recent ACI/ICAO Airport Management Professional Accreditation Program held at ACI’s regional training facility in terminal 1 at Dubai Int’l Airport (DIA) from January 20 to 24, 2008. In addition to executives from airports around the world, pictured to my right are Mohammed Ahli, director-general of DCAA and DIA CEO Paul Griffiths.

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Thanksgiving in Kabul

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Accommodations for U.S. Military Personnel

The recent PR disaster at OAK could have been easily resolved by airport management with just three simple questions when the charter aircrafts pilot notified ground handling company Hilltop Aviation (who in turn notified airport management) that “the parking and passenger handling provisions did not meet expectations.” There are really three issues here, Security Screening, Customs/Immigration/Agriculture Clearance and Weapons on Board.

1. Were your passengers screened?

The Port’s statement about this aircraft not being “TSA-screened at their originating airport” belies their lack of understanding of the processes involved in airport security. TSA doesn’t screen embarking passengers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Paris, London or Rome, etc. TSA or ICAO compliant screening is the standard that must be met and that’s normally provided by local nationals operating in their own jurisdiction. At some overseas military airfields and commercial airports, ICAO compliant security screening (and often U.S. Customs, Immigration and Agriculture preclearance as well) is performed by U.S. military personnel under authority of DoA and DHS and by agreement with the host nation under a status of forces agreement. Whoever does it, designated U.S. military or host nation personnel, the screening is done and the pilot would have been aware of it. Even if they hadn’t been screened, they still could have been bussed to the front of the terminal and given access to the non-sterile area facilities to meet and greet, get something to eat, use the restrooms or whatever.

2. Were your passengers processed by Customs, Immigration and Dept. of Agriculture officers (or their designates)?

This charter began as an international flight but was on a domestic segment due to its stopover at JFK (as first Port of Entry into US) where everyone reportedly cleared Customs and Immigration. This flights passengers could have been cleared either at origination or at JFK (see above). The pilot would have had documentation to prove this. Most military charters operate under FAR Part 121 Supplemental rules and as such are subject to most of the same requirements as any commercial flight.

3. We understand you have weapons on board, are they being brought in in accordance with TSA protocols?

Accommodations for U.S. Military Personnel

Loaded weapons are not carried aboard military charter flights (Unlike many commercial flights operating everyday where air marshalls and/or flight crew may be armed). On military charters, weapons are unloaded and secured, usually in the belly of the aircraft along with the ammunition. The pilot or troop commander would have had documentation to prove this. I Googled and found the above link in less than a minute, they could have too.

I chalk all of this up to poor training and direction from above. OAK receives these charter flights regularly and should have written guidance on how to handle these sorts of problems a long time ago. I dare say, if you were to ask to see any guidance provided to staff on this topic, you’ll find none (or certainly none dated prior to Sept. 27th.) To be fair, everybody can’t know everything, that’s why written guidance and regular training is important.

Who cares what the airline or ground handler told the airport in advance? Airport management was presented with a problem in real-time and they handled it in less than sterling fashion. One would hope that this airport management doesn’t require advance coordination of a crash or other emergency in order to handle it properly. One would think these highly qualified individuals exhibiting an ability to think on their feet is why they make the big bucks. I’m not a big believer in excuses and I don’t think most people respect leaders whose first impulse is to try and deflect responsibility. The spin machine put in to place after this incident is a poor substitute for anticipating problems before they occur.

Part of the Port’s apology referenced how many staff and local leaders had themselves served in the military. All I can say is it must have been a very long time since any of them deployed outside the Bay Area.

Also, in future, airport spokespersons might want to coordinate their alibi with TSA before using them as an excuse. The feds left the Port swinging in the breeze on this hot potatoe issue.

Luckily for the Port, most media outlets know relatively little about the inner workings of an airport or they might have suffered even more negative press. If I were them, I wouldn’t count on that being the case forever. Bluffing your way through this relatively complex business will only get you so far.

