ACI Europe

Aviation Security: Why I Will Be Scared This Year

  Catchy title?

Yes, I am more afraid in 2015 than I have been in years.  But afraid of what?  Am I afraid of ISIS/ISIL?  AQAP?  Al Shabaab?  Al Qaeda?  Al Nusra?  Lone wolf terrorists?

No.  Not afraid of any of them. That does not mean I do not consider them dangerous, they are. That does not mean I do not consider them evil, they are. That does not mean that I think we ought to ease up on any of them, we should not.

What I fear is this:  In America, certainly, and in many other places too, we have developed a level of obsession with terrorism that can spawn (and is spawning) an overreaction.  Our media is obsessed.  Many of our political leaders are obsessed (and often attack others who are less obsessed).  And our people are obsessed.

Several writers over the years have said that terrorism only works if we allow ourselves to become, and act, terrorized.  Once we do that, we are giving the terrorists exactly what they want.  Well, in America and elsewhere, that has long since happened.  Even as all those groups I listed above have faced setbacks and had leaders killed, they are succeeding in the only thing that really matters:  terrorizing people.  Even when they fail, as they do far more often than not, they succeed in scaring us.

It seems one can’t go more than two days without some sort of CNN “Breaking News” item saying, essentially, that bad guys still want to attack aviation.  I don’t know about you, but I doubt we will see any Breaking News stories about terrorists retiring to the Riviera.  Of course they still want to attack aviation.  That will never end, will never go away.

I am amazed at how many interviews I have seen regarding the topic of whether ISIS is going to attack in the United States.  (And I saw another within two hours of typing that sentence).  They are clearly hoping to inspire someone here to do something awful, much as Anwar Al Awlaki did.  I am sure they aspire to attack the homeland themselves.  Heck, they aspire to a global caliphate, so of course they’d kinda like to attack here.

So every time an interview like that airs, usually right after some mention of the barbarous nature of ISIS, we are immediately tempted to believe we are in imminent personal danger of a similar fate.  Then we have public officials, or former public officials, willing to go on television and say we are not as safe as we can and should be.  And, in the absence of any contrary narrative, the fear level increases.

In and of itself, this wouldn't be so bad.  But added to that, we have the intense coverage of every security “breach”, whether some kid who wandered through a hole in a fence or even an old lady who likes to try to stow away (both real life examples).  The inevitable result is indignant public officials and “experts” talking about how unsafe the aviation system is, and then proposing all sorts of ideas designed to make it “safer.”

In the United States recently, some idiots who work at the airport were found smuggling firearms on a flight from Atlanta to New York.  This, naturally, led to congressional hearings and calls for all sorts of “security measures” that would actually make us less safe, rather than more.  (What amuses me about this particular story more than anything is the fact that moving firearms this way is probably the riskiest method from the point of view of the smuggler.  If they put them in a truck, or on a bus they would have had a far better chance of success.  Getting caught, eventually, doing it the way they did it is almost guaranteed).

For years, when I was President of Airports Council International – North America, my members and I called for more of a risk-based approach to security.  Rather than treating everyone and everything as a potential threat, let’s try to narrow it down and focus more on those people and things that might actually pose a problem.  The challenge always was the fact that all the political pressure goes in the other direction.  There is no real political or public pressure for what some would see, or define, as “less security” or “doing” less – even when the result is a MORE secure system.  Moves that seemed to make perfect sense to us were resisted because of this countervailing political pressure.

Luckily, though, for the aviation system and for travelers everywhere, we had leadership at the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security that was willing to move in this direction.  The resulting initiatives, such as PreCheck, Global Entry and Automated Passport Control, have been a great success in facilitating legitimate travel while focusing resources where they are most needed.

