Airport security Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The use of technology and well-trained staff to protect aircraft, aircrews, and passengers from terrorist attacks, to prevent cargo theft, and to solve illegal ticket problems.

Airport security includes the protection of aircraft and the people on board from terrorist attacks, the prevention of cargo theft, and ticket-associated problems such as theft and black (or gray) market sale. The most visible aspect of this security operation is the protection of aircraft from hijackings and bombings perpetrated by the world’s international terrorists. In the United States, all airport security activities are overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

In the late 1960’s, a series of aircraft hijackings alerted the U.S. government to the need for the active implementation of airport security methods and an enumeration of security requirements for U.S. air carriers. The FAA initiated an anti-hijacking program in late 1970. At that time, President Richard M. Nixon ordered air carriers to use surveillance equipment in all U.S. airports. He also instructed the Departments of Defense and of Transportation to collaborate with air carriers in identifying the utility of metal detectors and X-ray equipment—already used by U.S. armed forces—in prevention of hijackings.

Basics of Passenger Screening

By early 1972, with the utility of tested detection technology deemed probable, the FAA ruled that all air carriers must use an FAA-approved passenger-screen system to check all aircraft passengers through behavior profiles, metal and other detection methods, physical searches, and identification checks. In late 1972, in the face of continued hijackings, the FAA required the screening of all passengers and their carry-on baggage entering commercial aircraft. Hijacking and sabotage of U.S. aircraft also led to treaties between nations and regulations that established the current U.S commercial aviation security system. Air carriers, airports, and the FAA each play specific roles in assuring this security. Especially important to continued and expanded passenger screening development was the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. This led to the creation of a Presidential Commission on Airline Security and Terrorism in 1989 and the enactment of the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990.

Air carriers, airports, and the FAA participate in the passenger-screen system. The air carriers provide secure travel conditions; maintain security programs; screen passengers, cargo, and carry-on and other baggage; and protect their aircraft. In turn, the airports provide safe aircraft-operating environments, develop and maintain sound security programs, and provide airport law-enforcement personnel. The FAA, for its part, is expected to furnish both the administrative and procedural guidance to identify and analyze threats, establish requirements for the activities of air carriers and airports, coordinate all crisis situations, enforce regulations, and supply any needed technical assistance.

Ensuring the safe commercial air travel, not only of domestic carriers within the United States but also of U.S. and foreign carriers leaving and entering the country, is a huge task. Currently, about two million passengers and all of their luggage are screened daily for metal weapons and other dangerous materials. The anti-hijacking and screening program currently used requires each air carrier to have a passenger-screen system capable of preventing entry of weapons, explosives, and other threat objects into the passenger compartments of its aircraft. Since this effort began in 1972, X-ray and metal-detection systems as well as the selection, training, and testing of security personnel have improved. It could be argued that the mere presence of screening systems increases aircraft security by acting as a deterrent to crime and terrorism.

The FAA continually investigates new means to enhance screening technology that detects metal weapons and other dangers, such as plastic explosives. The ideal passenger screen would quickly detect these threats with high sensitivity and very few false alarms. It would also expose, prior to their boarding aircraft, any passengers carrying weapons or explosive devices that might be used to frighten flight crews into changing the aircraft’s destination.

However, the acceptance or rejection of a given screen item by airport operators, air carriers, and passengers and flight crews is just as important as is screen performance. Judgments must be made as to whether a screen harms, injures, or otherwise endangers people; violates Fourth Amendment rights; allows air carriers to screen passengers quickly enough to maintain flight schedules; or makes people believe that their privacy is being invaded or reveals too much personal information. A considerable effort is being exercised to address these problems while introducing items that optimize passenger-screen systems.

Screening Procedures

Carry-on baggage and other luggage is analyzed by X-ray analysis, a process called active screening. This procedure is routinely performed on baggage that is not carried in an aircraft’s passenger compartment. In contrast, routine preboarding screens occur in two concurrent phases. First, all passengers place their carry-on baggage onto a conveyor belt for inspection by X-ray equipment. Then, they walk through a portal that detects metal objects. If the portal alarm sounds, the passengers involved are searched more completely to ensure that they are not carrying any threatening object. Alarm-clearing searches use handheld metal detectors and physical pat-downs. However, these procedures do not detect all possible nonmetal weapons, explosives, and other threat objects.

Few airports have routine passenger screens that can operate at the highest possible level of technology for the detection of threatening objects, where imaging shows both the body and objects carried beneath clothing. Even the most advanced systems do not produce images of photograph quality. Screen operators must view and interpret the images, and when they perceive threats, they can, together with airport police, body-search passengers. Sound operator judgment and decision-making ability are crucial to screening success, as inaccuracy can cause the passenger-screen system to fail either by missing threatening objects or by excessive numbers of false alarms.

