The Bomb Threat Under the Seats

Obama's reaction to Flight 253 is just more knee-jerk thinking, writes aviation expert Clive Irving, who says the renewed focus on searching passengers leaves larger security flaws lurking: inadequate bag screenings and the bureaucratic nightmare of the TSA.

12.28.09 12:14 AM ET

Forgive me, but presidential orders to review airport security are a day or two late and more than a dollar short. They are valid as far as they go, but as is usual in these knee-jerk responses, they address what has already happened, not what might happen.

On Saturday, a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Detroit was diverted to Iceland so that a bag could be unloaded—the bag had been put aboard without its owner. This occurred as the seriousness of the terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit began to be fully understood. Why the Lufthansa flight was allowed to take off with an unattached bag is a puzzle. It’s not supposed to happen. Later, German sources said that the bag, like all others loaded, had been scanned by X-Ray.

The TSA has often spent more of its energy on bureaucratic empire building than in taking decisive action.

This seemingly harmless skirmish does, however, remind us of something not being discussed in the typically reactive debate going on about airline safety: the security of the other half of the airplane that we don’t sit in, the baggage holds below.

After the 9/11 attacks, with the woeful state of U.S. airport security exposed, one of the key tasks of the new Transportation Safety Administration was to implement measures as fast as possible to screen all checked bags. This was tough for at least two reasons—the time it took to commission new electronic scanning systems and the shortage of space in terminals that weren't designed to accommodate those systems. That is why for years scanners have been freestanding and fully visible in many airport concourses.

These steps, improvised under pressure, are supposed to ensure that every bag loaded on an airplane in the U.S. has been properly screened. But as airports complied, that first generation of scanners was not sophisticated enough to match the sophistication of the threat—the shrinking size of bombs, their composition, and new ways of concealing them.

Also, at times of high passenger volume, the system could not cope—bags piled up and were subject to what the TSA euphemistically called “alternative screening procedures.”

In a 2006 report highly critical of the TSA, the General Accounting Office said these measures involved “tradeoffs in security effectiveness.” In fact, the agency did not even know how many bags had been diverted to the “alternative” methods.

By then, the technology used to screen bags in the U.S. was already lagging behind the systems being installed in other parts of the world, notably at Heathrow in London. As in the U.S., the British security planners faced the problem of adapting terminals where the architecture had never anticipated the need for elaborate new pathways that collected, sorted, and directed bags through scanners that could “read” the contents and identify a threat. Nonetheless, within a few years after 9/11, Heathrow and other British airports were state-of-the-art.

British Airways, presented with the luxury of completing a new terminal for all of its Heathrow flights, was able to custom-design its Terminal 5 with the latest inline baggage screening (in other words, a seamless flow). Today that system includes a capability called Advanced Threat Identification—the scanners can identify explosives and liquids and take multiple views of baggage at normal processing speeds.

Last October, eight years after 9/11, the TSA grandly announced that $13.6 million would be spent to upgrade Terminal 1 at Chicago O’Hare International, including an inline system “to detect possible explosives and other threats.” The agency has also announced similar plans for 16 other U.S. airports, including the world’s busiest, Atlanta Hartsfield, as well as Orlando, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. This upgrade program will cost $600 million. Some $20 million of this will go to introducing a Reduced Size Explosive Detection System similar to that already in use at Heathrow.

Of course, by announcing its list of airports in need of new equipment to keep up with bomb-making technology, the TSA was also revealing to the world how vulnerable these airports remain to bombs in the baggage.

In large airports with multiple terminals, the quality of screening varies greatly according to the age of the buildings. At JFK, for example, the newest terminal, used by JetBlue, had the TSA involved in its planning from the ground up, and the scanning is as sophisticated as it is invisible. Likewise, the new American Airlines terminal at JFK has eight inline scanners that can handle 3,200 bags an hour. (In the old AA terminals, you could see the bulky old-gen scanners sitting in the arrivals halls.) In older terminals without purpose-designed space, machines go where they can be squeezed in and the flows are far from seamless.

When we spend more than $2 billion a month on a war directed against terrorism with all the precision of a shotgun fired out of a window at midnight, you could argue that the sums required to secure what is in reality the nation’s clearly identifiable last line of defense against airline terrorism are paltry. It is only fair to admit that the TSA has to deal with two frequently wayward bodies—the United States Congress for its funding and myriad city agencies involved in managing airports. Even then, insiders say that the agency has often spent more of its energy on bureaucratic empire building than in taking decisive action.

We have just had another wake-up call that finds us grievously wanting and exposes how tardy and lax are the protectors of the flying public.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation—find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.