Another example of such an effort predates all of those:  the U.S. Visa Waiver program.  Visitors from certain countries, including many NATO allies, can come to the United States without a visa, though they need to provide certain information about themselves so they can be checked.  With documented cases of Canadians and Western Europeans and others traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS, there are growing calls to reconsider this initiative.  And I am concerned that those calls will extend to the very popular and effective programs mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

That is what scares me.  If we back away from these kinds of initiatives we will not only restrict travel but we will create logjams at and near airports that will provide target rich environments for anyone with a gun for a crude explosive device.

I fear that we in the United States are about to take a step back from what makes sense, and what has largely worked, in order to react (overreact) to sensational stories.  I fear it will happen, because it is happening.  And lest you think this is just an American story, remember that in the security realm almost everything we do here gets exported in some way, if only because other gateways want to preserve their access to the U.S. market.

So, yes, I am very afraid.  I am afraid that we have lost the ability to avoid being terrorized by every incident.  I am afraid we will be unable to resist calls for “more security” that will in the end make us less safe and make far less efficient use of scarce resources.  I am afraid that we will make some really bad choices this year, choices that will be exported around the world.  I am afraid our media and our public leaders have lost the ability to tell what should truly be breaking news and what should be a threat calling for new measures and new policies, and what should not.

One of my closest friends in the airport world, Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI Europe, once said that if we wait till the bad guys get to the airport to try to catch them it is likely too late.  The real hard work happens far from the front door of the airport, it happens in intelligence agencies around the world whose agents risk life and limb to get good information and then share it.  We can cripple an airport operationally by intrusive procedures, we can travel scared of something that is far less likely to happen to any of us than is winning an Olympic medal or even being struck by lightning.

When we do those things, ISIS, AQAP, Al Shabaab, Al Nusra, Al Qaeda and potential lone wolves everywhere smile and become energized.  Our fear, and the fear mongering we often see on television and hear from too many public leaders, is the oxygen that sustains them.

Let’s refuse to let them breathe.

 

How Industry and Media Drive U.S. Aviation Debate

Editor's Note: Today, we are pleased to have an opinion post by an industry thought leader Greg Principato

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No One Is Interested, No One Understands

When I was President of Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) from 2005-2013, I spent a great deal of time trying to interest the media and policy makers in the issues of how airports were funded and financed, how they were run and so on.  It was a constant struggle.  The funding and financing structure was out of date and inadequate to modern times?  Who cares!  Too hard to explain!  Boring!

The airlines were responsible for air service and lost baggage?  Well, the flight no longer comes to the airport!  The bag was lost at the airport!  It is an airport issue! You must be trying to duck responsibility! Security?  Passenger facilitation?  Well, the guy slipped through with a sharp object at the airport!  The elderly lady was patted down at the airport!  The planeload of passengers was stuck in the arrivals hall at the airport!

Food and beverage and retail?  Why are airports trying to be shopping malls anyway?  Why is public money being spent to sell magazines, coffee and shirts?  Passengers might/need want that stuff?  No, it must be an airport plot to make money!

Airports are prepared for safety and security problems that may arise?  Nah!  Can’t be true!  Anyway, who cares if they are prepared?  It’s only news, only an issue, if something goes wrong.  And then we don’t care whether the public understands or not.

Enter Vice President Biden

I recall talking to an aviation correspondent for ABC News, who told me of her unsuccessful struggles to get her editors interested in such issues.  I spoke with a top editor at the Economist, who was interested at first, but whose publication never followed up.

And then along came Vice President Joseph Biden (Full disclosure: I worked on his Senate staff from 1982-86), saying on more than one occasion that American airports are more like developing country airports and that they do not measure up, in any way, to airports in places like Singapore or Hong Kong (though those places are hardly developing).  The media all of a sudden became interested in airports.  Maybe not for the right reasons, but at least they were interested.

So, what does this mean?  Will the American airport industry be able to take advantage of the “attention”?  Who cares if airports overseas have better food and beverage options; if they are more comfortable for travelers, if they have bigger immigration halls or better customs technology?  Who cares if their restrooms are cleaner?