Even assuming the best screening possible, the imaging of passengers is a complex process. Legitimately, passengers may fear health risks from X rays and also may be unwilling to have others view their bodies. An alternative process, less-often used and more expensive, is called passive screening, which analyzes natural body radiation. Both kinds of body screening produce interpretable images of threat objects, including metal and nonmetal weapons and explosives. It is important that at any screen site, people who object to a procedure, such as one displaying an image of the naked body, should be given the option of another method, such as hand-wand screening. Such options may be costly, but will alleviate legitimate concerns based on nationality, religion, and personal beliefs.

In addition to physical screening, other screening occurs behind the scenes. The FAA integrates data from intelligence agencies, air carriers, and airport surveillance crews to identify immediate threats to given aircraft. Whenever hijackers or terrorist targets are identified, a higher alert level is invoked and screening imposes additional procedures to assure timely terrorist detection and detention. Included are much more stringent baggage inspection, passenger questioning, and identification checks. The routine screen alone is used only where the probability of bombing or hijacking is deemed to be minimal.

A security system must be both effective and suitable. Effectiveness is measured by the ability to detect threat objects and depends upon system technology capability. Suitability is measured by system operation without undesired characteristics, such as excessive radiation. Performance is evaluated continually to provide feedback that will allow both the air carriers and equipment manufacturers to improve the systems. The minimum acceptable performance level is compliance with the standards set by the FAA. Evaluations test the system’s ability to detect and react to a terrorist threat or action, often by using federal teams carrying mock threat items into the field.

Passenger Screen Operators

The importance of passenger-screen system personnel and the quality of their performance cannot be overemphasized. These individuals are responsible for accurately determining potential passenger-related danger to aircraft, aircrews, and passengers. The FAA has formulated criteria for their selection, training, and motivation. Many critics frequently assume that poor passenger-screen system performance is due to low wages and that higher wages alone would improve performance levels.

Although it may be argued that wage increases are always useful, other factors are more responsible for imperfect personnel performance. These relate to finding more valid modes of selecting operators, better training methods, monitoring and analyzing effectiveness of passenger-screen systems and personnel, and providing feedback to the individuals involved. Training is increasingly important as screening systems evolve, because personnel performance involves very complex tasks. Accelerated human factors programs are suggested as one overall means to aid personnel choice, training, motivation, and provide data on ergonomics of screening equipment.

Lapses in Security

On September 11, 2001, the importance of airport security became tragically apparent. On that morning, four commercial planes—two 767’s out of Boston’s Logan Airport and 757’s out of Washington’s Dulles International Airport and Newark, New Jersey—were hijacked by teams of terrorists armed with box cutters. The hijackers gained access to the cockpits, either killed or incapacitated the flight crews, switched off the transponders, and took over the controls. American Airlines Flight 11 and United Air Lines Flight 175 were each flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, causing both buildings to collapse a short time later. American Flight 77 was crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth hijacked plane, United Flight 93, went down in a field near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when passengers in touch with loved ones by phone realized the nature of their situation and stormed the cockpit. In total, more than three thousand people, from the planes and on the ground, died that day.

Investigations in the aftermath of the tragedy revealed many lapses in the security system at U.S. airports. As a result, an aviation security bill was signed into law on November 19, 2001. Within a year, all screening was to be done by federal employees, U.S. citizens having undergone criminal background checks. After three years, airports meeting federal standards could request that private contractors handle screening, based on the findings of pilot programs at five airports of varying size. Airports were given until the end of 2002 to install explosives detection X-ray systems for checked bags. Until then, all checked bags were to be inspected by X rays, passenger matching, or hand checking. The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) would be used to screen all passengers, and a database would allow cross-checking with government watchlists. Flight deck doors were to be strengthened and kept locked during flights. Pilots and crew would attend training courses on dealing with hijackers, and the Transportation Department could authorize cockpit weapons. Flight schools were to conduct background checks on foreign nationals seeking instruction in operating large aircraft. The bill created a Transportation Department agency called the Transportation Security Administration to supervise security issues.

There was an immediate expansion of the Federal Air Marshal (FAM) program. FAMs respond to criminal incidents and other in-flight emergencies on board U.S. aircraft. They are authorized to carry firearms and to make arrests in order to preserve the safety of aircraft, crew, and passengers. On September 28, 2001, an FAA amendment raised the maximum age requirement from thirty-seven to forty years of age.

Following the attacks, new regulations were put in force. Travelers were advised to allow extra time to check in, to bring government-issued identification, and to board with only one carry-on bag and one personal bag, such as a purse or briefcase. Curbside checking of luggage was banned, and several airports curtailed traffic to and from the terminals.

Air Cargo Theft

Aircraft have carried freight since airmail began in 1918, but it was not until the late 1950’s that other air freight exceeded airmail as a revenue source for air carriers. Large air freighters can carry heavy loads, such as automobiles and cattle. However, the fast transportation of packages weighing under fifty pounds is also an important air carrier revenue source. The speed of aircraft makes them ideal for transporting perishable items such as flowers, fruits, and vegetables and enables manufacturers to get merchandise to destinations quickly, thus raising their profits.

