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Airports and Air Travelers are Safer than Ever
by James M. Loy, response by Brian S. Wise
26 October 2003TSA

The Transportation Security Administration contacted IC with this statement regarding the Nathaniel Heatwole incident: Aviation security is better than it has ever been and improves each day.

Dear Editor,

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 the cockpit.

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 technology.

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:

The 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.

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