Federal Regulations Don’t Stop Airline Turbulance

If someone tried carrying three sticks of dynamite through the airport, would security notice?

Not in Salt Lake City.

Since January, 1980, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has documented 4,160 security breaches at Salt Lake International Airport. The FAA routinely plants weapons and fake explosives in passenger bags, testing safety procedures. Too often the procedures fail, as in the case of three dynamite sticks and a ticking clock that passed through Southwest Airlines’ security.

Such news sends shivers down the spines of Utahns, proof that current airport policing lacks effectiveness. Equally chilling is the realization that Salt Lake’s airport security lags behind airports of equal size in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The FAA recorded nearly as many violations in Salt Lake as in New York’s JFK and Chicago’s O’Hare, airports with substantially more traffic than our intermountain hub.

Yet legislation passed by Congress last week to remedy airport security problems across the country lacks teeth.

The truth is that no law will erase security threats until Americans fundamentally alter their priorities. Convenience and economic benefit still outweigh safety when it comes to air travel. Want proof? Just look at the aviation security bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Federalization of airport security highlights the debate. The Democratic controlled U.S. Senate championed federal policing of airports as the answer to years of gross incompetence by private security firms. For two months, House Republicans refused to concede, arguing that federalization would create an inefficient bureaucracy.

Last week, the two sides finally struck a deal. Airport security personnel will become federal employees under the newly created Transportation Security Administration. But there is a catch. Five airports will run test programs with private contractors to see if businesses can do the job of government. Furthermore, airports that comply with new federal safety regulations after three years can return to private security firms.

These provisions are absurd. Give business the chance to prove itself in the security sector? Private firms had a chance, and the record speaks for itself?more than 4,000 security breaches in Salt Lake in the past two decades. Meanwhile, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport witnessed more than 9,000 violations, while Los Angeles saw twice that. Dallas/Fort Worth takes the cake, however, with a mind-numbing 22,277 security breaches in the last twenty years. Private business had a chance to police America’s airports, and it failed miserably.

The underlying problem with allowing business to manage aviation security is that profit trumps safety. Argenbright, an Atlanta-based company hired by Delta Airlines to screen passengers, received fines in excess of $1 million for FAA violations. Argenbright continued hiring convicted felons and falsifying employee background checks. Why didn’t Delta use a different firm? Because Argenbright was the lowest bidder.

When the FAA pins responsibility on airlines themselves, fining Continental or Southwest for using shoddy security firms and incompetent personnel, the airlines simply pass the cost on to consumers in the form of higher ticket prices. In other words, FAA warnings and penalties do not awaken airlines to the need for adequate safety. Companies absorb financial penalties, and business proceeds as usual, as long as profit margins remain solid in the long run.

The federal government becomes the clear choice for managing airport security because private business obviously cannot handle the job. Yet the House refused to pass a bill strongly endorsing federalization of aviation security. Instead, they will allow airlines to revert to old ways within three years.

Aside from dropping the ball on who handles aviation security, Congress also failed to address key safety issues. For instance, baggage handlers typically x-ray or hand search less than five percent of checked luggage (checked luggage means your suitcase, not your carry-on). Sure, they ask you if you’ve got a bomb in your bag, but they rarely screen it. Aviation industry experts confirmed this problem at Senate hearings last week. The bill passed by Congress does nothing to ensure that employees check suitcases for bombs.

The bill also fails to require airlines to match checked bags with passengers who physically board the plane. Such procedure is standard in Europe. Why not do it here? Because that would be inefficient, requiring passengers to check in more than one hour before a flight. Airlines would make fewer flights in a day, and business people would be hassled in their efforts to fly quickly to meetings and conventions.

In other words, convenience and economic benefit would suffer at the hands of safety. This issue involves priorities, not just legislation. As long as we value the bottom line more than our safety, we jeopardize aviation security. And as long as we favor convenience and the freedom to travel easily when and where we want, safety will remain a question.

Congress will not likely pass a law that the majority of Americans do not support. If we express more interest in safety than in profits and schedules, corresponding legislation will appear.

The FAA faces the same conundrum as Congress. Its job is not only to regulate the aviation industry, but also to promote it. As long as economic performance outranks safety in importance, the FAA will not adequately punish companies that violate safety procedures. The situation will not change until Americans pursue security like they pursue profits.

Nothing should make this hit home more than the news of Salt Lake International Airport’s obscene security record over the last two decades. Utahns are not separated from this debate, they are in the middle of it.

James welcomes feedback at: ,a href=”mailto:[email protected]”>[email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected]