A Common Sense Approach to Air Travel Security and Safety

Prior to September 11, 2001 many Americans had an attitude of complacency toward the every day things they all took for granted, especially air travel. In this first in a series of articles, author Michael D. Crucefix notes all that has changed.

Although sometimes experiencing late or cancelled flights, reduced meals or just not getting upgraded to first-class on your elite frequent flyer status, air travel was still basically a non issue.

All that instantly changed on September 11 for both air travelers and non-air travelers. We became instantly guarded, protective, suspicious and angry over the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist incidents. Government agencies at all levels commenced intervention processes to re-gain airport security on the ground and in the air and the American people's confidence that the terrorist threat was under control. In the ensuring months, air travel started to return but not to the expected passenger numbers and flight frequencies reflected prior to September 11.

In all fairness, we knew a considerable amount of work had yet to be completed to ensure air safety and security. Two major accomplishments that have occurred to-date are the appointment of former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge as director of Homeland Security and the Aviation Bill.

According to USA TODAY, Nov. 16, 2001, President George W. Bush hailed the agreement that produced the bill and said the legislation would make air travel safer. "Safety comes first, and when it comes to safety, we will set high standards and enforce them," Bush is quoted as saying.

Activities from the bill such as federal supervision of airport security, including making all baggage screeners and supervisors federal government employees within one year; more armed air marshals on domestic flights; and x-raying all checked baggage, to name a few, can go a long way in reducing future incidents from occurring. However, the average airport worker, passenger or flight personnel does not have any real input into legislation bills or government bodies, at least to any great degree. What they can do happens to be very basic, apply common sense and work within their own abilities. Indirectly this common sense application used properly, responsibly and in conjunction with what the different levels or governments are doing will drastically improve air travel safety/security.

The objective is simple, reduce the possibility of aggravating passengers, which can escalate into an unruly or aggressive situation that causes serious incidents. The Federal Aviation Administration says that as of Sept. 24 in the year 2001, 172 unruly passengers were identified. A FAA spokesperson indicated to me that this only reflects reported unruly passengers, so it is not a good reflection of the actual numbers, which are much greater. As of April 16, 2000, under the Reauthorization Bill, unruly passengers can now be fined by the FAA up to $25,000 for each infraction. To identify and manage airline incidents, concentration should be applied to the following three areas:

  • Airport Security/Safety - First Line of Defense (FLD)
  • Airplane Security/Safety - Second Line of Defense (SLD)
  • -Passenger Security/Safety - Third Line of Defense (TLD)

Airport Security/Safety

There have been many instances recently where passengers have been overly searched by enthusiastic security screeners and have had items taken away that demonstrate absolutely no danger to anyone. The FAA Web site (www.faa.gov) outlines items that travelers are not allowed to carry. It is beyond me and many passengers I have talked with why screeners have taken away items such as pull-tabs off soda cans, safety razors and blades, nail clippers and tiny folding scissors, when the majority of these items can be legitimately purchased inside the security checkpoint in the concourses.

I have personally had taken from me soda can pull tabs that I save from business trips for my wife's sorority, Beta Sigma Phi which is given money for them, based on total weight, that goes to fund Ronald McDonald House projects. I asked the army security personnel why the pull-tabs were taken and he answered, "Because they are sharp and could be used as a weapon."

This was probably the canned answer he was required to provide, but it seems so inadequate since I could get a can of soda on board the plane and keep the can and the pull-tab. One occasion I am familiar with involves a pilot who had a "sharp" item taken away by a security screener. The irony here is the pilot has an axe in the cockpit.

Even the common pen can be used as a weapon in properly trained hands so shall we take all pens and pencils away from passengers?

Media Attention

Recently the press has been testing the security/safety process of air travel. One incident that comes to mind occurred recently in Canada.

A Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper reporter Jan Wong went to a Dollar Store in Toronto and purchased a box cutter, a nail clipper and tweezers, a utility knife, six-inch steel scissors, a Swiss army knife, two pen knifes, a cork screw (with a knife blade) and a crochet hook. The security screeners found the corkscrew and the pair of small fold up scissors.

The article, which appeared in the Globe and Mail on Nov. 8, 2001, noted, "Most scary of all, the security check missed the box cutter. It was in Wong's purse, visible in a clear plastic pencil case with pens, highlighter and Post-It notes."

