ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Editor’s Note: Security in the Balance

By David Jensen | March 1, 2005
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Are we more secure today than we were before 9/11? That question set the tone for a daylong symposium, titled "Post 9/11 Security Impacts on Air Traffic Control and Aviation," held Jan. 25 in Washington, D.C., and sponsored by the Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA). Its speakers agreed that, yes, aviation is more secure against terrorist attack than it was before 9/11. The next question would seem to be, are we secure enough?

But the real question that faces the aviation industry--implied during the symposium, though not voiced--is, what is the appropriate balance between security and its cost? As one speaker observed, "We can never assure total security." So, how much security is affordable and sufficient?

The cost of greater security is not all monetary. It includes sacrificing the convenience and freedom of mobility--what aviation is meant to deliver--to the traveling public. Aviation studies have found that more and more people have determined that, at certain distances, driving their cars is now more convenient than flying.

The burden of increased security is far-reaching. Keith Meurlin, manager of Washington Dulles International Airport, related the challenge of securing a facility that encompasses 11,000 acres, employs 15,000 persons, and accommodates 1,700 aircraft movements daily. As an example, he cited baggage screening. "It's a big job now," he told symposium attendees. "And now we're looking at the [Airbus] A380 with 600 passengers. We'll have to get all [their baggage] through the system in just two hours."

The burden of increased security impacts air traffic controllers, as well. "Right now controller training involves strictly safety and separation," said John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "But if requirements for security become permanent, we'll have to include security in our training, too."

The general aviation (GA) community also feels the weight of today's security emphasis. Ed Bolen, president and chief executive officer of the National Business Aviation Association, and Andrew Cebula, vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, emphasized that their organizations have been proactive in improving security by providing appropriate pilot training, advising airports of ways to secure their facilities, and establishing Airport Watch, a program that encourages people at GA airports to report suspicious activity. But Bolen and Cebula believe the pursuit of increased security isn't always fair to GA. Closing Ronald Reagan-National and other airports in the Washington area raises complaints. So do no-fly zones. "We don't think no-fly zones are a long-term solution," says Bolen.

For the U.S. air transport community, the balance of adequate security vs. cost is especially crucial. In an era of red ink and Chapter 11 bankruptcies, the cost of greater security can threaten some airlines' existence. The security risk receiving the most attention now is man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) in the hands of terrorists.

A recently released Rand Corp. study of the MANPADS threat provides the best example of the security-vs.-cost dilemma. The research firm estimates that installing anti-missile systems on the 6,800 aircraft in the U.S. commercial fleet would cost an exorbitant $11 billion. And maintaining the systems would add another $2.1 billion annually. That would be prohibitively expensive, the study concludes. Yet it also concludes that the loss of an airliner to a missile attack, in addition to taking hundreds of lives, could produce a penalty to the air transport industry reaching $15 billion within several months. There would appear to be no good option.

The aviation industry's burden can be summed up this way: it feels the pressure to establish, within a few years, a level of security that matches its level of safety, which has evolved over a century, since powered flight began. It can't be done. The cost of making aviation as secure as it is safe would be too big a pill to swallow in too short a time. Although the pressure will persist, the practical approach is to try to proceed with security improvements as methodically as possible, as was done in the safety domain, and to estimate as closely as possible the balance between cost and results.

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