In the last two and a half years, the U.S. government has made progress in fortifying U.S. airports and airways against terrorism. However, despite the billions of dollars spent on federalized passenger screening systems, I have serious concerns over the state of our aviation security. The performance failure rates of the screening system are unacceptable and demand reform.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spends far too much time, money and effort inconveniencing passengers who pose no risk. TSA must change its focus and direct its attention and resources to objectives that will provide the most benefit and address the highest risks. This includes improved checkpoint screening technology, installation of in-line explosive detection systems (EDS), increased federal oversight, delegation of screening operations to local officials, and the adoption of biometric standards.
TSA must develop a strategic plan that addresses the most pressing aviation security risks. At the top of the list is the threat of suicide bombers on board aircraft. Even with higher standards and improved training, the failure rate for detecting explosives is alarming. Unfortunately, research to develop new technology and adapt existing technology that will improve detection lags far behind. Some new detection systems have been tested and proven in labs, but none of that technology has been widely deployed. Without a clear, long-term strategy, TSA will never be able to leverage private sector innovation or financing.
To meet the congressional mandate of screening 100 percent of all checked baggage, TSA placed thousands of EDS machines in the lobbies of commercial airports, inconveniencing passengers and creating headaches for airport operators. Only in a dozen airports has TSA been able to integrate EDS machines with the airports' baggage handling systems. Recent General Accounting Office (GAO) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General testing shows these in-line EDS systems are much more effective than stand-alone machines at detecting threats. At those few airports that currently have in-line EDS systems, the federal government will recoup its capital costs within a few years. Long-term EDS installation is, no doubt, a costly undertaking. However, the system's performance records are excellent, and it requires fewer personnel and lower operating costs. Therefore, the federal government must find a way to finance and complete installation of in-line EDS systems at all approved airports. Prolonging the inefficient, inconvenient and labor-intensive system we have in place now is simply not an option.
Aviation security is a federal responsibility. But micromanaging the employment, training and deployment of 45,000 security screeners from Washington has proven to be impossible. Problems with this centralized, command and control operation have raised serious concerns in Congress. Our aviation security system needs a common sense, decentralized screening program. As long as the highest-level federal security standards are met, or exceeded, how that is accomplished should be determined at the airport operational level.
There are 489 commercial service airports in the United States, each with its own unique set of circumstances and fluctuating scheduling requirements. A reformed federal system must allow for flexibility, cost savings and private sector innovation. Testing by the DHS Inspector General confirms that private screening companies under federal supervision provide equal or better security than the all-federal screening program.
The federal government works best when setting policy and conducting oversight. Europe and Israel have taken this approach without diluting their standards. TSA must shift its focus to oversight, testing and frequent inspections of the activities and performance of private screening companies.
Additionally, in the two and a half years since 9/11 we have failed to adopt a biometric standard to address the more basic problem of airport access control. Most security credentials that are used to authorize access to sensitive areas are ineffective against a terrorist who uses a lost, stolen or forged security badge or law enforcement officer credential. Biometric identity verification will close this security gap and provide an additional layer of security by ensuring that only persons who present legitimate credentials are permitted entry into sensitive areas. TSA must act immediately to adopt operational and performance standards for biometrics that will encourage airports, airlines and vendors to invest in these systems.
Intelligence reports indicate that al Qaida continues to probe our aviation system for security weaknesses. TSA cannot afford to let down its guard. Aviation security must continue to evolve into a smarter, thinking system in order to remain one step ahead of those who would do us harm.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is chairman, Subcommittee on Aviation - U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.