Put Brains Behind Airway Safety


Jul 30, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in New York Daily News on July 30, 2002.

Manpower, munitions and money were vital to America's victory in World War II - but so was smart strategy. The same is true in our war against terrorists today.

Today a debate rages about the wisdom of a Dec. 31 deadline requiring the new Transportation Security Administration to screen all checked luggage loaded onto airplanes. The House voted narrowly last week to extend the deadline for a year because it looks like the agency could not meet it without causing massive delays at airports. The Senate has yet to vote.

The agency would need to get more than 2,000 explosives-detection screening machines to examine checked luggage by the end of the year to meet the original deadline, but only a few dozen are being manufactured each month for airports around the world. The agency could instead search baggage for explosives by hand, but that would cause massive delays. The agency also must hire, train and retain about 52,000 competent security staff.

To succeed, the agency needs to develop a creative and ambitious battle plan, and then execute it.

That is what Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and the other generals who worked with him did when they planned and then led the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. The Allied generals studied the enemy, found its weak points and assembled a well-trained and massive force that attacked with stealth and strength at the opportune moment - not to meet a schedule set in legislation.

We need the same kind of effort today for the Transportation Security Administration. But regrettably, aviation security in this country continues to be a product of industry-government wrangling and partisan politics.

The agency is hobbled by its lack of a strategic research capability to make critical decisions. Glaring gaps exist in the deployment of explosives-detection technology - gaps that can be filled immediately. Even if the year-end deadline for searches of all checked luggage cannot be met, other steps should be taken. These include:

  • Matching checked bags to passengers even on connecting flights.
  • Scrutinizing some passengers more carefully.
  • Using new technologies as they come online.
  • Deploying more and better trained security personnel.
  • Studying successful strategies at airports around the world and adopting them at our airports.

A serious move to tighten airport security also will require serious money. For example, doubling the $2.50 per boarding tax that is now charged on airline tickets would bring in about $5 billion in new funds each year that could be used to cover additional costs.

As the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security - on which I served - noted five years ago, improving security will require a combination of technologies, procedures and security officers who do their jobs properly. Aviation security tends to follow a pattern of enforcement and compliance, but it needs to focus on analysis and strategy as well. Instead of reacting to deadlines, the Transportation Security Administration should be acting to formulate innovative strategies and advising Congress on what needs to be done and when.

The agency should take the lead in liberating our skies from terrorists the way our forces under Eisenhower took the lead in liberating Europe from the Nazis.

Jenkins is a senior adviser at the nonprofit policy research institution Rand Corp.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.