Three questions, asked and answered, and this never would have made the papers and these honorable citizens would have been treated with the full respect they deserve. Airport management made this much more difficult than it needed to be.

OAK is many things, but anti-military isn’t one of them. People need to look elsewhere for the real answer to why this happened. However, if they’re as sincere in their committment to the troops as they say, how come OAK is currently the only one of the three Bay Area airports without a USO? Surely they could spare a little space and perhaps help with some volunteer staffing if as the Port spokesperson says, “All of us here at OAK proudly serve and support our nation’s military service men and women and their families. They are always treated with the highest level of respect and we go out of our way to ensure that their travel experience through OAK is in line with our very high customer service standards.”

Related Stories:

Oakland airport scrambles to explain why it kept Marines on tarmac

Port of Oakland Statement Regarding a Military Charter Flight Which Operated at OAK on Sept. 27

Oakland airport miscues sparked delay for Marines

TSA Statement on Incident Involving U.S. Troops at Oakland International Airport

Editorial: Marines’ airport mixup misreported by media

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Things Aren’t Always What They Seem (or, Who’s Running This Airport, Anyway?)

Several months ago an airport director of a large airport in the Midwest announced he was leaving after less than two years on the job. The reason given was that he wanted to spend more time with his family. The truth, it now appears, was that the high school educated deputy director he found himself forced to work with was an embarrassment to himself and his organization. This deputy has been arrested for DUI and has reportedly come to work under the influence on more than one occasion. Aside from the demoralizing effect this kind of behavior has on staff, this dysfunctional facility has suffered from a lack of professional leadership and technical innovation in the last few years. This airport has been on a downhill slide for some time now and fails to impress most who pass through its concourses. Low expectations, nepotism and a failure to lead by example are the hallmarks of this organization. The recently departed director, cognizant of the relatively small community of airport professionals we must all live among, wisely decided to leave on a pretext rather than come right out and say what the real problem was.

You might ask yourself why this director, rather than quit in frustration, didn’t simply fire this unqualified albatross left over from a previous administration and go on to revitalize this important airport?

The dirty little secret is, his deputies brother, the mayor, wouldn’t allow it.

That airport and this community deserves much better than this. Public-use airports should not be used as dumping grounds for politically connected hacks whose first allegiance is not to the airport, Director or flying public but rather to their political sponsor. And how objective can a performance evaluation be when written for someone with connections downtown?

In many cities, airports are an attractive target for political interference and most airport directors serve at the will of elected officials. Directors are often faced with a choice between playing ball or losing their job. Revenue diversion laws prevent the most onerous forms of milking the cash cow that many airports represent but clever politicians find new ways to get their fingers in the till. The recent story about Houston conducting a no-bid renewal of an airport concessionaires contract for a politically connected businessman is just the latest example of behavior at odds with a free market society. Who would have thought that could happen in Texas?

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Truth As A Tactic

Two recent incidents have reinforced my belief that some in this industry, entrusted with the public’s safety and security, believe that spinning the facts is an acceptable way of meeting their obligations to the people they serve (No, I’m not talking about the airlines here, I refer to the travelling public).

The first occurred several weeks ago, as an airport I’ve written about before, suffered yet another security breach in a long string of security breaches dating back to 9/11. Now one would think they’d learn from their mistakes, take corrective action and reduce or eliminate the considerable impact these things have on everybody concerned. But no, faced with a choice between doing the right thing and gaming the system, they simply decided to stop following long established security protocols. You see, they think the protocol is the problem, not the fact that they seem unable to prevent or reduce the number of breaches. Something that didn’t make the papers is the fact that they refused to evacuate the terminals and rescreen everybody even though local law enforcement assigned to this airport advised they do so. The breach was classic and nearly identical to several others that have occurred at this airport and others. An individual walked right past a TSO, through the exit lane, and in to the sterile area. The person was never found which makes it difficult to understand how a TSA spokesperson could later say they determined the individual was not a threat. They ‘determined’ this by running bomb dogs around the crowded terminals. You don’t need to be Karnak, or a rocket scientist to know bomb dogs are worthless when it comes to finding knives (including box cutters), guns and several types of explosives and bomb components. If running bomb sniffer dogs through a crowd was an acceptable substitute for physical screening, why is every airport in the country using checkpoints with x-ray and trace detection equipment?