The story goes on to say that while in flight, Wong took out several of the items and displayed them on the table tray. Lunch came with a metal fork and spoon. After lunch, she pulled out the plastic transparent pencil case with the box cutter clearly visible and left it on the tray table. Just a few minutes before the plane landed, a flight attendant said he had to report it to authorities.

I am not in favor of this type of sensationalism, because it does nothing more than undermine specific agencies who have the responsibility and accountability to do the very same thing, test the effectiveness of air travel security/safety. However, I do understand why she did it and in this case, it did wake-up a considerable number of governmental agencies in Canada.

Securty Measures

Not withstanding what governments are presently doing, I believe the following activities need to be part of airport security/safety:

  • All baggage must be matched to the traveler, as is carry-on baggage. If this is not done, what is the sense of checking baggage at all?
  • Fully trained/certified security screeners should be hired.
  • Training records should be retained and ready for inspection/audit.
  • Improve the security screener's skills of memory and observations.
  • Conduct second-party unbiased audits of the security/safety management processes using an established audit protocol.
  • Introduce a process for behavior observations to ensure security screeners are performing their job function properly according to set standards.
  • Introduce management and employee performance standards that determine who does what when.
  • Profile passengers, not racially motivated criteria, but using observation-based criteria.
  • Improve security screeners' vigilance when looking at and searching carry-on baggage. So many unacceptable items can be carried onboard that are easily hidden from screeners. Items like knives can be placed in carry-on baggage in such a position that the x-ray machine only sees the end of the knife, not the length, making it very difficult to identify. Flammable liquids in bottles can masquerade as shampoo or conditioner d. Explosives can be placed in the heel of a shoe or in shoes. Coat hangers in carry-on suitcases can be used as an ice pick-type weapon. Credit card-sized promotional items that have a hidden penknife normally used to open envelopes can be carried in a man's wallet or a woman's purse.
  • All X-ray machines should have a sized template at the start of the belt. If baggage cannot pass through, it should not be considered carry-on baggage.
  • Pre-print categories on the boarding pass that cover electronic equipment like computers, digital cameras, Palm Pilots, etc., that the ticket agent would complete by checking off what the passenger is carrying. It would be the responsibility of the security screeners to match the boarding pass with each passenger and his or her bags to assist in identifying what is located in carry-on baggage. Passengers who elect to check in at a kiosk assume the responsibility of marking their own boarding pass. The most important aspect is to match the passenger and his or her luggage with each and every boarding pass.
  • Document photographic images (Facial Recognition Systems) of passengers at check-in or somewhere during the check-in process. The facial image would be stored in a data bank for facial mapping to determine who is boarding any given plane prior to take-off. (This kind of recognition system has worked well in the casino industry for some time.) Once established, decisions can be made about allowing certain passengers onto plans and action can be initiated in advance of an incident.
  • More resources should be provided for high-tech screening equipment to detect explosives, chemical agents or biological materials. Until high-tech screening is available at all airport locations, the use of canine patrols should be further expanded.
  • Airport concourses should have specific pedestrian traffic flow directions to eliminate congestion from boarding and de-boarding planes. A concourse can be a confusing place to be when each and every person is going in one of two directions and all seem to be in a hurry. Appropriate pedestrian traffic flow would greatly reduce the possibility of aggravating passengers, which might be the last step to becoming unruly.

I have not, by any stretch of the imagination, covered every possible correction or need that could inherently make airports safe, I have just covered some fairly simple aspects that might assist with that objective. The check-in/security screening process must be considered as the first line of defense to identify trouble of all kinds, potential unruly or agitated passengers, banned carry-on items or suspected terrorists. We must all - passengers, security screeners, airport employees, baggage handlers, visitors, airline employees, military and police personnel - do our part of being part of the first line of defense.

About the author: Michael D. Crucefix is a principal consultant with DNV Training Solutions, providing health and safety consultative services to general industry clientele throughout North America. Crucefix has a MS degree in Safety Management and is a veteran of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He is a Canadian registered safety professional (CRSP), a registered safety practicioner (RSP), a fellow in the Institute of Safety and Health (FIOSH) and is a professional member of the Canadian Society of Safety Enginneering and American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

DNV Training Solutions provides the knowledge and skills to assist organizations to achieve performance breakthrough with practical cost-effective solutions for safety, environmental, quality and risk management. For more information, please visit www.dnvtraining.com.

(The next article in the series will discuss airplane security/safety.)

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