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)