A number of unique security problems are associated with carrying air cargo. Cargo often contains more expensive items than those shipped by other freight-carrying methods; hence, the potential for loss is greater. It is also more difficult to identify where losses occur. In other methods of shipment, items are simply picked up, moved, and delivered to loading docks. Air cargo movement is much more complex: cargo is first moved from freight terminals to flight terminals, then loaded onto freight aircraft before shipping, with opportunities for theft all along the way. When freight is placed on a passenger airplane, risk is increased because it must go to a passenger terminal and is exposed to additional handlers. At many airports, carts travel to and from flights along unlit routes, creating still more opportunities for theft. Moreover, 90 percent of air cargo is shipped at night, the time period when most crime occurs. Pilferage, fraudulent pickups, and theft by drivers also occur, as in other freight-carrying operations.

Air cargo theft problems first surfaced in the 1960’s in New York, when racketeers infiltrated the pickup and delivery segment of the air freight industry. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the racketeers and corrupt truckers. These occurrences and some spectacular thefts of valuable items led carriers to establish an Airport Security Council in 1968. However, by 1970 it became clear that terminal facilities and carrier cargo handling were inadequate, losses were not reported systematically, and there was no good way of telling where losses occurred. By 1988, airlines and shippers at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and in Los Angeles together reported $11 million of freight stolen per year and it became clear that air cargo theft was growing.

The FAA, Department of Transportation, the Treasury Department, the air carriers, and airports have taken combined action, along with legislation, to protect air cargo more effectively. Airport security personnel are trained more effectively to prevent theft, selection of cargo handlers and truckers and companies has become much more careful, transport routes are better lit and patrolled more by security personnel, more careful documentation of cargo transportation is made throughout transshipment, and the requirements of cargo insurers have become more strict. Consequently, air cargo theft has abated considerably, but more efforts must be made before it can be completely eradicated.

Ticket Theft and Fraud

Another aspect of airport security concerns airline tickets. Air carriers need to make a profit on the sale of tickets to survive and to subscribe to other aspects of airport security. The prices for equivalent legitimate airline tickets differ by carrier, depending on travel class, payment date, travel day, duration of stay at the destination, and other factors. Often, people sitting next to each other on a plane have paid very different ticket prices for the same flight. Everyone wants the lowest fare possible, so many passengers buy tickets from gray (black) market vendors. The most risky sources of such tickets are personal newspaper ads, because some offer stolen tickets. Furthermore, some travel agencies sell both legitimate and stolen tickets.

Computers contribute greatly to the validation of tickets. For example, the airlines enter into their reservations systems the numbers of all known stolen tickets. Ticket agents can enter the ticket number into a database to check its legitimacy and receive an immediate response. Tickets are also checked by computer after flight departure. If a stolen ticket is discovered, a phone call to the destination allows airline personnel to meet the flight, interview the passenger, and determine where and how the ticket was obtained. Because stolen tickets are so easy to sell, travel agencies are often burglarized and robbed. This causes danger to agency personnel and an average loss of $1,000 to the air carrier for each stolen ticket.

Another source of stolen or fraudulent tickets arises from frequent flier miles, programs begun in the early 1980’s to reward airline brand loyalty with free flights in return for miles traveled on a carrier’s aircraft. The programs are quite lucrative for air carriers, but they also attract criminals who see frequent flier ticket certificates (coupons) as a way to make dishonest money. It took some time before air carriers began to realize that frequent flier fraud cost them billions of dollars in decreased revenues. To solve the problem, the programs have been modified so that unused mileage expires after a certain date. Seats used for the program have also been reduced in number, so that passengers need to reserve months ahead of time to use the mileage. Although these measures diminish illegal coupon brokerage, it still occurs. Brokers have established prices they will pay for specific frequent flier distance awards. In some cases, employees of firms that handle frequent flier accounting for air carriers have set up fictitious accounts and sold the resultant certificates to brokers. There have also been several federal prosecutions of travel agents for frequent flier fraud. Efforts to prevent this type of illegal operation are an ongoing part of airport security.

  • Baldeschweiler, John D. Determination of Explosives for Commercial Aviation Security. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996. Describes systems considerations, testing protocols, staff, and performance criteria to detect explosives in a timely way, maximizing commercial aviation safety.
  • Moore, Kenneth C. Airport, Aircraft, and Airline Security. 2d ed. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1991. Deals with topics in airport security including aircraft hijacking, cargo, and ticketing security.
  • Swenson, George, Jr. Airline Passenger Security Screening: New Technologies and Implementation Issues. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996. Covers screening technology, screen operation and costs, operator selection, training and motivation, and legal issues.
  • Tsacoumis, Theodolfus P., ed. Access Security Screening: Challenges and Solutions. Philadelphia: American Society for Testing and Materials, 1992. Describes many aspects of weapons, explosives, and X-ray detection systems useful to aviation security.
  • Wilkinson, Paul, and Brian M. Jenkins. Aviation Terrorism and Security. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 1999. Describes issues such as attacks on civil aviation, trends and lessons, politics of aviation terrorism, and international aviation organizations.
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