Now what would cause local officials to act so callously when dealing with the security of the people they serve? These folks have families, they’re not evil or uncaring. The problem is they don’t believe another attack will happen, or at least (they tell themselves) not at their airport. They convince themselves that the risks don’t justify the expense. The dilemma here is that they’ve decided to offer a lesser standard of security at this airport, and in so doing make it a more attractive target for terrorists, without consulting the people most affected by it, their passengers. Putting aside the fact that they’re failing to follow a well established TSA security protocol, it seems the least they could do is ask the people who use their facility what they think so they can make an informed choice.

Not Good For Business

Not surprisingly, airports don’t like disruptions, and security breaches rank right at the top for impacting everybody, and this airport is no different. Airport management at this facility believes it’s not their call to evacuate terminals. They are only too happy to let the TSA take the heat for failing to follow their own protocols. These airport managers accept no responsibility for the security of their customers, that’s TSA’s job, they believe. They don’t demand their FSD follow the protocol, they don’t call TSA HQ to complain, they don’t advise other airports that they might have compromised their sterile areas. They’re happy with the way things are, so they do nothing. They believe they demonstrated due diligence but would their terrorism insurance underwriter agree? The saddest part of this situation is that their security ‘shortcut’ of running the dogs around took longer to accomplish than past evacuations/rescreenings. It actually took longer to do it the wrong way than the safe way. So much for logic.

Sky Harbor Spin

The other incident that leaves me wondering if truth will ever find a home at TSA is the recent discovery by local news media that Sky Harbor’s checkpoints were being staffed by a private security vendor in the middle of the night for the last two years. Guards were observed waving airport staff, concessionaires and delivery people through checkpoints into the sterile area without any physical inspection of their person or property. All these people had approved badges so this was consistent with current TSA rules but screening of employees is a hot topic of debate and the subject of pending federal legislation. As far as this part of the story goes, Sky Harbor’s arrangement is not unusual. The problem was, contrary to TSA rules, the sterile areas were not being swept for contraband prior to control of the checkpoints being returned to TSA each morning. Bad enough, but it gets worse. Reports that these same private guards were often observed sleeping on the job means anybody carrying anything could have gained access to terminal sterile areas and then subsequently on to aircraft. Add to that the fact that the airport wasn’t doing a sweep prior to the hand back to the feds and you have to wonder how acting FSD Michael Aguilar could possibly say, “The safety and security of the public has never been in question or jeopardy.” Effectively, the Sky Harbor sterile areas stopped being sterile from the first time a security guard took a nap until this problem was discovered, potentially as long as two years. And how often are we going to hear the ‘layers of protection’ speech whenever a major embarrassment occurs? It generally goes something like, ‘Yes, we had a problem but it doesn’t really matter because we have these ‘layers’, you see, some of them so secret that if I told you about them I’d have to kill you.’ Well, I’ve seen these ‘layers’ and every one of them has failed at one time or another. Every layer contains an element of, ‘this isn’t all that critical ’cause one of the other layers will catch it if I miss something. Every layer needs to function like the last line of defense.

Can I make a suggestion? When these things happen, tell the media that mistakes were made and the issues are being addressed. Then fix the problem. Is that really so hard to do?

Related Stories:

Airport Security to Weigh Risks Before Ordering Evacuations

Oakland International Airport lacks security technology, experts say

Guns Drawn At Oakland Airport in Fourth Breach this Year

Airport groups oppose TSA plan

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Airport Security – The Chaser

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