What Vice President Biden did, intentionally or not, was tap into the American urge to be the best at whatever we do, or to at least not be embarrassed by what we do.  And this should not just be about the airport side of the equation.  Airlines, labor, concessionaires and other all ought to be looking for ways to use the attention the Vice President’s words have cast to make the case for airports, for their importance to the economy, and to work with other aviation industry sectors to enact policies that make much more sense in the 21st century.  And they have a perfect opportunity with the basic law authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration set to expire in 11 months and due to be reauthorized.

This Time Is Like The Other Times

But two things are conspiring to keep that from happening:

First, is the Ebola situation.  And second is the fact that all facets of the industry, so far, are just retreating to their corners to argue their classic positions on the range of aviation finance issues, thereby passing on the opportunity to work together to forge a new future.

Regarding the American response to Ebola, media are hyping the story for all it is worth.  CNN, which devoted most of a month to the issue of the missing flight MH370 is now All Ebola All The Time.  Whenever there is a shred of news, or even some kind of change, it is reported as “breaking.”  Worse, there is normally a frightening headline splashed across the bottom of the screen for all to see, telling us that the bedding from the first Ebola victim in the U.S. hadn’t been changed in days, or more recently, splashing figures across the screen about how many new cases we might expect to see in coming weeks and months (leading many who see it to believe many of those cases will be in their own neighborhoods).

Please do not think I believe this is not a major world story, deserving of much coverage.  It is both of those.  But more than anything, it is deserving of clearly communicated and accurate information.  It is deserving of leadership.  I must say that industry has stepped up on this issue.  Globally, Airports Council International (ACI World) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have joined with other stakeholders to take constructive action and convey important and high level information.  Their regional counterparts, including my former association (ACI-NA) are pulling their weight and performing important service.  ACI Europe’s statement of October 14th is one of the most sensible I have seen on the topic.  Of course, that has not stopped the media from “reporting” that screening will be carried out “by” airports, even though the truth is that it will be carried out by public health officials “at” airports.

But I know from experience that when industry groups address topics such as these they are often seen as defensive; and not just because the media likes to portray them that way.  It just sounds, to the man on the street’s ear, defensive.  And, frankly, the media does not exist to lead the public, or really even to educate it (a philosophical discussion that could last for hours over some fine wine).

Public Leadership Needed in Aviation

This is where public sector leadership comes in.  Unfortunately, the loudest voices in the United States belong to those who want to ban flights from the three most impacted countries (the fact there are NO flights from those countries does not seem to matter).  At one congressional hearing last week, an important congressman tried to make the case that a major airport in his state should ban certain flights, even though it has no authority to do so.  The surest way of shortening the Ebola problem is to defeat it where it is most virulent.  We cannot do that by drawing a curtain around the region.

And as to whether U.S. aviation interests will take advantage of the light the Vice President has shined on the industry, early returns do not look so good.  Airlines and airports are each using Biden’s comments to advance their own agenda, even though there is plenty of room for both to come together and design a whole new system to finance infrastructure, air traffic control security and facilitation.  No one likes the current system.  But, again as I learned from experience, even if some in industry want to come together to change things, their motives are suspect.  We do not need sound bites and we certainly do not need blame.  We need leadership from elected and appointed officials on these matters; leadership which will likely not be forthcoming.

I could say the same about security and a host of other issues.

Back to the Future

Many of you reading this blog post do not live in the United States, but given the travel that begins or ends here, what we do here is of some interest around the world.  As I write future posts on New Airport Insider, I will attempt to shine a light on how things get done and decided (or not decided) here; even when examining issues of global importance.

Vice President Biden’s comments have drawn a lot of attention around the world.  They have certainly drawn a lot of attention here in the United States.  Once we have “defeated” Ebola and even after we have done the same to ISIS and their ilk, the problems he observed will remain.  What will be done about them?  Will anyone care?

The answers to those questions remain open.

Images by Stephan.

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