Recent events involving a 20-year-old college student who apparently smuggled
box cutters and other prohibited items aboard aircraft raised important questions
about aviation security. But the bottom line has not changed: Aviation security
is better than it has ever been and improves each day.
Pre-9/11, aviation security essentially began and ended at the checkpoint.
The 30-year-old passenger screening system the Transportation Security Administration
inherited 20 short months ago was designed to spot large items – guns, hunting
knives, grenades. We have developed a screening system designed to snag items
– like razor blades for box cutters – measured in grams. And it works well,
witness the 8.6 million prohibited items intercepted since February 2002,
including some 1,500 firearms and 52,984 box cutters.
We have consistently said no single silver bullet can deliver aviation security,
and passenger and baggage screening is not foolproof. That’s why TSA has
created a comprehensive and layered system that includes checking passenger
names against terrorist “watch lists,” reinforced cockpit doors on all aircraft,
Federal Air Marshals on tens of thousands of flights each month, more thorough
secondary screening of selected passengers, canine teams searching for explosives,
and hundreds – soon to be thousands – of armed pilots trained to protect
But staying ahead of terrorists is a dynamic challenge, and TSA is constantly
reviewing, changing and improving security systems. We are aggressively developing
and deploying new technologies to help our professional and courteous screeners
find weapons and explosives no matter how they are hidden. And we have issued
a call encouraging the private sector to come forward with cutting-edge security
When it was discovered that the TSA Contact Center had not acted on email
from the college student, changes were promptly made. The Contact Center
was designed to handle the tens of thousands of consumer inquiries coming
in each month. But because it was clear the center could be a venue for messages
with security implications, training was revamped and computer programs altered
to help staff recognize such communications. Moreover, all emails are now
reviewed at least three times a day.
Our own highly trained covert teams aggressively test screening every day
so we can improve screening performance and identify potential vulnerabilities.
Other parts of the system are continually being challenged, too, and changed
as warranted. The very ethos of TSA must be continuous improvement so as
to thwart the intentions of the terrorists’ constant probing of our system.
The bottom line is that even though shortcomings are inevitable, airports
and air travelers are safer than ever.
Adm. James M. Loy
Transportation Security Administration
James M. Loy is the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration.
Response to James Loy from IC columnist Brian S. Wise:
problem with having the federal government in charge of anything important
-- in this case, airline security -- is that it treats every mistake as though
it were a near miss and not endemic of a larger problem. What was not
said in either my column (due to certain self-imposed space limitations)
or the TSA form letter published above is that Nathaniel Heatwole didn't
just wake up on September twelfth and decide to smuggle items onto two Southwest
Airlines flights; this was a plan of "civil disobedience" he had been carrying
out since February. It just so happens he didn't send his letter to
the TSA until September. It may be the case that Heatwole, had he continued
past September fifteenth, would have been caught eventually, but in this
case I have more confidence in the law of averages contributing to his capture
than I do existing airline safety guidelines.